The beauty (and difficulty) of co-regulation
The beauty (and difficulty) of co-regulation
We are in this together
As much as we’d like to think of ourselves as independent and self-sufficient creatures, physiologically it’s not the case. This statement alone may trigger a lot of resistance, and understandably so. Knowing how interdependent we are may make us feel powerless, especially when others have no desire to consider our best interests. It can make us feel helpless, scared or angry. We may want to self-isolate and withdraw or, on the contrary, be proactive or defensive in the attempt to change what we see and experience. All of these reactions are understandable. We are currently observing them in ourselves and other people in response to the chaos going on in the world as our nervous systems are trying to adapt and cope with the change.
Self-regulation and co-regulation - two sides of one coin
You may have noticed that it’s much more difficult to stay calm and grounded when people around you aren’t. This is because self-regulation does not happen in isolation. Of course, we can manage to what extent we are affected by other people. But being completely unaffected is not possible unless we shut down and numb our internal awareness. And this, in turn, cuts us off from empathy, compassion and kindness which are so crucial for us as humans.
If self-regulation is about managing the state of our nervous system and being able to return to the baseline or a state of peace and rest, then co-regulation is about being able to settle by mirroring the state of the other person’s nervous system. Our nervous systems constantly react to each other even when we are unaware of it – getting activated in response to the other person’s activation. Or settling in the presence of someone calm and grounded. This happens automatically to ensure our physical survival as a group species.
The difficulty and beauty of co-regulation
When we are born, we don’t have the capacity to self-regulate. We fully rely on the caregiver to soothe us when we are in distress. This is because the baby’s nervous system is not able to do it on its own. And the caregiver helps the baby externally to get a sense of the parasympathetic state so that with time the baby learns to self-soothe and self-regulate. In other words, we learn to self-regulate to the extent that our caregivers taught us to do it through co-regulation when we were infants and later in our childhood. This is why for some of us as adults it may be more difficult to regulate and return to the restful state if this co-regulation wasn’t always there or was inconsistent.
But the beauty of co-regulation is that it is available to us even when we grow up. In the presence of a ‘safe other’, we restore and continue to expand our capacity to relax, rest and feel secure in times of distress. This ‘safe other’ can offer us a blueprint of the parasympathetic rest-and-digest state that we can later access on our own through self-regulation.
Who is this ‘safe other’?
Notice what emotions, sensations or images come up for you as you read about a ‘safe other’. Some people can feel a sense of grief if there was no safe person to lean on when it was so hard. If this is what you feel, take your time to honour your grief. Others may feel anger or resistance – another natural reaction to either absence of a safe figure or the very suggestion of relying on anyone other than yourself. Again, give yourself time to validate your anger and resistance. Whatever emotions come up, notice how they shows up in your body and observe them as a physical sensations – see if they move, expand, dissipate or stay the same.
It is also possible that when you read about a ‘safe other’, an image of a person shows up in your mind. It can be a person you currently interact with (a colleague, friend or a family member) or someone you knew in the past. It could be a public figure or even a fictional character. Whoever it is, notice how just thinking of this person makes you feel? What starts to happen in your body as you picture this person – the way they look, move or talk? Perhaps, your body softens, or maybe you feel more aliveness or more stability. Or maybe you feel just a little better or less bad.
Tips on restoring a sense of safety through co-regulation
The best way to experience the effect of co-regulation is in the physical presence of a ‘safe other’. Safe nurturing touch is the most powerful expression of this healing presence. But when this is not possible, here are some other things you can do:
Co-regulating through the eyes
We all know that connecting with someone online and seeing them on the screen of your device is not the same as being with them in person. While this is true, even virtual presence offers an opportunity for co-regulation. By seeing the other person’s eyes and their calm facial expression, hearing the soothing rhythm of their voice signals our brain that we are safe and we are ok. So whenever you can, connect with the people whose presence makes you feel more grounded and more regulated. Or even watch videos of those who radiate peace, calm and stability.
Co-regulating through the voice
Babies learn to connect with the world through the sound of the caregivers’ voice along with the touch. And we don’t lose this capacity even as adults. Different tones and qualities of the human voice continue to impact our bodies and brains. It’s been observed that medium to low-pitched, smooth, rhythmic voices are perceived as soothing of the body and mind. I’m sure you have your preference when it comes to the type of voice that you find calming. So go ahead and listen to pleasant songs, podcasts, guided meditations or ASMR recordings and notice how your nervous system responds to the sound of the voice that you hear.
Using physical objects
This may sound contrary to the very definition of co-regulation, but there are ways you can also use physical objects to get a sense of support and stability. Here you can watch how to regulate using a wall. In this video, it’s the practitioner that facilitates co-regulation while using the wall as external support. There’s something powerful about being gently guided by another human being in and out of the exercise, connecting their facial expression and posture (visual co-regulation), their voice (auditory co-regulation), as well as a touch of the physical object (sensory regulation).
A gentle reminder
In case you need to hear it:
You don’t have to do it all on your own. Seek people’s support, in-person or virtually. It may feel alien to you if this is not something you are used to. The issue of trust may arise if previously it was broken or connecting with others didn’t feel safe. But remember, healing does not happen in isolation. Our physical and mental health depends on safe human connection.
“The indispensability of human connection cannot be overlooked.
Health impacts that result from a feeling of belonging are immeasurable and a clear indicator that health is not just a physical but a mental and social matter.”
Dr Gabor Mate
I'm a trauma-informed somatic practitioner based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I help sensitive people find relief and healing from symptoms of chronic stress and trauma using body-oriented modalities such as Somatic Experiencing and trauma-informed yoga. You are welcome to book your first short session with me to see how I can help you. In this session you'll get to ask any questions you may have and also experience the somatic process.