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Regulation: Self & Co

Updated: Mar 19, 2023

This is a section from my free e-book - Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm. Make sure you're signed up for my email list to get access to this and future ebooks. There's a signup at the top and bottom of this page.

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Regulation

Regulation” - loosely - is an individual’s ability to get to a calm enough emotional baseline. There’s way more to this on many levels, but this is the basic idea for now. Even if the person is not entirely happy or entirely social; if they can exert self-control over their behaviors, we could say they are well enough regulated. They have enough capacity to notice what is happening within them on an emotional level and can then use their conscious thoughts to self-soothe in some way.


If someone has lost access to their conscious awareness and their capacity to direct their behavior within the contextual rules and social norms, we could say they are in a state of dysregulation. Their emotions and thoughts are out of control and have overwhelmed their conscious mind. This individual has exceeded their limits of being able to tolerate and cope with whatever is happening within them.


Self-regulation

But it’s not just about what someone does in the moment of need, it’s also about creating the capacity to tolerate greater amounts of distress. Regulation is something that can be built up. Regulation is really the result of enough tolerance having been cultivated within an individual - the building of their vagal brake. This level of distress tolerance can be nurtured within someone from birth and throughout life. We learn to tolerate distress from the modeling that we see as children. We also learn distress tolerance from having our needs be taken seriously and receiving support from others. Neither of these things makes our distress go away, but it makes it bearable. It makes it tolerable.



Traumatized individuals have a more difficult time with self-regulation. They are stuck down their Polyvagal ladder in a state of defense. If they were able to self-regulate into their safety state, they wouldn’t be stuck. By definition, trauma is not only being stuck, but also lacking the capacity for effective self-regulation.


There are numerous ways to regulate yourself. I don’t think there is one right answer for any specific person or specific situation. Some things might be universally helpful, like slowing your breathing on the exhale from your belly. But even then, there might be times where you’re too dysregulated to breathe into your belly and this won’t be helpful. You might need something else. You might need the assistance of another person.



Co-regulation

Co-regulation is something that happens between two mammalian organisms. Only mammals have the capacity for social interaction and receiving cues of safety from other mammals to help them into their ventral vagal state of safety and social engagement. Through co-regulation, a mammal can access their safety state. This is done through an unconscious biological process.


Co-regulation is not self-driven, nor is it imposed by the other either. It involves yourself and it involves someone else, but it is something received through unconscious cues of safety. This is mostly a passive process, like receiving cues of safety from the environment. A more active process would be adjusting your breathing, dancing or singing. This passive process of co-regulation is done through neuroception.

Through neuroception, a dysregulated individual can detect cues of safety from a regulated individual. Someone stuck in an anxious flight state can see the gentle smile of a safe other, which triggers some activation of their safety pathways. They don’t choose to have those pathways activated, they simply are activated with the correct input from the safe other.


This process is biologically hardwired to help us regulate as mammals. A baby receives co-regulation from a parent that has a soothing voice, gentle touch. The baby doesn’t choose to calm itself. The baby as an organism detects safety, which triggers the Polyvagal shifts into its own safety state.



Why co-regulation matters

Humans are social. We need each other. On a very biological level, we need each other. We don’t develop self-regulation unless we have good enough co-regulation and attachment growing up, then continued opportunities for co-regulation as we age. We don’t do well as individuals in isolation.


Yes, we are individuals. Yes, we can self-regulate and develop the capacity to do so more and more. But before that, we’re social. We build on the foundations of our social connections. Those of us that are struggling with self-regulation need others that are already self-regulated to provide safety cues. Those that are struggling with self-regulation will benefit from more and more people who are self-regulated and able to provide their eye crinkles and genuine smiles.


It’s important to surround ourselves with people who are able to provide co-regulation. We need safe people, safe friends, safe relationships, safe co-workers. This is not always possible or easy. Maybe you have safe people at home but not at work. Or safe people at school but not at home, as is often the case with my student clients.


Even if you don’t have everyone in your life in their self-regulated safety state, having someone is much better than no one. That might be a professional someone. Many of my student clients are able to identify that one staff person is their co-regulator. It’s not a solution to life’s problems. But it’s something. And it might be enough to get them through their day and maybe even provide a template for safety in relationships. Therapy can often be that template.


We may even be able to get aspects of co-regulation from artificial sources. Not ideal, but something. People often write to me and say my voice is a cue of safety on the Stuck Not Broken podcast. There may be a certain singer’s voice that helps bring you to safety. Or a certain voice on a meditation track.

If we don't have others to co-regulate with and we can't self-regulate, this is a good indicator that we will engage in a behavioral adaptation...



 

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