Co-Regulation

Co-Regulation

Co-regulation is when we allow ourselves to tune to another presence that is radiating more solidness, balance, presence, and harmony than we currently feel. The process is natural and tends to improve the emotional resilience of all living beings.

  • Co-regulation builds resilience in our neural pathways, allowing both for less frequent triggering and faster recovery.
  • Regular co-regulation helps us feel more supported and safe in our primitive brain.
  • Regulating together is what we’re designed to do! We are getting back to essential relating when we consciously choose to regulate our breathing, slow our heart rates, and deepen in presence together.

Self-Regulation: Not Something We’re Born With!

We’ve come to more fully grasp that children are not born with the capacity to self-regulate. Yet, so many kids were left to cry it out or sleep and eat on an imposed schedule. That deprived us of the almost-always-available connection we needed to thrive emotionally.

When co-regulation isn’t available, coping kicks in.

Coping can look like being well-behaved, never asking for anything, being surprisingly quiet and unassertive. Coping can be denying our own needs and paying attention only to the needs of others. Coping can mean living with the belief that no one will be there for us! So… we do it ourselves.

The ability to self-manage our feelings is indeed a real skill – a valuable one. The challenge is that in the drive towards independence and not “being a burden” on others, we’ve forgotten that co-regulation is the most natural way to settle down, release stress, and feel safe.

For those of us whose parents were distracted, unavailable, or even abusive, learning how to co-regulate as an adult is… a challenge – a worthy challenge.

The good news is that once you become aware of co-regulation and start feeling for it – and noticing the contrast when others cause you to co-dysregulate – you begin to feel in your body how available co-regulation can be in many different ways.

When No Co-Regulating Person is Available

With as much isolation as many humans have, it would be tragic if co-regulation demanded having a ready-and-will-and-able partner at hand. We certainly wish for that for ourselves and for you… but if you don’t have someone available, it need not stop you from practicing co-regulation.

Recorded Humans

We can listen to another person’s voice and co-regulate. We can even find a photo of someone who can help us feel connected and soothed by their recorded presence.

Meditation apps, EFT Tapping scripts, audiobooks, dance and yoga, and qi gong videos… all offer the potential to co-regulate. Music also!

The key here is to approach it with the intention of co-regulating. Feel WITH the beings who made the recording AS IF you were with them now.

Furry Friends

Animals know all about co-regulation (and also triggered primitive brain reactions, too!). Anyone who has ever adopted a feral pet knows that offering co-regulation builds trust and a sense of safety and bonding.

Practicing co-regulation with your furry friend is a bit different from just letting it happen. Why? Because when we notice where tension and anxiety are held in our body when we allow ourselves to “feel better” and notice what unwinds and settles in our body, we’re re-teaching our biological systems that it is really good to co-regulate!

Co-regulation feels good. Co-regulation heals.

If your furry friend is more on the anxious side, it will be up to you to quiet yourself first. Practice grounding exercises. Actively choose to be more in your body. Notice that your furry friend may not respond to your peace at first with matching peace! Anxiety has a way of trying to force other animals to be anxious, too!

When we become good at co-regulating with furry friends, we’ll notice when other humans are offering co-regulation in a healthy way, too.

Trees and Rocks

The instruction to “go hug a tree” is ridiculously incomplete. Why do that?!?

Because… a healthy, strong tree for example is rooted in the earth, has growth through many seasons, can endure sun, wind, rain, and more. It’s energy if we tune to it has… resilience.

Co-regulation builds resilience. Trees embody resilience. Why not tune ourselves to what has resilience?

Dandelions do that for some people, too. They are hearty, some people try to kill them (booooo!), and yet they can be found growing in the cracks in the city pavement. Wow!

Rocks, too, have endured weather and storms.

We are designed to atune to Nature. It can help us feel “ourselves” – a signal that we’re co-regulating. When we treat Nature as a cooperative component in our thriving, guess what!?! We have so much more support for our co-regulation!

Professionals

There are co-regulation professionals. Massage and bodyworkers. Somatic therapists. Meditation teachers. There are even well-trained and ethical cuddle professionals now.

Not all professionals are co-regulation aware, of course. By asking whether you can spend time co-regulating your breathing and presence before a session, you can expand your network to include those who love conscious co-regulation as part of their practice.

We’re Better Off Regulating Together

Mutual dysregulation is everywhere. The media promotes it. When our biology is dysregulated, it’s easier to manipulate us. We’re absolutely less free to choose and take inspired action when we’re dysregulated.

Conscious co-regulation is an act of mutual respect. We’re human. Our systems get stressed. We get out of whack. We get frustrated and disappointed. We grieve.

Our emotions cover a diverse spectrum. They were also never intended to have to be met alone.

Radical self-reliance is a perspective that no empathetic person could ever hold and be thriving. Yes, we can want the ability to emotionally self-manage. We can practice the real skills that make us savvy at being with the emotions that rise and fall each moment.

Part of that savvy, though, is recognizing when co-regulation is the best way to be with Big Feelings! And to cultivate relationships that become deeper and stronger and more resilient each time we meet each other in co-regulation.

Useful Questions

  • Am I dysregulated right now?
  • What or who in my world could I co-regulate with?
  • Do I have any beliefs about having to “go it alone” that stand in the way of me getting my natural co-regulation needs met?
  • Who in my life demonstrates a capacity to co-regulate? Have I asked them to practice with me (even for just 17 seconds)? If not, why not?
  • As a child, was co-regulation available to me? Did I have to feel or behave in a certain way to get comfort?
  • How would my life change if I practiced co-regulation and got good at it?

Resources

Related Concepts

Grounding, Calm and Confident, Trauma-Informed


Contributors: @Rick

We invite you to share your experiences and wisdom:

  • Life examples where this concept has played a role
  • Other useful questions
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I hope it’s not too late to develop those receptors, in the same vein as neural plasticity.

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I don’t know the neuroscience of all that but I suspect, our miraculous nervous system/brain being what it is, if those neuro-receptors are no longer viable in adulthood there is most certainly a ‘work around’, some form of plasticity, as you suggest, that performs the same function ultimately. I mean, we don’t have to look too far to find all kinds of examples of people who have made amazing changes in their adulthood…changes in attitude and outlook and beliefs and self-image and expectations. They are all around us as examples of what’s possible I think.

Here’s to a future filled with more freedom and calm and confidence…and peace! :slight_smile:

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Perth Children’s Occupational Therapy is in Perth, Western Australia.

Too often, I see children reprimanded when they’re not able to control their behaviours and emotions. They’re expected to remain calm and happy, not get upset, not display anger, and quickly calm themselves down if they do get upset. If they can’t do this, they may be referred to me for “self-regulation difficulties”.

Here’s the thing. Self-regulation is a developmental process. Just as we wouldn’t expect a child to run before they can walk, we cannot expect children to self-regulate until they’ve experienced co-regulation time and time again. And unless a child has had it modelled enough, and their brain has developed enough, they will not achieve regulation on their own.

Co-regulation begins from birth. When babies are unsettled and we cuddle them, rock them, feed them - we are helping them to regulate.

When toddlers are angry that they can’t have the toy they want, and we empathise with them, sit with them, get them a drink - we are helping them to regulate.

When preschoolers are upset because they’re not ready to leave their playdate, and we listen and help them take deep breaths - we are helping them to regulate.

Self-regulation only BEGINS to emerge around 4-5 years. And whilst some 4-5 year olds may be able to regulate themselves, others may not be able to. Both are within the typical range of development.

True self-regulation is not fully established until our mid-twenties. Even then, we often turn to others to help us feel better when we are feeling low. We are often quite happy to help other adults feel better, however when children need our help, we may be reluctant to give it, perhaps in fear that we will stunt their emotional resilience (amongst many other understandable but unfounded fears).

When we ask a child to regulate themselves before they’re ready, we risk shaming them, affecting their self-esteem, and their relationship with us. Co-regulation needs to come first.

You won’t be able to co-regulate all of the time, but it can help to know that kids may not be able to regulate on their own, and for good reason.

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We certainly are a unique species!! I can’t help but wonder about this statement through the lens of evolutionary biology. Why would this be the design? How does this benefit the survival of our species? Is this true of all cultures everywhere? Is it really the design or is this just where we’ve ended up as a result of post industrial social influences? If this was our innate biological design it’s a wonder that our species has survived!! No wonder we seem to rely on violence and aggression as a primary methodology for co-existing on this planet!!

Well, it has been shown that parts of our brain are not fully mature into the early twenties. I certainly see even in an 8-year-old that there are increasing capacities for self-regulation.

Focus, for example, to hunt would be useful by this age I’m guessing, even if feeling the pressures of hunger or the fear that ones hunt get taken by a larger or more aggressive predator.

And, honestly, I think our sense of “self-regulation” has been perverted by our “personal achievement” fetish. We fashion and celebrate heroes in our myths and epic stories, ignoring the co-creators often. And jeesh, even the “king of the jungle” male lions mostly is fed by the females in his price that end up having to eat after him!

I digressed there because I believe co-regulation is key. That is actually what is natural. Self-regulation plays more and more a conscious role, but I believe it is better by far when grounded in mutual support and attunement then having-to because we’re abandoned to cope on our own!

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This isn’t about us bipeds, but I saw a couple with a very young (4-5 months) puppy the other day. They wouldn’t let the bouncy, happy pup say hello to my dog, because they said the puppy was “too hyper” and they were “trying to teach her to calm down”.

I wanted to say “WTF? You got a puppy! You want calm? Get a 10-year-old dog.”

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I think it’s probably best for puppies to learn to calm from being around older calm dogs. That’s co-regulation that dogs understand…I mean, there’s a lot of doggy evolution at work there…they know what they’re doing I would think. You see this with wolves and other dogs in the wild…older dogs teaching young dogs what sorts of behaviours are acceptable…and of course this happens throughout the entire mammalian kingdom.

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I rescued an adult pitbull type dog (gibbysan!) a dozen years ago, and he had probably never been in a house before. I basically handed him over to my senior German Shepherd, Murphy, and I didn’t have to do much of anything. The other dog housebroke him and everything. LOL.

Murphy and Gibson, circa 2008 :heart: :heart:

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Exactly!! Beautiful dogs!!

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“Co-regulation deficits can be repaired at any point in life.”

Ahhhh… yes. Heart hugs!

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