Nearly all young people who come into our offices have one thing in common - difficulties with emotional dysregulation.
Some (and I would argue nearly all - but that is a topic for a different day) come in with traumatic experiences (of all sizes) that have shaped their nervous system to be more easily triggered by certain things, situations, or stimuli. They have an oversensitive amygdala that, although it has good intentions, is often hypervigilant for cues of danger.
This leads to difficulty with regulating big feelings like sadness, anger, stress, or anxiety. And then some of the young people we work with go in the complete opposition direction. They are restrictive, where they spend a lot of time repressing and pushing emotions down. These are the kids where we spend our time getting them to “feel the feelings”.
But all of them, with your support, need to find their “just right” of regulation. Like in Goldilocks and the Three Bears - not too much, not too little, just right!
So with this comes the first truth about emotional regulation - It’s ALL about regulation!
In your work in supporting young people on their journey of “just right” I wanted to share these other three truths you might not know about emotional regulation.
Regulation Doesn’t Equal Calm
Now, calm might be the ideal! We feel at our best when we have what I call “comfortable feelings”. However, we can be regulated within our sadness, our anxiety, and our anger. Connected to ourselves with our prefrontal cortex in charge. BUT don’t take my word for it - listen to Lisa Dion as she talks about it HERE!
One of the first times I heard her talk about this, some major things clicked for me. The truth that feeling and experiencing our feelings is so important, and while it is most comfortable to be calm, the real goal becomes regulated enough to have control and widen the gap between feeling and action.
Not All Regulation Breathing is the Same
Deep breathing is undoubtedly one of the quickest ways to engage the vagal break, slow the heart rate, bring us back into connection with self and help re-engage the prefrontal cortex.
However, did you know that some breathing is meant to slow the heart rate and some is meant to increase heart rate? And BOTH are for regulation?
Okay - so the deep breathing we usually teach our clients usually has a longer exhale than inhale. When I teach deep breathing I usually teach 4 counts in, hold for 4, and out for 8. This type of breathing slows the heart rate and brings us from hyperaroused (fight/flight) back to regulated.
However if someone is hypoaroused (collapse/shut down) you actually want to flip it and breathe in for twice as long as you breathe out! So this might look like breathing in for 8 and out for 4. With this your heart rate increases, bringing you out of a depressed/shut down state and back to regulated!
Self Regulation is Internalized Co-Regulation
Allan Shore’s work (you can read some of it HERE) goes really deep into the neuroscience of attachment. What’s fascinating is that the attachment transactions between mother and baby are actually imprinted in implicit procedural memory creating enduring internal working models for coping strategies and affect regulation.
SO this means that the way that we self-regulate is actually an internalized model of how our attachment figure co-regulated with us. This highlights the importance of working on strengthening the attachment relationship!
Robyn Gobbel actually goes as far to say that self regulation doesn’t exist! See what she has to say HERE!
So there you have it! Four truths about emotional regulation that hopefully will help you think a little more critically or have a bit of a different lens when you are doing the hard work of helping the nervous systems of the young people you work with regulate more effectively.
What about you? Share your truths about regulation below!
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I'm Ann Meehan, an LPCC, RPT-S, and EMDR Consultant. I help other therapists grow in their passions as play therapists, trauma therapists,and child and adolescent therapists.