What is Co-Regulation?
We attempt co-regulation by becoming more present New in the Here & Now New so that someone else can find their way there too, and it works with external and internal folks. So it can be helpful if you are panicked to have someone else remain present for you, and you can take a turn practicing presence when they are out of their own control as well.
Being centered, compassionate, patient and present with a “dysregulated other” (person) helps them to modulate their own emotions. When we are more present, it can help restore our ability to think, to trust, to be curious. It also means setting aside judgement. It can help to realize that the person is currently emotionally dysregulated (panicking) and may not mean anything they're saying.
Panic constricts our ability to think and accept new things. Fear causes tunnel vision and racing thoughts, as we're frantically looking to escape or fight.
How is it useful?
Please note, we would not attempt co-regulation (or would stop) if something was likely to escalate into a physically threatening situation.
We can use this skill with pets and other animals such as when dogsitting. Please don't put yourself at risk, however. When we go to a dogsit and a dog is scared, alert-barking or looking to back away from us to escape…we will pay attention to the situation and make a judgement call on what to do. Often, moving slowly, purposefully and patiently, we will stand or sit and wait, sometimes on the floor to make ourselves appear smaller (especially for smaller animals). We don't want to threaten or frighten, or make them feel trapped. We monitor our own emotions, move slowly and purposefully, and maintain our confidence and presence. Pets can tell when we're afraid.
We use this skill in a similar way when we coach or help people who are in a panic, too. We keep our voice level and remain present, alert, breathe slowly, regulate our own emotions.
This is a great skill to use with those we support, friends, partners, children, clients, etc. It has other benefits too — it gives someone space and time to feel their feelings, and also a "way out" of them without escalating the situation.
Why does this work?
We have special neurons (mirror neurons - YouTube explainer video) that may be involved in monitoring the emotions of those around us. These neurons are thought to create special sensory pathways called the mirror neuron network. Studies suggest this area of the nervous system is involved in learning by watching, but it's also possible part of their job is empathy/tuning in to the states of those around us, to help us understand how others feel and perhaps to respond accordingly.
How do we use this information?
Learning to how to leverage co-regulation may involve going against our instinct to match another person's panic level. Learning how to become present and regulate our emotions in spite of someone else's panic state requires some leveling up for some people.
We think it's definitely worth learning how though.
You might know someone who can do this, and be able to learn it by using your experience of their ability as a bar you want to attain.
You may want to look into various presence techniques New to practice getting present, especially around being in this moment, with what's right in front of you. Then the this moment can become this moment with this dysregulated person, and what's right in front of you is what is going on with them at the moment.
Our works around empathy (especially and this article) talk about the difference between “raw” empathy and “skilled” empathy…raw is when we take on other's feelings without boundaries and cannot tell our feels apart from theirs, so if we are using raw empathy the angry yappy dog (who is actually scared under the anger) makes us feel scared. There's a direct line between the state of the dog (or other human) and our own feeling body.
Skilled empathy is restoring broken emotional boundaries (or creating them for the first time). A filter, or permeable boundary between what is me & what are my feelings, versus what is them or their feelings. We want to allow ourselves to detect, feel, know what the other is feeling…but we do not need to be subsumed (overtaken, crowded out) by the feelings of others. Sequestering the feelings of others so we can sense them, but allowing our own feels to grow and persist and manage the amount that the feels of others are mirrored in ourselves so rather than a hall of mirrors or a dance studio mirror, we have more like a compact or hand mirror we can easily control, or choose to put away.
That is skilled empathy. When we control the volume at which we take in the feels of others and learn to regulate it, and thus learn also how to regulate ourselves.