As mammals, we have a deep yearning for safe, supportive, and nourishing relationships yet very often we find ourselves triggered by our exchanges with our loved ones, dismayed by the absence of reciprocity, and frustrated by what we characterize as an absence of empathy.
Co-regulation is defined as our ability to find safety and autonomic nervous system (ANS) balance in relationships with others. This goes both ways, meaning we reach out for support to regulate and we offer this support in return when asked. This is a hallmark of healthy and balanced relationships.
Co-regulation is also one of the organizing principles of the PolyVagal theory. Co-regulation is the very foundation of our autonomic regulation and one of the first skillsets we learn as infants. We attune to our mother's voice, scent, and physical touch as a safety mechanism. This is why babies are calmed by their mother's presence. Under optimal conditions, we grow to experience and witness our family as a place of safety where we learn how to ask for the support we need and offer the same in return even in disagreements. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case and many of us grow up without the critical skillset of co-regulation.
In the absence of effective co-regulation, we grow up to believe that avoidance and denial, or anger and violence are our only options to resolve disagreements and conflict. Understanding how our ANS functions, helps us recognize and integrate a healthy approach to co-regulations.
The primary question our nervous systems seek to answer is "Is it safe to connect?"
These two primary forces define our capacity for connection; our biological need for connection and our wired-in survival responses. Sometimes they work collaboratively to support healthy and nourishing relationships and other times they work in opposition to each other.
Our nervous systems are both shaped and supported through the delicate dance of these two forces. While the foundation of our ANS is developed in early childhood, it continues to be shaped by our life experiences. The more we learn to prioritize safety in communication and connection, the more we deepen our ability to reshape past survival patterns deeply rooted in our nervous systems.
Safe, loving connections are literally MEDICINE for our nervous systems and our best chance to find lasting balance, health, and fulfillment.
While a deep dive into co-regulation is beyond the scope of a blog post, here are a few great ways to begin practicing creating safety in relationships.
As you notice that you or the person you are engaging with seems triggered, try the following approaches:
"What would help you feel safe right now?"
"I am noticing myself get dysregulated/triggered in this conversation, will you take a moment to ground and regulate with me before we continue?"
"I don’t know what the right thing to say is, but I want you to know that I am here, I care about you, and I am listening."
"I am noticing your tone changing and I think we might both be getting triggered, it will help me a lot if we paused here and took a few breaths together before we continue."
It is important to note that agreeing on a common language ahead of time is often required to ensure that the choice of words, no matter how innocent to one party, is not triggering to the other.
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