The term self-regulation means “control [of oneself] by oneself.” It refers to a system taking the needed steps to keep itself in balance. Many different systems can self-regulate, including businesses, communities, financial institutions, political campaigns, and industries. In biology and somatic psychotherapy, self-regulation refers to an organism (a biological creature) being in a state of balance.
Self-regulation of biological creatures (such as you and me) occurs on many different levels. For example, someone who has good emotional self-regulation has the ability to keep their emotions in check. They can resist impulsive behaviors that might worsen their situation, and they can cheer themselves up when they’re feeling down. They have a flexible range of emotional and behavioral responses that are well matched to the demands of their environment. Thanks to neuroplasticity, the adaptability of our nervous systems, humans are fortunately able to improve their emotional self-regulation over time.
Our bodies also have the capacity for self-regulation. There are many examples. On a purely biological level, a well-functioning pancreas keeps our blood sugar in the range our body needs in order to function optimally. Our heart rate speeds up when we exercise, and our muscles need more oxygen and sugar. The heart rate slows when we are in a state of rest, and the muscles need fewer supplies from the bloodstream.
Similarly, the autonomic nervous system works to keep order below the level of our awareness. It regulates and balances many automatic functions of our bodies, including emotions. One of the most important (and frequently overlooked!) functions it regulates is our automatic, instinctive response to perceived threats in the environment. Our threat response system determines whether we are angry and want to fight, or scared and want to flee, or hunker down until the threat passes (freeze). This is known as the fight, flight, or freeze response.
When these responses are out of balance with our environment, we are not self-regulating well and we experience symptoms. This is why self-regulation is so important.
The fundamental goal of somatically based psychotherapy is to restore healthy self-regulation, resilience, and the capacity to be fully present in the moment. By integrating somatic tools into therapy, it is possible to work directly with symptoms “where they live”—in the person’s body and nervous system.
When our fear response is out of proportion to the current situation, we call that anxiety. It would be appropriate to experience a pounding heart, rapid breath, jitteriness, and intense fear if a grizzly bear were trying to attack us. On the other hand, these same physical symptoms are excessive if we are grocery shopping, conversing with a friend, or at home reading a book.
Here’s another example: When Jill was a little girl, her father often had bouts of rage. Since Jill was very small, she was incapable of standing up to him to actively protect herself. Had she tried, his rage likely would have increased, and she would have been physically overpowered. As a small child, she was dependent on her parents; she couldn’t flee by getting a job and moving. She learned that becoming still and quiet was usually effective in avoiding his attention and anger. As an adult, she still tends to “freeze” in many situations where being more active and assertive would be a more effective response. She also may experience fear and anxiety when there is no actual threat to her safety. We can say that because of Jill’s early upbringing, her capacity for self-regulation was disrupted. Now she needs support to develop improved self-regulation skills so she can function better and increase her enjoyment of life.
Whether or not it’s overtly stated, the goal of most therapy is to restore balance—self-regulation—in an individual, couple, or family. Since the threat response and related emotions are biological in nature, it is often useful to include awareness of the person’s bodily responses during the therapy session. For example, a person who has learned to notice when their heart rate is increasing and their jaw is clenching can take specific actions to stop a rage or panic attack before it really gets rolling.
In somatic psychotherapy, the therapist and person in therapy attend to the latter’s history, thoughts, emotions, and relationships, and the relationship between person in therapy and therapist (therapeutic relationship), just like in “regular” therapy. However, they also include a moment-to-moment awareness of what the person’s autonomic nervous system and body are “saying.” The person learns to have two-way communication between mind and body, which is often effective in restoring self-regulation and relief from symptoms.
The fundamental goal of somatically based psychotherapy is to restore healthy self-regulation, resilience, and the capacity to be fully present in the moment. By integrating somatic tools into therapy, it is possible to work directly with symptoms “where they live”—in the person’s body and nervous system. Over time, these efforts to restore self-regulation allow the person to move on with their life, stronger and more resilient than ever.
- Cook, J. L., & Cook, G. (2009). Child development principles and perspectives (352-355). New York, NY: Pearson.
- Definition of neuroplasticity. (n.d.). MedicineNet.com. Retrieved from http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=40362
- Perry, B. D. (n.d.). Self-regulation: The Second Core Strength. Early Childhood Today. Retrieved from http://teacher.scholastic.com/professional/bruceperry/self_regulation.htm
- Self-regulation. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.dictionary.com/browse/self-regulation
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