Self-regulation and Co-regulation
Updated: Feb 6
Nourishing and regulating the nervous system to create a sense of safety with others and within ourselves.
Our nervous system remembers our past experiences, which contributes to a sense of meaning in our daily lives. Understanding how our nervous system influences our interpretation of reality and our actions can help us navigate everyday life. According to the Polyvagal Theory, when the ventral vagus and social engagement system are functioning optimally, the autonomic nervous system supports health and restoration, as there is a balance between the sympathetic nervous system and the dorsal vagal pathways. Self-regulation and co-regulation help us return to safety. I really recommend the following books to get a better understanding of this process:
- The Polyvagal Theory by Stephen W. Porges
- Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection by Deb Dana
Co-regulation is the process in which we send and receive signals of safety. As human beings, we need to connect with others to survive. Co-regulation connects two nervous systems, so they can regulate each other. For instance, children look to their caregiver to feel safe, so they can be reassured through a signal of safety. This kind of situation shapes the nervous system, fostering a sense of trust in others and safety in the world. Babies depend on their caregivers to regulate their nervous system. It is important to remember that the nervous system is shaped by these early experiences, but that can be reshaped through co-regulation as well.
When we experience a traumatic or stressful situation, our nervous system can shut down or freeze, with dissociation as a response. In this case, co-regulation allows the regulation of the autonomic nervous system. We can connect with others and create a shared sense of safety.
Self-regulation is about achieving and maintaining an appropriate and proportional level of calmness or alertness. It is the ability to regulate our emotions, alertness and attention, by using strategies that keep us calm, alert or focused. We need to learn what works for us, so we can regulate our own emotions and respond to stressful situations. We also need to show children different coping mechanisms and regulation strategies so they can choose the ones that work for them. Then, they can soothe themselves when they feel uncomfortable emotions.
Positive experiences of co-regulation support our nervous system and foster resilience, so we can function during periods of separation. Self-regulation and co-regulation are both necessary to enjoy both, solitude and social connection. We need to reach the point in our healing in which we can feel safe by ourselves, sitting with our own feelings, as well as when we are connecting with others; it is about creating a sense of safety, both with others and within ourselves.
Here you can find examples of self-regulation and co-regulation techniques for children and parents:
A relationship based on connection and acceptance.
Calm tone of voice
Acknowledging verbally the distress that the other person is experiencing
Allowing and embracing all the emotions.
Providing children with a structured and warm environment that supports physical and emotional safety, so that emotions can be regulated and navigated together.
Grounding exercises together
Drawing and/or writing
Sensory strategies. Alerting activities:
-Shaking arms and legs
-Jumping (on the floor, trampoline…)
-Bouncing on gym ball
-Wobble cushion on chair to provide movement.
-Theraband to do stretches
Sensory strategies. Calming activities:
-Having peanut ball rolled over the back
Awareness of patterns and unhelpful thinking