Challenging Times Call for Co-Regulation

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” These words continue to hold truth and meaning, especially during these complex and challenging times. Over the past 9 months, our world has been upended by COVID-19. In my work to support families struggling with its impact, I have seen how hard it is for parents to remain calm and in control when critical support services have been either altered, reduced, or temporarily suspended. Situations such as these have placed an incredible amount of pressure on families, fueled insecurity, and increased stress. Individuals with disabilities are especially vulnerable to these stressors as they rely on their caregivers and loved ones to provide them with much needed support. As a therapist, I rely on understanding an individual’s needs and value the importance of effective coping skills, especially during stressful situations.

Emotional regulation or self-regulation is the ability to effectively manage one’s own emotions in response to an experience. Did you know that our ability to self-regulate can help another person to self-regulate as well? This is called ‘co-regulation’ – and more now than ever before have these processes become more relevant for us all. For myself, both at a personal and professional level, finding a deeper understanding of ‘self-regulation’ and ‘co-regulation’ has helped me learn how our own self-regulation is key – to provide co-regulatory support to others who are struggling with stress, fear, or insecurity.

The Science of Safety
Polyvagal Theory gives us greater insight and understanding into what Stephen Porges described as the science of safety. When you think about the challenges our society is facing today, the need to feel safe and secure is something we can all identify with. When we are in the presence of someone who cares about us, we not only feel safe, we can begin to trust. When these kinds of experiences are repeated, we enhance our neural system’s reliability in recognizing safety and inhibiting its defense systems in order to create calm via co-regulation.13 With this greater understanding we can begin to truly appreciate the potential value that comes with each and every interaction we engage in, especially with those who rely upon us!

Co-regulation can be described as the ability to mutually and synchronously shift the physiological and behavioral state of another towards a more balanced center.1 If you are a parent, caregiver, teacher, or therapist, you have most likely been in the position of trying to provide support to a child who was unbalanced or upset and acting out. You might even be familiar with the concept of co-regulation, but how well do we really understand it?

Polyvagal Theory offers us a glimpse into how our own autonomic nervous system (ANS) holds the key to human social connectedness and regulation.2 You may already be familiar with this system’s role in controlling physiological processes such as breathing, heart rate, and digestion, but according to Polyvagal Theory it also serves an adaptive purpose: to keep us safe.3

Our nervous system is constantly assessing the environment and situations we encounter through a process called neuroception.4

Neuroception would not be possible without its key figure: the vagus nerve. Also known as the “wandering nerve,” it connects the lower part of the brain to the neck, chest, and abdomen and is the longest and most complex of all the 12 pairs of cranial nerves.”5 As we move throughout our environment interacting with others, the vagus nerve becomes stimulated by sensory stimuli. Stimuli can come from the environment or physiologically like our facial expressions or tone of voice and viscera – or internal organs; specifically, those in the abdomen.6 There’s a physiological truth to the saying, “I’ve got a gut feeling about this.” To the autonomic nervous system, sensory stimuli is the information that it uses to evaluate risk.7 So what does our nervous system do once it detects a risk or rather any type of perceived or unperceived stress?

The ANS in the Role of Protection
Most of us have heard the term “fight or flight” or maybe used the analogy of feeling like a “deer in the headlights.” But again, what we may not have realized is that these analogies describe a real neural defensive process. So, in order to achieve “adaptive flexibility,” the human nervous system retained two more primitive neural circuits during its evolutionary development to regulate defensive strategies (i.e., fight/flight and freeze behaviors).8 At any moment, the ANS can initiate this primitive neural system in an attempt to protect us. When this happens, our whole body essentially goes on alert and we begin to experience an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing.9 Consequently, other neural systems that allow us to socially connect with others in order to calm and co-regulate are inhibited. This neural defensive process can begin instantaneously and is completely outside of our conscious awareness.

However, in its evaluation of sensory information, the ANS works to not only detect risk, but signs of safety as well. Human beings are hard-wired to recognize the cues that represent safety with facial expressions and vocal tones providing two of the most powerful cues. For example, the softening of a person’s facial expression, an upturned mouth, as well as a “voice that is prosodic and melodic, with variations in tone and rhythm”.10 In fact, interacting with a person who we trust deeply, creates a safe environment, which in turn allows our defensive systems to begin shutting down. Only then is our social engagement system, which in evolutionary terms is a newer neural system, able to become available.11 When this happens our heart rate starts to decrease, which in turn allows us to socially connect with others and thereby experience a sense of calming.12

At this time in our lives, it is this deep sense of calming that so many people desperately need. And for those of us who are fortunate enough to be in the position to provide support, we can rely upon the fact that our autonomic nervous system is ready to help by not only keeping us safe, but by providing a sense of safety to those around us. When we increase our awareness and remain mindful of our nonverbal cues, we can rely upon the fact that a simple look of caring or soft tone of voice can provide an enormous amount of support to those we care about the most, even if only at the subconscious level.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
-Maya Angelou


  1. Aces Connection, 31 Mar. 2020, www.acesconnection.com/blog/the-human-condition-we-are-all-on-a-quest-for-safety.  
  2. Porges, Stephen W. (2009, April). The polyvagal theory: New insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system. Retrieved November 23, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3108032/ 
  3. Clarke, J. (2019, August 5). Polyvagal Theory and How It Relates to Social Cues. Retrieved November 23, 2019, from https://www.verywellmind.com/polyvagal-theory-4588049 
  4. Porges , S. W. (2009, April). The polyvagal theory: new insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system. Retrieved December 13, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3108032/ 
  5. Seymour, T. (2017, June 28). Vagus nerve: Function, stimulation, and further research. Retrieved December 13, 2019, from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318128.php 
  6. Clarke, J., Polyvagal Theory and How It Relates, (2019, August 5).  
  7. Levine, P., Porges, S., & Phillips, M. (2015). Healing Trauma And Pain Through Polyvagal Science: An E-Book . Retrieved from https://maggiephillipsphd.com/Polyvagal/EBookHealingTraumaPainThroughPolyvagalScience.pdf 
  8. Porges , S. W. (2007, February). The polyvagal perspective. Retrieved January 3, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1868418/ 
  9. Seymour, T., Vagus nerve: Function, (2017, June 28). 
  10. Aces Connection, (2020, March). 
  11. Levine, P., Porges, S., & Phillips, M. Healing Trauma and Pain, (2015). 
  12. Porges, S., The polyvagal theory: New insights, (2009, April).  
  13. Geller, S.M., and S. W. Porges. “APA PsychNet.” Doi.Apa.Org, doi.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fa0037511. Accessed 8 Oct. 2020. 

Debbie Spangler, M.S.Debbie has worked within the Los Angeles Unified School District and in home programs for over 20 years. She uses an integrative approach with a focus on relationships to help individuals and families achieve their goals. She is particularly passionate about supporting alternative communication and is working to broaden the current understanding and perspective of neurodiverse individuals.

Helping kids and young adults find their happy place...