Calm your nervous system


Nicole Gfeller
Focus on Adoption Magazine

Nicole Gfeller is a counsellor, an art therapist, and an adoptee. For as long as she can remember, she struggled with an overactive nervous system. She’s not alone: regulating the nervous system is a major challenge for many adoptees. In this article, she helps adoptees understand this challenge so they can develop healthy, fulfilling, and happy lives.

Understanding adoption and trauma

For as early as I can remember, I struggled with elevated levels of stress, restlessness, hyper-vigilance, sleep problems, and difficulty finding inner peace and quiet. Living in a state of high arousal and stress seemed to be part of my life, just as being adopted is part of my identity.

It’s only recently that I learned about the connection between brain, the nervous system, and early trauma, as well as how to restore inner balance in my body. After experiencing the wonders of being totally relaxed, having a quiet mind, feeling a sense of tranquility in body and mind, I noticed an improvement in my overall sense of well-being and happiness.

After finishing my studies as a counsellor and art therapist, I developed a special interest in adoption. Nancy Verrier’s books, The Primal Wound and Coming Home to Self, helped me understand the impact of adoption on the brain and the nervous system. That helped me understand myself better, and jump-started my new passion for learning about neuroscience, trauma, and the body. Since then, I’ve continued my research by reading articles and books by experts in the field such as Bessel Van der Kolk, Daniel Siegel, and Peter Levine, among others.

Lady meditatingWhat is the nervous system?

The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) regulates all the basic functions of our bodies. The ANS is the source of our survival responses and it operates automatically, without our control.

The ANS is divided into the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). The SNS is like the gas pedal of our nervous system, and the PNS is like the brake pedal.

The function of the SNS is to get our whole body ready for action. It’s an instinctual survival mechanism that helps us be on alert, scan for danger, and meet emergencies and threats. It also causes physical responses that produce a surge of energy and strength to fight or flee, such as an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating, pupil dilation, and more blood flow to certain muscles.

The function of the PNS is to discharge the arousal of sympathetic activation. In other words, it helps us regain composure, adapt to the situation after the initial shock, unwind, and rest. The PNS can also act like an emergency brake, triggering a freeze response when the SNS is extremely aroused (such as during a traumatic event).

A healthy nervous system has ongoing cycles of both systems, winding up and down naturally and successfully. A dysregulated nervous system is often stuck in either constant alert or shutdown mode. Both states get in the way of normal functioning and can create high blood pressure, digestive problems, decreased immune function, sleep problems, and other symptoms.

The body remembers trauma

Early separation between a mother and her child is one form of trauma that can have a profound impact on the brain and nervous system. All newborns are completely vulnerable and dependent on their mothers to meet their needs. Separation from their mother will often be perceived as a life-and-death situation, activating the baby’s SNS. Babies may experience terror, rage, helplessness, and shock, along with the physical responses mentioned earlier.

Later in life, adopted children or adults who experienced a traumatic separation from their primary caregiver may find themselves stuck in a restless and hyper-vigilant state without knowing why. They may be constantly on the alert, scanning the environment for threats. They may also have difficulty winding down and regulating their arousal levels.

I know that my body remembers the early separation from my birth mother even though my cognitive brain does not. Although I wasn’t conscious of it, I lived in fear of rejection or abandonment for most of my life. I was in survival mode, constantly trying to protect myself from the overwhelming pain of being rejected and hurt.

My unconscious belief was that being perfect would make me worthy of love and acceptance, and protect me from being hurt, so I became a high-achieving perfectionist. I also became a people-pleaser, putting others’ needs and feelings before my own. Like a chameleon, I would morph into different identities and change my behaviours becauseI believed that making people happy, agreeing with them, and becoming the person they wanted me to be would protect me
from rejection.

This survival mechanism of avoiding rejection at all costs took a huge toll on my body. I was was frequently stressed and anxious. I couldn’t relax or wind down at the end of the day. I had difficulties falling and staying asleep. I would often get sick, and I had digestive and
gastrointestinal problems.

After learning about the connection between adoption, the brain, and the nervous system, I realized that I needed to learn to relax my mind and body if I wanted to be healthy and happy. I got counselling, did a lot of reading, and learned how to notice when my nervous system was activated and I needed to self-regulate. I also started to make a point of doing things that helped me unwind, relax, and reach a state of inner peace, quiet, and happiness.

How to relax

  • Bring your attention to the present moment. What can you see? What you can you hear? What can you smell? What can you feel? What can you taste?
  • Notice, name, and describe your physical sensations.
  • Practice slow and deep belly breathing.
  • Practice a form of mindful meditation.
  • Draw your own mandalas or colour in a colouring book.
  • Take a long bath.
  • Get a massage from professional, friend, or partner.
  • Use essential oils in your home.
  • Stretch your body and relax your muscles.
  • Listen to your favourite quiet music.
  • Take a mindful walk in nature.
  • Sit on the beach and listen to the waves.
  • Move or dance to your favourite soothing music.
  • Play a quiet instrument.
  • Journal your thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
  • Paint your ideal safe and quiet place.
  • Visualize yourself in your safe and quiet place.
  • Listen to a guided meditation.
  • Eat mindfully.
  • Reflect on your day and write down three things you are grateful for.
  • Practice knitting.

Hopefully you will be able to take away a few helpful tips and start paying attention to the activation and relaxation of your own nervous system.

Nicole Gfeller is an international adoptee who was born in Peru and raised in Switzerland. After being an ESL teacher for more than six years, she realized that she wanted to work and support people on a more emotional and psychological level. This is when she decided to immigrate to Vancouver and become a therapist. After three years of intensive studies, she began to work in the fields of art therapy, expressive arts therapy, counselling, and life coaching.

Find Nicole online at

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