How to Rest with an Overactive Nervous System

Written by Samantha Wall, LCSW
Edited by Joe DeNoon


Resting. We all want to get better at it, but how do we do it? When you have a job that activates our nervous system in the way nursing does, it can seem so hard to rest and relax when you do have time off. Many people who have busy jobs seem like they never slow down or can’t relax. It can feel very jarring because the things we turn to that regulate or relax us can also feel like fast-paced environments of our work. We may also see our to-do list as more important than our relaxation time. It can be so easy to multitask, get on technology, watch or read things that help maintain our usual level of stress, but these don’t actually rest us. While these things can feel like rest, because it is not stressful or overwhelming,  they actually just continue or even increase our feelings of burnout, stress, and anxiety over time. 

When we work in a job as stressful and fast-paced as nursing, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) —our fight or flight response— is more activated. When we are in this type of environment for prolonged periods of time, it can be difficult for our nervous system to transition to another, more restful state. This other state is also a part of our nervous system called the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) —the rest and digest— branch. This system is activated when we are meditating, sleeping, or relaxing. The time when we are able to be in such a state is very rejuvenating to our body and gives us the resources to handle stress. 

As a nurse, your SNS is going to be active for most of your shift. This makes sense, you need to be aware and alert to threats in your environment and for your patients. However, it can be very difficult to have our nervous systems switch states after being in this type of environment for so long. This is why our routines for going to work and leaving work are so important, it gives our nervous system a heads up that we can change our state! Life stressors can also change our state. If our nervous system is already used to being in fight or flight, it is super easy to get right back there, even when it isn’t needed. 

So, on to the important question. How can we calm down our nervous systems and get into a state where our PNS can be active? Francine’s blog from early this month “Find Pause to Rest” gives great ideas on how to do this: limit multitasking, take a break from technology, meditate, journal, do activities you enjoy! Other tools that can be very helpful are breathing techniques, humming, singing, dancing, quick change of temperature (typically a cold change of temperature), as well as vagus nerve resets. Vagus nerve resets are AMAZING when it comes to changing our state on a nervous system level. These resets stimulate our vagus nerve to help decrease our anxiety and stress, as well as a ton of other health benefits like lowering heart rate, reducing inflammation, treating migraines/cluster headaches, and many more! I will include different breathing techniques as well as vagus nerve resets at the bottom of this page. 

Resting can be very hard for us on a nervous system level, but so beneficial when we are able to connect and calm our nerves from a stressful shift, day, or week. Resting and resetting can help us long term, so we just have to figure out what works for us to be able to get there! 

What will you try this week to rest? 


Breathing techniques: 

Vagus Nerve Resets: 


Sources used:

2 thoughts on “How to Rest with an Overactive Nervous System”

  1. Hi . I am a psychologist working for dept. of corrections in NH. I’m looking to speak to some one about your resources for Nurses . Thera space, online support groups, blogs etc. I’ve e-mailed Don’t Clock Out and other sources with no response. My # is 603-271-8446. e-mail is [email protected] Please reach out to me. Thanks! John.

    1. Hello John, Thanks so much for reaching out! I’m sorry that you’ve had a hard time getting through. I am forwarding your information to our board secretary and she will put you in touch with the correct party.

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