Emotional Health,  Mental Health

The Role of Co-Regulation in Building Self-Regulation Skills

Dr. Caroline Leaf – In this podcast (episode #400) and blog, I talk about co-regulation.

Co-regulation is a way of helping someone develop self-regulation. The person co-regulates by staying present for the individual, helping them navigate a challenging experience and move towards greater self-awareness. This involves a supportive relationship between two or more people that is process-driven—the goal is to help a person self-regulate themselves while in a highly emotional state. 

Self-regulation is a skill we increasingly develop over time starting from childhood, and co-regulation is one of the ways we can develop this skill. Our ability to self-regulate can be affected when we have experienced trauma or are distressed; co-regulation can potentially help us get back to self-regulating our thoughts, feelings and choices.

Self-regulation can be disrupted to varying degrees, especially during challenging life events and adverse circumstances. This is where co-regulation can be helpful: it is a way of helping someone who is struggling mentally and emotionally rebuild their own self-regulation skills, which are needed to manage their mind.

When someone is in acute distress, they may find it difficult to think rationally or problem-solve. This is because since their state of mind is literally all over the place, they experience a chemical rush that can cause a type of neurochemical “chaos” in the brain. This often leads to reduced blood flow and oxygen at the front of the brain, thereby increasing impulsivity, while the two sides of the brain act out of coherence, which results in too much high beta energy activity and not enough alpha energy activity. All of this decreases a person’s ability to reason and make good decisions in the moment. When we co-regulate, we are helping to quiet the other person’s mind, enabling their active (conscious mind) and dynamic (nonconscious mind) self-regulation to work together, which brings balance and coherence back into the brain. 

There are two main phases of healthy co-regulation:

Phase 1- Physiological: There are many strategies to deescalate/calm down a highly emotional situation in the moment, such as a 10 second breathing exercise (breathe in for 3 counts and out for 7 counts), havening, tapping, hugs, stress balls, reading out loud to someone, and movement like yoga.

Phase 2 – Veto power: Once the person has calmed down physiologically, as a co-regulator, you can help them learn to use their “veto power” over their thoughts. You can literally walk them through the process of “capturing” their thoughts and, using their self-regulatory veto power, change them.

As you do this, you help them override the force generated from the energy of their toxic thought or experience and teach them that they can choose to speak or act, or not speak or act, according to this thought. As the co-regulator, you are essentially doing this for the person in the distressed state, and in a sense, modeling it for them. You help them gain perspective; you empower them by showing them they have agency and control in their life.

Below are some steps to help you become a better co-regulator:

These steps can have a healthy and calming effect on the mind, brain and body that can help someone manage their stress response in the moment and prevent it from becoming toxic. These steps can help increase the oscillations in their brain, which help generate a healing wave through the brain and body, regulating gene expression in a way that alters gene activity in the part of the brain that is involved in emotional perceptions (the amygdala) and helping elicit a positive response in the person being co-regulated:

1. Establish eye contact

This helps the person feel seen and can be very calming. It’s important that the person doing the co-regulating establishes calm and loving eye contact.

2. Create physical contact

The level of contact must be comfortable for the person trying to self-regulate how they feel. This could be as simple as sitting near the distressed person.

3. Hear and validate their emotions

You may need to help this person by putting words to their experience. You can do this by naming what you observe, asking if this is correct, and then offering calming decompression techniques like deep breathing as needed. Create a judgement-free environment where all feelings and emotions are allowed.

4. Model self-regulating

Co-regulation involves openly modeling how you self-regulate, but only do this after steps 1-3! I recommend using the system I have created called the Neurocycle, which teaches self-regulation using a 5-step mind directed process that demonstrates awareness, acceptance and engagement of one’s internal climate, and helps people embrace, process and reconceptualize what they are dealing with.

The Neurocycle, which I discuss in detail in my latest book, Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess and app Neurocycle, is a way to harness your thinking power through mind-management that I have developed and researched over the past three decades; any task that requires thinking can use it, which means everything can, because you’re always thinking! This de-stressing, self-regulation technique can really work with any issue, and can be done anywhere, any place and at any time—all you need is you!

First, calm the brain down by breathing deeply. I recommend breathing in for 5 counts and out for 11 counts, and repeating this technique 3 times (for around 45 seconds). Then, GATHER awareness of the emotional and physical warning signals your body is sending you, such as tension in your shoulders, which can be a sign of fear of sleep. Embrace these signals, don’t judge them or try to suppress them (spend around 30 to 45 seconds doing this). Now, REFLECT on how you feel: ask, answer and discuss why you are feeling the way you do. Use specific sentences, like “I feel this anxiety because …”. What is happening during the day that may be affecting you? Do this for around 1-3 minutes. After reflecting, WRITE down what you feel and why. This will help you gain clarity into your thinking and behavior. Then, RECHECK what you have written, looking for your triggers and the thought patterns you may have developed that are affecting you. For example, you may notice that you start stressing before bed because of something going on in your life, which puts you in a heightened state of anxiety and increases your likelihood of having nightmares. What is your “antidote”? How will you reconceptualize this way of thinking and acting? Lastly, take action (I call this step the ACTIVE REACH). This can be a positive statement that validates your feelings, or an action, such as having more “thinker moments” in your day, where you switch off to the external and onto the internal and just let your mind wander and daydream for around a minute. These thinker moments help calm down anxious thinking and reboot your mind.

When appropriate, help the person use a self-regulation technique like the Neurocycle. For example, you help them by co-regulating what they are going through using the 5 steps mentioned above.

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