What is Self-Regulation and Why Do It?

What does it mean to self-regulate?

To self-regulate means finding ways to get your body to a comfortable and balanced place. When we self-regulate, we rely on ourselves to create safety in our surroundings and help our bodies feel satisfied. Examples of self-regulation include meeting basic needs such as eating when we are hungry, drinking when we are thirsty, sleeping when we are tired. But self-regulation can also include ways we regulate our emotions like how we experience and respond to feelings such as anxiety, fear, and depression.

The nervous system and self-regulation

Our nervous system is a complex web of connections, organs, and nerves throughout our body that all indicate to our brain when we feel pain or pleasure. It is also tied to our mood, digestive system, immune response, heart rate, and bodily functions [1]. Given that the nervous system is so strongly tied to our physical and emotional experience, knowing how it works and ways to regulate it can make a huge difference in how we experience the world and our emotions. Self-regulation can boost our immune systems, our moods, and therefore our quality of life.

How can I self-regulate?

  1. Breathe. When we feel anxious, scared, or off, the first thing to go is our breath. Ever notice when you are going through a haunted house or watching a scary movie, you may have been holding your breath or breathing really fast (hyperventilating)? This is because your body is working hard to get oxygen to the organs necessary to get you out of a dangerous situation. So, consciously taking deep breaths ensures we are getting the oxygen we need to the brain to make a responsive decision versus a reactive one. 
  2. Yoga. There are specific poses to hold that have been shown to calm the nerves and deepen breathing such as legs up the wall, tree, and child’s pose to name just a few. Yoga also helps us get in touch with our bodies, notice our experience while tying our breath to our movement. It is an intentional practice and a wonderful reminder that we can and do have control of our bodies, even when we sometimes feel like we don’t. 
  3. Mindfulness and meditation have been shown to have significant effects on reducing stress, anxiety, and depression [2]. Finding a meditation that you enjoy and that works best for is ideal and likely since there are so many to explore! 
  4. Connect with others. In their book What Happened to You, Dr. Perry and Oprah Winfrey emphasize that positive human interaction whether it be through work, worship, volunteering, or for fun, that is consistent with our values and beliefs offers us healthy rewards and therefore helps us feel regulated. Not only that, but they discuss how when we are regulated relationally, we are less likely to rely on the overuse of non-relational and less healthy forms of reward such as drugs, alcohol, or sweet/salty/fatty foods as a way to self-medicate [3].

What are some ways to reduce anxiety in general?

Acknowledge it. By first recognizing what we are experiencing, for instance, anxiety, we can then give it the attention it needs. If we continue to deny its presence within us, we are further sweeping under the rug what might be an indicator of something else. 

Practice breathing techniques to regulate your body before it becomes dysregulated. Work to notice your bodily sensations throughout the day so that you can start to distinguish between real danger versus heightened anxiety. Getting oxygen to our brains under times of stress can help us make more informed decisions as opposed to when we are scared and our “thinking brain” starts to turn off because it is now focusing on getting us away from the hungry lion our brains think is about to eat us but who isn’t actually there. 

Anxiety stems from the unknown, it usually means we are missing information and anxiety does a good job filling in the gaps, but unfortunately leans on the “worst care scenarios.” If we can gather more information about something we are nervous about or don’t understand, this can greatly ease our anxiety.

References

  1. Breit, S., Kupferberg, A., Rogler, G., & Hasler, G. (2018). Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain-Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders. Frontiers in psychiatry, 9, 44. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044
  2. Mindfulness meditation: A research-proven way to reduce stress. (2021). Retrieved 26 July 2021, from https://www.apa.org/topics/mindfulness/meditation
  3. Perry, B. and Winfrey, O., (2021). What happened to you?. New York, NY: Flatiron Books.