The Relaxation Response and Self-Regulation

It's been a full day. You arrive home, drop your bags and promptly flop on the couch. Your body is letting go. That's the body's relaxation response at work.

If you have enough 'let-go' in your nervous system in a few minutes - given sufficient energy reserves - you'll be up and at 'em.

If your nervous system is depleted, a few minutes won't be enough. In fact, even though you're not physically tired, you may not get off the couch whole night!

Winding down after a long day at work?

The "relaxation response" otherwise known as the parasympathetic nervous system, is in charge when your body is ready to let go. It tells your body to slow down.

Through the release of neurochemicals, It relaxes the muscles, lowers your blood pressure, slows your heart rate and breath, starts your digestive juices flowing, and gets your bladder and bowels ready to do their thing.

In other words, it's the source of the relaxation response!

In contrast to the "stress response" (i.e. the sympathetic nervous system) which is involved in energy output, the "relaxation response" through the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is involved in "shutting down" your energy expenditure.

The "relaxation response" also gives us all those emotions we want more of...contentment, joy, laughter and peace of mind.

Here's the mind body wellness connection...

relationship brain

It's the parasympathetic nervous system that you want to understand when it comes to mind body wellness. The PNS is involved in recuperation and healing.

As the PNS calms the body down, immune funtioning returns. White blood cells are once again produced and sent off to defend the body against outside intruders like viruses, bad bacteria and cancerous cells.

The PNS calms down using discharge. It discharges or 'let's go' of excess energy and returns the nervous system to a point of balance called homeostasis.

Your capacity for joy is based on a healthy nervous system

Joy is the emotion that arises when you “drink in” such a scene. Joy is the feeling of relaxed openness to that moment of beauty, a bodily sense of being fully alive.

How does our capacity to respond joyfully to moments of beauty, intimacy or thankfulness develop?

If you’ve ever watched a father cooing to his baby and you’ve noticed the baby responding with a wide open smile, you are witnessing the co-creation of a mutually attuned state of joyfulness. When this act is repeated many times the infant brain grows and organizes itself to develop the individual’s capacity to experience joy throughout her or his lifetime.

As with all other emotions, the capacity for joy is acquired in the early relationship between parent and child. In infancy the primary caregiver’s nervous system acts as a template for the infant’s nervous system to develop.

When an infant is born her undeveloped nervous system has the capacity for basically two states: 'on', or hyperarousal (excitement) and 'off', or dorsal vagal. In the first 2-3 years, when 90% of the nervous system develops, the neuropathways that make joyous states possible are imprinted. That is, joy states are actually learned.

This happens through interactions between the infant and its primary caretakers. The parent's nervous system provides a template for the developing nervous system of the infant to follow in its development. 

Because of the “use-dependent” nature of brain development, the child who receives fewer opportunities for positive emotional attunement with a primary caregiver can expect to develop less capacity for joyfulness. For example, if the mother is anxious or depressed her lessened facility for attunement may result in the child’s diminished capacity for joy later in life.

How the tendency for anxiety and depression get laid down

You can imagine now why it's difficult for an infant of a depressed mother to develop the capacity for joy. It also highlights the importance of depression treatment for mothers suffering from postpartum depression.

You can also appreciate that anxiety-prone parents will play a pivotal role in the development of anxiety symptoms in their children.

The good news is that although anxiety is an implicitly-learned response, it can be overridden or unlearned, even in adulthood. Because the brain retains its plasticity throughout the lifespan the individual can learn to replace ingrained depression or anxiety responses with a richer emotional life that includes the enjoyment of sunsets. Of course, we believe that counseling is the most effective way to accomplish this!

What many people--and therapists--fail to appreciate is that the reduction of anxiety and depression symptoms do not automatically bring on joy. Joy pathways are a strong defense against anxiety and depression but the abscense of either does not necessarily mean joyfulness. In essence, symptom reduction without the pathways for joy brings the nervous system to neutral.

And as I mentioned, the very exciting news is that these pathways can be developed!

Joy is not excitement -it's better!

Joy is often confused with excitement. But it differs in a fundamental way. Joy is activated by the parasympathetic nervous system. In contrast, activation of the sympathetic nervous system is experienced as excitement.

The distinction is important because while we can, and often do, place ourselves in situations that are exciting (horror films, bungee jumping, getting married etc.), it's not possible to experience joy unless the right neuropathways have been laid down in the nervous system.

One friend of mine described the difference this way. Excitement often comes from an external event or circumstance (like the excitement you feel playing a competitive game of volleyball).

Joy, on the other hand, might best be described as coming from an internal source. That is, you don't necessarily need anything in your environment for you to feel joyful. You just are!

Dance as though no one is watching you,
Love as though you have never been hurt before,
Sing as though no one can hear you,
Live as though heaven is on earth.

Here's the psychotherapy connection...

There's a direct connection between the PNS and your moods. Your PNS can go into overdrive producing depression, despair, withdrawal and feelings of shame.

Your energy goes inward. You become more introspective.

My Personal Musings

It seems that in order to produce happy clients we need happy therapists. We need psychotherapists who are committed to personal growth, who realize that their own development has a direct impact on the progress of their clients.

What's important to understand.

The parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems (SNS) work in tandem. At a point of balance they may be both operating, that is, neither is dominant.

When the SNS is activated we feel it as being stressed or excited. Eventually there is a compensatory reaction of the PNS. The PNS brings the nervous system down. (It is as if, as high as you go, as low as you go.)

Overreaction of the parasympathetic

When the parasympathetic nervous system moves into overdrive we experience it as fear induced states such as the freeze response or shame.

What helps to modulate these states is the regulating function of our higher cortical centers in an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex (right between our eyes and above).

My Personal Musings

You probably noticed that I refer to our infancy a lot on this site. One reason is that when infants received attuned care from their parents they develop the prefrontal region of the brain. This builds the capacity to manage their emotions without being flooded or reacting impulsively. In other words, they can manage stress more effectively and are better able to feel connected to their feelings.

Teaser for another time...

However, it is possible to train the nervous system to modulate these up and down swings. They become less severe.

You see, "regulation of the body and of emotion go hand in hand."1

For instance, through somatic or body-oriented psychotherapy the nervous system becomes more adept at managing energy. The end result is that the swings are reduced and one can handle stress better and recover more easily!


1Badenoch, Bonnie ((2008). Being a Brain-Wise Therapist: A practical guide to interpersonal neurobiology. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. (p.30).


Porges, Stephen, (1995). Orienting in a defensive world: Mammalian modification of our eveolutionary heritage. A polyvagal theory. Psychophysiology, 32, 301-318.

Stephen Porges' identified two, not one, branch of the parasympathetic nervous system. His discovery of the dorsal vagal (and its relationship to the ventral vagal) has helped us to understand the relationship of the freeze response in the development of PTSD as well as states such as depression and joy. The polyvagal theory has also been useful in understanding the mind body connection. You can access his classic 1995 article here (you will be taken off site:

Orienting in a Defensive World...A Polyvagal Theory.

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Readers Comments

Therapy Guru Avatar


Is my nervous system shutting donwn?

I was told by my doctor that my nervous system may be shutting down, what does this mean and how can i fix it, also i thought i was going through menopause, she said it was post ovarian something, but meaning that my ovaries could also be shutting down, any info on these would be great and what i can do if anything to fix them. i am 29 years old!


Jolene (Montana, u.s.a.)

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'Dorsal vagal shutdown'


I discovered 'dorsal vagal shutdown' reading an article about EMDR. For the first time in my life (after long training and successful practice as a therapist) I have had a total epiphany, This is me.

I am following links to learn more, and find myself at this site. I am confused and hopeful.

cariad (New York, USA)

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