The Science & Importance Of Co-Regulation, From A Somatic Therapist
Even if you think you know nothing about your nervous system, you're already intimately familiar with it. In fact, it's influencing how you feel right now—but what you might not realize is that you can regulate your nervous system rather than letting it control you.
So, what's one of the best ways to regulate your nervous system, you ask? Co-regulating. Here's what it is, plus a practice to try it yourself.
Why co-regulation is what your nervous system is missing
Co-regulation can be thought of, in simple terms, as nervous system regulation that occurs between people when the environment created by them brings both people into a regulated state.
We're constantly creating these environments with others through relating to each other, even when we don't realize it. It happens between parent and child, romantic partners, friends, and even crowds.
Our emotions are palpable to others, and their emotions are palpable to us, so when it comes to regulating your nervous system, somatic therapist and associate director at the Modern Sex Therapy Institutes Holly Richmond, Ph.D., tells mindbodygreen, co-regulating is one of the most powerful and healing ways to do it.
As she explains, "We live in a culture where the normalized trope is we have to do it ourselves and figure it out on our own, and that just isn't true for most people or their nervous systems," adding, "Our nervous systems are still wired for codependency and connection."
Now, that's not "codependence" in an unhealthy, toxic sense but rather healthy codependence in which people trust that they can rely on their loved ones for support when needed. Because sometimes, Richmond says, self-regulation just isn't enough, and we need that connection with another human being to bring our nervous system either down to a regulated level or up to a regulated level.
In short, she adds, "I've never met a person who's healed, or gotten the progress they wanted to see, that hasn't been reliant on another human being or a group in some way."
What to do about it
So many of us are operating from a frazzled nervous system state, whether we're feeling low and want more energy or we have too much energy and want to feel more grounded.
That's where the idea of up-regulating versus down-regulating comes in. If you need a "pick-me-up," that's up-regulating your nervous system. Down-regulating, meanwhile, looks more like grounding, calming activities when you're feeling hyper-aroused.
In that case, you might call up your most chill, easygoing friend and ask if they want to go for a hike, watch a nature documentary, or do some yoga, Richmond suggests. If you wanted to get energized, however, that might be when you call up your most lively, adventurous friend and ask if you can tag along with whatever they're up to.
The point is, none of us should feel like we can't call on a friend, family member, or partner to help us regulate.
To that end, Richmond adds, physical touch is so important. Obviously, depending on who you're with, touch might not be appropriate, but we're not exclusively talking about intimate or erotic touch. A gentle touch on someone's arm or a warm hug can really go far.
"Even if it's just a hand on an arm, if your nervous system was at a 7 on a scale of 1 being depressed and 10 being in panic mode, that touch can bring your nervous system down to a 6. Or if you're at a 3 and someone gives you hug, that can bring you up to a 4," Richmond tells mindbodygreen.
She actually has an exercise called "Hug to Relax" that she recommends all her couples try for the purpose of co-regulation. It's exactly what it sounds like: "You hug each other and hold that hug until your breathing is co-regulated, you feel your shoulders drop, and you feel your chest expand."
Whether you're feeling frozen and numb or frazzled and ungrounded, take it as a sign that you need to regulate your nervous system. And when you're having a hard time doing it on your own, remember that we're wired for connection, and a balanced nervous system might be just a hug away.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.