Co-Regulation: How Just Being with Someone Can Help
When we aren't at our best emotionally, it can help on a nervous system level to just have someone be with us to co-regulate our emotions. I was definitely one of those children who needed a hug when I was upset. I have always responded strongly to the negative and positive emotions of others. I also respond very well to a calm person comforting me when I am anxious or stressed. I work mostly with children, so I am used to hearing the term "co-regulation" as it relates to parents and caregivers helping children calm down when they are upset, but it can be just as powerful for adults in relationships.
Co-regulation is the process of someone with a regulated nervous system, meaning they are feeling safe and relaxed, effectively sharing their calm with someone whose nervous system is spiraling out of control. If you are anxious or upset, and someone you love takes your hand, gives you a hug, or just sits with you, they are co-regulating with you. There is a whole nervous system explanation for this that I love to talk about, so I'll get into that in the video below.
Communicating with Your Partner About Your Co-Regulation Needs
It took a while in my relationship for my partner to understand how co-regulation helps me. I talked about this in a previous article, "When Your Partner Doesn't Understand Your Mental Illness." I identify as a highly sensitive person which means my nervous system easily becomes overwhelmed. This sends my anxiety skyrocketing because my nervous system senses danger and alerts my fight-flight-freeze-fawn response to kick into gear. It took many conversations over the past eight years to help him understand that just his presence helps my nervous system regain control and calm down.
Being in the presence of another calm and compassionate person helps me calm myself by sending the message to my nervous system that there is no danger, allowing me to think rationally again rather than acting out of survival mode. When my anxiety is getting the best of me, I am likely to say, "I just need a hug," or "Can you just sit with me for a few minutes?"
Communication Is Key When You Need Co-Regulation
As with everything in a healthy relationship, communication is key. If you aren't regulated enough to help your partner, like if you are having a fight and exchanged some angry words, you can say something like, "I need a minute by myself to calm down. I'll be back."
If you want your partner to help you co-regulate, don't expect him or her to read your mind. Let them know exactly what you need such as, "My anxiety is bad right now. Can you hold my hand?"
Assuming your partner should know what you need without you saying it leads to avoidable disappointment and unnecessary feelings of rejection -- the last things you need when your nervous system is already dysregulated.
Co-Regulation or Co-Dependence?
The part of co-regulation that can get tricky for some people is balancing the line between co-regulation and co-dependent behaviors. Co-regulating isn't about expecting your partner to take responsibility for you or your emotions. Our emotions belong to us and ultimately we are the ones who have to deal with them. Co-regulation isn't about asking someone else to fix us but instead about using the power of the relationship to bring us to a place where we are able to take care of ourselves.
Check out the video below for more information on emotional regulation and mental illness as well as more explanation about how co-regulation can help.
Did this information help you? Let me know in the comments.
Sabatello, J. (2021, September 13). Co-Regulation: How Just Being with Someone Can Help, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, October 17 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/relationshipsandmentalillness/2021/9/co-regulation-how-just-being-with-someone-can-help
Author: Juliana Sabatello
This is a beautiful description of a process that can be so helpful for someone who is needing it. There are also so many other benefits for the connection between the two people and the relationship that it builds. Oftentimes, when we think of helping someone we feel overwhelmed, we're not sure what we can do or where to begin, but co-regulating is a wonderful example of how just being with someone really can do so much.