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Why Is Co-Regulation So Important?

Zoe Mittman

Licensed Social Worker 

“Just calm down.”

“It’s not a big deal, just forget about it.”

“It shouldn’t be having this much of an impact on you.”

Have you heard these statements before? Has anybody ever said these to you when you were feeling upset? It may be that these statements made you feel worse. They sure would make me feel that way. These statements represent a lack of empathy — the inability of someone else to recognize how you are feeling. Since our earliest days, we have been wired, as humans, to need co-regulation. For example, when an infant cries and their caregiver responds warmly, they feel safe. On the other hand, if an infant cries and is not comforted by a caregiver, it becomes more difficult for them to develop effective and healthy co-regulation skills. With that said, when someone disregards your feelings, it is hurtful and does not give you that co-regulation that is innate to human beings.

What Does Co-Regulation Look Like? 

Let’s start with an example. You and another coworker received constructive criticism from a supervisor today in a large, team meeting. Your body froze and you had tunnel vision. You could not put together what your supervisor said. You only remember bits and pieces. You got home from work that day and felt a mix of emotions — angry, sad, frustrated. You were confused and did not understand why you received feedback on a project that you thought you did amazing on. Your coworker responds during the meeting and has a reciprocal conversation with your supervisor. They feel great. They complete work efficiently for the rest of the day. They go home, make dinner, go to sleep, and arrive on time for work the next day.

What I describe above is the same situation with two different responses. It is not the event or situation itself that causes a response, but rather your interpretation and perception of the event. Your upbringing and past experiences have impacted the way that you view certain situations to be harmful, threatening, or safe. This is demonstrated in the example above. In fact, humans have actually been scanning their environments subconsciously for safety or harm since birth. This is known as neuroception, which was coined by Dr. Stephen Porges, the founder of the Polyvagal Theory. According to the Polyvagal Theory, our nervous system has three main responses, which are responsible for our survival. They are:

  1.  Social engagement/ connection
  2.  Fight/flight
  3.  Freeze

 (I will talk about this more in part two of the blog).

These nervous system responses are seen in reptiles and mammals as well. Therefore, bottom-up approaches, which target the engagement of our nervous system are effective approaches to calming down and regulating. Without a sense of safety within the most primitive parts of our brain, it is quite challenging to logically process what is happening. It is even more frustrating when someone makes a statement to us, like the ones I mentioned above, which may trigger us even more and enhance the emotions we are feeling. 

Here are some effective co-regulation strategies:

  1. Walking and talking is a great technique because it prevents the body from going into the freeze response. When humans become dysregulated, it can lead to a state of dissociation, numbness, and shock. 
  2. Play catch. This requires your attention to be focused on the ball and the other person. You are paying close attention to what is going on, rather than the thoughts in your mind. Once your body feels calm, then you can talk about what is going on with someone else while still playing catch.
  3. Go to a yoga class with a friend. Your attention is focused on breathing, movement, and listening to the instructor’s words. With a regulated nervous system, it is safer to approach the root cause of feelings and behaviors.
  4. Demonstrate empathy. Simply being there for someone else as a support system and a listening ear can go a long way.

In part of this blog, I am going to talk more about the Polyvagal Theory and introduce some more co-regulation strategies! Tune in next time to learn more, and reach out to Symmetry Counseling to get paired with a Chicago counselor who can walk with you on your mental health journey.

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