The first step to regulating your emotions is to recognize, and become aware of, your own nervous system. Learning to differentiate what is you, and what is a dis-regulated nervous system, is a huge step toward feeling better. One way to increase your awareness is to develop a sense of how the nervous system is impacted by both your internal and external worlds. Once you develop a relationship with your body, you're no longer at its mercy. When mind, body, and soul become team players, life becomes so much more enjoyable!
The nervous system lives in the core of the spine and sends messages to the body via nerve bundles bathed in the cerebral spinal fluid. A free flow of this fluid is required for optimal message delivery. The nervous system is the central command center. It has its own intelligence, and can be seen as a sentient being in its own right. It's incredibly sensitive, and is constantly taking in all kinds of information. A good exercise is to visualize your nervous system. What does it look like? I envision it as the tentacles of a jellyfish, freely floating in fluid, sending sparks of light messengers to instruct and fulfill different needs of the body.
The nervous system gathers information from many different sources, including all your thoughts.
Although the body is very intelligent, it cannot tell the difference between an actual situation and a thought. It reacts to every thought as if it were a reality. It doesn't know it is just a thought. To the body, a worrisome, fearful thought means 'I am in danger,' and it responds accordingly, even though you may be lying in a warm comfortable bed at night. The heart beats faster, muscles contract, breathing becomes rapid. There is a buildup of energy but since the danger is only mental fiction, the energy has no outlet. Part of it is fed back to the mind and generates even more anxious though. The rest of the energy turns toxic and interferes with the harmonious functioning of the body.
Eckhardt Tolle, "A New Earth"
Becoming aware of your thoughts is important to nervous system regulation. Notice your thoughts and how your body responds to them. The Work of Byron Katie is very helpful in learning to observe your thoughts and emotions.
The nervous system has two major functions: Sympathetic mode, and Parasympathetic mode. In Parasympathetic mode, the system is relaxed and all systems are online. Respiration, digestion, detoxification, repair and rebuilding happen when the body and nervous system are in a state of relaxation. When stressed, the nervous system shuts down all unnecessary functions. For example, if you are eating while driving, digestion is impaired. If your are chronically stressed for a long period of time, detoxification, repair/rebuilding is compromised.
Another key to emotional regulation is becoming aware of your environment. Life is stressful — there is no way around it. However, we can be mindful of the situations we put ourselves in. I haved heard it said that life is not about avoiding the fire, but about how you walk through it. Being with people who are unaware of their nervous systems, or abusive to themselves or others, is very stressful. Your nervous will mirror others' dis-regulation if you are not aware of it.
Nervous system regulation requires basic self-care:
Nervous systems respond to each other. Like other animals, humans are happiest in the company of others. With presence, and a sense of friendly connection, the nervous system will regulate itself. Getting together with like-minded people — especially if recovery is the focus — is a positive choice. The nervous system responds to authenticity and care like any other sentient being. You are with your body 24/7 — who better to provide it with compassionate attention?
There are also many tools and techniques that can be used for nervous system regulation, but understanding what you are trying to regulate to begin with is the biggest step you can take toward regulation and balance.