When we self-regulate well, we are better able to control the trajectory of our emotional lives and resulting actions based on our values and sense of purpose.
~ Amy Leigh Mercree, A Little Bit of Meditation: An Introduction to Mindfulness
Self regulation is, quite simply, the ability to regulate our Self. This includes our ability to soothe and regulate our nervous systems and our emotional states.
Regulating is not stuffing down, ignoring, or dissociating.
Regulation allows us to stay present, to tolerate uncomfortable feelings (sensations and emotions) and situations.
Regulation is about learning how to titrate our emotions, to recognize when we are at the very early stages of moving into overwhelm, and utilizing tools to help calm and soothe ourselves in ways that are not harmful either immediately or in the long term.
Knowing how to self-regulate is a vital tool to have when we are in a crisis situation, and to utilize long after the crisis is over so the trauma or pain of the even doesn’t get stuck in us.
Being able to self-regulate and self-soothe is part of our ability to be resilient to chaotic and traumatic events in our lives.
Most of us who had chaotic childhoods didn’t learn how to self-regulate in a way that would be beneficial for us long term. Most of us learned how to dissociate and are pretty darn good at it. Most of us learned how to stuff down our feelings (again, bodily sensations and emotions) and to not experience them or allow them to be expressed. For most of us, our caregivers didn’t model self-regulation in any truly beneficial ways.
Because we all carry so many generations of trauma within us, I believe it is safe to say that most of our ancestors didn’t know how to self-soothe either, at least not once became “civilized”.
Our inability to self-regulate, our not learning it as children, is not our fault. However, I deeply believe it is our responsibility to our Self and to our loved ones to learn how to do so.
When we learn to self-regulate, we are offering nurturing and care to our Self. We are showing love to our Self. We are showing our Self that we matter and that we don’t have to go into overwhelm.
Self-regulation also helps with our relationships. It allows us to become present in the moment, as well as learn to tolerate uncomfortable conversations and situations with those we care most about. It helps prevent us from “flying off the handle” or “losing our shit.” It is a tool that helps to experience our feelings without becoming overwhelmed by them and losing connection to our frontal lobes.
We can self-regulate in a variety of ways. All of the Nervous System Soothing Exercises I offer in your weekly love letter are one way to learn how to self-soothe and self-regulate. Being in nature is another. Moving our bodies. Creative expression (painting, writing, sculpting, coloring, drawing in sand, etc). For some people having a glass of wine or a cup of herbal tea. Seeing our therapists regularly. Playing or listening to music or singing or humming. Cleaning (one of my personal favorites!). Physical contact with another person, sexually or non-sexually (also known as co-regulation). Weekly body work of some type (massage, acupuncture, chiropractic, etc). These are just a few ways, there are many, many more.
I recommend that we all have multiple ways to self-soothe and self-regulate ourselves. I also suggest we have daily (or semi-daily) practices or rituals that help to calm ourselves and dissipate the stress we experience throughout the day so that it doesn’t build up and turn into overwhelm.
It is vital to our own care that we find these ways to calm our nervous systems, and to learn to not be in a constant state of overwhelm – it is vital for our physical health, for our mental health, and for our relational health.
This work is not always easy or glamorous or fun. In fact I would argue it is mostly hard, messy, and often daunting.
As with learning anything new, any new way of caring for ourselves and being in the world, the more we practice, the better we get at it and the less hard, messy and daunting it becomes.
I talk more about all of this in the 9-minute video below.
This essay is the first in a three part series I have written exploring the ideas of safeness, stabilization, and self-care.. I hope you find it helpful and informative. To read the other essays in this series, click the links below:
Self Regulation & Self Care (this essay)