• Greg Cheney, PhD, LMFT

What is Self-Regulation?

Updated: May 9

You can feel your heart starting to beat faster and faster. You can feel your body start to tense, and your face starts to feel warm. An onslaught of thoughts bombards your mind, and they start to pick up pace. Now your heart is racing. You feel like you may explode any second.


You are not alone in this experience. If you can relate to this you are in good company! You are like the rest of us. There are times when we all get to the point. Something triggers us all into an intense scenario like the one described.


What do we do when this happens? How do we self-regulate? What is self-regulation?

Relaxed woman after learning what is self-regulation at Valiant Couples Therapy and Marriage Counseling at a Fuquay Varina, NC counseling clinic

What is self-regulation?


Self-regulation is the ability to experience strong emotions without impairing life. It is the ability to not completely shut down your emotional experience. Self-regulation is the ability to prevent exploding. It is the ability to prevent turning completely inward and shutting out the world. Self-regulation helps to prevent us from going into a fight, flight, or freeze response. When we get flooded with emotion a fight, flight, or freeze response happens in the blink of an eye. It feels like an automatic response.


What happens when we get flooded?


When we become flooded with emotion science tells us our heart is beating over 100 beats per minute. We become limited in our ability to interact with others in a logical and constructive way. Our body goes into a sort of survival mode of fight, flight, or freeze.


Fight Response

A fight response can take on many forms. It can be a barrage of questions, statements, or accusations. A fight response is often loud and angry. This person goes on the attack in a verbal or physical way.


Flight Response

A flight response can take on many forms as well. A flight response is simply leaving the situation. A simple retreat to another room is a flight response. A flight response can also look like getting in the car and driving away.


Freeze Response

A freeze response is completely numbing out in the moment. Someone in a freeze response may look like a statue. They shut down and may stare straight ahead. It may look like nobody is home.


The fascinating fact in three of these responses the person is flooded. Each response is connected to a heart rate of over 100 beats per minute. It is easy to see how someone with a fight response has a heart rate this high. It is hard to imagine a flight or freeze response involves a heart rate over 100 beats per minute. The science tells us it is true. It is like watching a duck on the water that looks so still, but under the water their legs are very busy. So fascinating!


How to learn self-regulation.


Self-regulation is learned by experiencing emotion and not avoiding it. The goal is to feel emotion, understand it, and move through it. When this happens, we realize it is okay to feel. We also realize experience emotion was not catastrophic. Caregivers play a critical role in helping those they care for learn self-regulation. They help co-regulate emotion while those they care for learn to self-regulate. Co-regulation is key to learning self-regulation. This creates an experience that teaches emotion is not all bad, scary, or intimidating. This process also provides awareness. Awareness of where the line is between strong emotional experience and becoming flooded. When we do not learn how to self-regulate growing up there are other helpful strategies we can take.


Strategies for self-regulation.


The first step is to remove yourself for the situation if you feel you may become flooded . The next step is to go for a walk or find a quiet place that will help to bring your heart rate down. It is helpful to start taking deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth. Two apps to help with this are Calm and Breathe. These apps have a several different helpful exercises. They help with self-regulation and preventing flooding. They can also help to get your heart rate below 100 beats per minute.


While doing this it can also be helpful to try to sit with the strong emotions instead of pushing them away. Get curious about how these emotions are impacting your body. Where do you feel them? How would you describe what you’re feeling? What do your emotions say about you? What do your emotions say about others? Writing down your responses and journal your experience. This can be a very beneficial exercise.


Therapy helps learn self-regulation.


Therapy can help learn how to self-regulate strong emotions. A therapist can help experience strong emotions. They can also help prevent flooding, and self-regulate after becoming flooded. A therapist can assist in a powerful way. They will help you sit with, experience, move through, and get on the other side of difficult emotions.


Couples therapy and marriage counseling helps learn self-regulation.


A couples therapist or marriage counselor can help you learn self-regulation. This occurs in the context of your relationship. You and your partner can learn to help each other. You can learn to help each other manage strong emotional experiences. This happens through co-regulating these strong emotional experiences. You will learn that these difficult experiences are more manageable with each other. This can be life changing. You and your partner can realize you do not have to make sense of your strong emotions alone.


You can use this co-regulating experience to help you self-regulate. A helpful exercise is to recall a moment when your partner helped you with your emotions. Tap into that experience even though they are not physically with you. You will find this exercise can help with self-regulation.


As couples therapists and marriage counselors we can help with this. We assist couples and individuals learn self-regulation and co-regulation. We help people throughout North Carolina and Florida in this way. Please let us know how we can help you in your specific circumstance!


Services at Valiant Couples Therapy and Marriage Counseling

Our team in our Fuquay Varina counseling clinic specializes in couples & marriage counseling. Couples & marriage counseling and is not the only service we offer. Valiant Couples Therapy and Marriage Counseling provides Emotionally Focused Therapy, couples intensives, Christian marriage counseling, online therapy, and couples workshops. Let us know how we can help!

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