Having someone there, whether it’s a partner, friend, or family member, to help you through a moment of emotional distress can make soothing the nervous system much easier. And in fact, I recently learned this practice has a name: co-regulation. Below, two mental-health experts explain what co-regulation techniques actually are, how they work, and how to practice them, in case your nervous system could use a little TLC, too.
What are co-regulation techniques?
Before we dive into co-regulation, it’s important to understand the concept of self-regulation. According to Amira Johnson, MSW, a mental health expert and clinician at Berman Psychotherapy, an outpatient psychotherapy practice based in Atlanta, Georgia, self-regulation involves managing your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Self-regulating, though, is easily disrupted , says Caroline Leaf, PhD, a neuroscientist, mental-health expert, author, and host of Cleaning Up The Mental Mess podcast—especially during challenging life events and adverse circumstances (we’re looking at you, global pandemic). When the process is disrupted by any of these additional stressors, it becomes ineffective as a coping strategy. And, Dr. Leaf adds, when you’re in acute distress, it’s difficult to think rationally or problem solve, because your state of mind is all over the place. “When someone is in distress, they experience a chemical rush that causes a type of neurochemical ‘chaos’ in the brain,” she says.
Co-regulation, then, is a process between two people that aims to help manage immediate, in-the-moment emotions and foster self-regulation skills, Johnson says. “This is achieved through the process whereby one nervous system calms another, producing a consistent cycle that is calming and provides emotional relief for both sides,” Johnson says.
“As you co-regulate with someone, the mirror neurons in their brain are activated, and this enables the person in the deregulated state to literally ‘mirror’ your calmness.” —Caroline Leaf, PhD
Here’s how co-regulation works: “As you co-regulate with someone, the mirror neurons in their brain are activated, and this enables the person in the deregulated state to literally ‘mirror’ your calmness,” Dr. Leaf says. For long-term benefits and effective results, Johnson recommends practicing co-regulation often. “It will effectively rewire the brain so that over time, things that once were triggering or set off alarms no longer have the same effect and happen less often,” she says. Learn how to practice it below.
3 co-regulation techniques to facilitate a sense of calm
1. Cultivate physiological calmness
According to Dr. Leaf, the first step in co-regulation is calming down physically, and many strategies can help with this. She recommends a 10-second breathing exercise, which involves inhaling for three counts and out for seven counts. Using stress balls, moving, and reading out loud to someone can also help people de-escalate when they’re in a highly emotional state, Dr. Leaf says.
Johnson adds that engaging physically—only upon receiving consent—via a hug, light touch, putting your arm around the person, or massaging their neck or hands can also be helpful.
2. Change the thoughts
“Once the person has calmed down physiologically, as a co-regulator, you can help them learn to use their ‘veto power’ over their thoughts,” Dr. Leaf says. “You can literally walk them through the process of ‘capturing’ their thoughts and, using their self-regulatory veto power, changing them. As you do this, you help them gain perspective. You empower them by showing them they have agency and control in their life.”
Johnson notes that it’s important to maintain eye contact throughout the process to let the other person know you’re committed to the conversation and are hearing them fully. Using a soft, calm voice is also essential, Dr. Leaf adds.
3. Be patient and understanding
Lastly, the co-regulation process requires patience on both parts. “We learn self-regulation from our childhood and upbringing,” Johnson says. “If someone wasn’t part of a family unit or situation that provided a positive or stable environment growing up, they may need more time to understand how to control and manage their own self-regulation.” And, she adds, everyone’s process and growth is different, so it’s important to be understanding and supportive.
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