What you need to know about co-regulation
Co-regulation is a key concept from Steven Porges’ work on polyvagal theory, where he stresses the importance of our deep-rooted need for safety and connection within relationships. In this article, we’ll explore why it’s important and how to seek out co-regulation in order to heal.
What is co-regulation?
At its core, co-regulation is the interplay of two nervous systems connecting; a dance where one person’s regulation influences another’s. This connection is a little like a “dance of attachment” (Van Gulden, 2010). This process is particularly crucial in our formative years when, as small children, we rely entirely on caregivers to support us to manage and regulate our emotions.
Consider the scenario of a crying infant being sensitively comforted by a caregiver. This comforting interaction is not just about helping the child to stop crying – it’s a key co-regulation process. The caregiver, ideally, responds with a soothing voice, gentle touches, and a reassuring presence, supporting the child to manage their emotions and, in turn, meeting their needs. This early co-regulation teaches the infant how to respond to emotions, laying the foundation for the child later, when faced with stress, to have the ability to self-regulate.
As adults, when we can manage our emotions through co-regulation and self-regulation, we land back in our optimal nervous system state: the ventral vagal state. In this state, we are present, we can manage our emotions, connect and respond to situations.
Why is co-regulation important?
Co-regulation is not a luxury, it’s a developmental necessity. For those fortunate enough to experience attuned parenting in childhood, the dance of attachment becomes a blueprint for emotional intelligence. As we mature, co-regulation supports us in developing self-regulation skills and a cellular memory of safety.
Unfortunately, not everyone is privileged with this early experience. For those who didn’t receive the necessary attunement and nurture from caregivers, challenges in self-regulation may arise. The internal working model, shaped by early caregiving experiences, influences how individuals interact and build relationships. Anxious or distant caregivers, for example, can lead to us developing an internal working model where emotions are perceived as dangerous or where we block out emotions.
The impact of these experiences extends into adulthood, affecting relationships and inner landscapes. Life-long difficulties in relationships and managing emotions may emerge, stemming from a lack of care and co-regulation as children.
Navigating the impact of trauma and poor attachment experiences
The complexities deepen when caregivers are a source of terror and fear. In such cases, survival instincts are so clever in keeping us alive. This may lead to us perpetually moving up and down the ladder of the nervous system – from fight and flight responses (sympathetic) to disconnecting and dissociating (dorsal shutdown). The paradox lies in the biological need for connection from a caregiver that we are also fearful of.
As therapist Deb Dana notes, the nervous system may adapt to focus on patterns of protection over patterns of connection. This rewiring can cause individuals to view relationships as a source of danger and threat, leading to avoidance, trust issues, or heightened anxiety in relationships.
Healing through co-regulation
Acknowledging these challenges is the first step toward healing. Despite adaptive survival strategies ingrained in the nervous system, restoration comes through safe connections. We can co-regulate with a therapist, a trusted friend, a pet, or a partner. The essence lies in feeling seen, heard, and held.
Healing happens within these co-regulatory relationships, where one nervous system can lean on another for support. While the nervous system is shaped by our past, it can be reshaped by our present experiences, and particularly through safe and nurturing connections.
This reshaping of our nervous system can support us to move from stuck survival responses to moving towards being able to manage our emotions, connect back towards ourselves with kindness and compassion, and connect with others in more meaningful and heartfelt ways.
How can you seek out co-regulation?
Seeking out co-regulation involves consciously building connections with safe individuals. If you don’t know where to begin, a therapeutic relationship built on trust and empathy can be a gentle starting point. Connecting with a therapist or someone you genuinely trust can create a ripple effect, expanding your capacity for co-regulation.
Wonderfully, co-regulation extends beyond human relationships. Animals can offer a safe haven for co-regulation, thanks to their non-judgmental presence. Stroking their fur, a shared gaze or a snuggle on the sofa with a pet can initiate a sense of safety in the nervous system. I know in times of my own life challenges, my cat, has jumped on my lap, started purring away and it helped me to manage the big emotions, tolerate them and find a sense of support.
In conclusion, co-regulation is a dynamic, reciprocal dance crucial for emotional well-being. While some of us, through no fault of our own, didn’t get our connection needs met as children, our well-being relies on finding our way back to safe and nurturing connections: to get the support and nurture we deserve.