What is Self-Regulation and Why Do You Want to Develop this Skill?

Many moons ago back when there was no Google, WiFi or cell phones (WHAT?!) our ancestors needed to avoid two kinds of errors in thinking: 1) that there was a tiger in the bush when there wasn’t and 2) that there was no tiger…and then pounce! The cost of the first error was a lot of anxiety and hypervigilance; while the cost of the second could be serious bodily harm or even death.

During this time our nervous system evolved to make the first error in judgement a gazillion times over, to avoid making the second, even just once.


Pure and simple.

Even though times and environments have changed dramatically, our nervous system and programming towards the defensive have stayed relatively the same. In modern day we’re constantly scanning the environment for threats, underestimating opportunities, many of us are not not even aware of the inner resources we already possess to manage these innate human tendencies.

Said another way – we’re wired to react to situations when we could instead be responding. You might be asking yourself well how in the heck do we modify this behviour? Self-regulation my friends – AKA self-soothing – a skill you definitely want to grow.

Self-regulation is  about developing our capacity to be calm, aware, and present, even in stressful situations. Over time and with practice you can learn how to be less reactive and more responsive in the moment at home, at work, and everywhere else in your life!

A regulated nervous system can mean many things to different people. Generally speaking, when you are regulated you might connect with a sense of feeling calm, balance, even a settledness in your body. Your ability to be and remain present and focus on the task at hand is easy. Some refer to this nervous system state as neutral or in equilibrium. A dysregulated state, quite frankly, feels uncomfortable for some – involuntary muscular tensions, unpleasant pangs and fluttering sensations, an inability to focus – and everything in between. You might identify with being a little more jazzed up, or a bit less so, from this equilibrium state, but ideally everyone should have the ability to maintain a regulated nervous system and be able to return to equilibrium fairly quickly after a stressful or upsetting situation, traumatic event, or a trigger from the past.

Because your nervous system is the connection between your brain and body, it can give you good information about how you most often show up in life – whether that’s regulated or dysregulated – if you are paying attention. It is an essential skill for you to be able to listen or tune into to your body-system in this way. You can receive information from your body about how you are feeling and then act on that information in your best interests. This is good self-care in action. Noticing that you are dysregulated and being able to choose to return to feeling settled is a necessary life skill for us all, but especially if you have lived your life riding the roller coaster of dysregulation (hello!).

Self-regulation is something we learn in the womb from our mothers. If their nervous system was settled and regulated, and responsive to return to neutral, then you will most likely have that positive imprinting in your nervous system. All is not lost though if you haven’t had the benefits of a mother with a well-regulated nervous system. You can learn to achieve this at any time in your life. It just takes some curiosity, experimentation and somatic awareness practices – a lot of what I share in the work I do with my clients and students. If this is a new concept for you somatics is simply a field within bodywork and movement studies which emphasizes internal physical perception and experience.

And it doesn’t need to be big movements and a regime of scheduled group classes and activities either – self-regulation can happen in smaller manageable chunks at any time and in any place (that’s what washrooms are for!). It’s not just about the movement or activity, but more importantly the practice of mindfulness about yourself, that brings you back to a neutral place, in the present moment. I found yoga and movement to be a major resource in my own healing journey – but only once I slowed things down and prioritized mindfulness over physical exertion and sweat. I had far more success in the beginning by engaging with simple body based tools to help me tap into my body and keep track of myself in the present moment. I started to notice over time that my ability to be present and more grounded was showing up for me when navigating “real life” situations were I felt triggered or activated in deep and vulnerable places. A lot more responding to life started to happen. A lot more choice open up for me. And maybe most importantly, I started to naturally navigate towards a more compassionate relationship with myself.

So, to recap for you skimmers (I get it, time is precious), self-regulation is a skill, practice and ability that supports:

  • Grounding and centering yourself
  • Being aware of your needs
  • Taking good, consistent care of yourself
  • Connecting with the strength and resilience you already possess
  • Knowing when you are reacting to a situation versus responding to it and take action from a place of knowing
  • Being able to self soothe and return your nervous system to a neutral state when you’re triggered and activated
  • Cultivating more self-compassion

To be able to do this practice you need be able to listen to your body, and this is why somatic work is so important for all of us. In discovering where and how you are holding old patterning within your body-system you can use that information to make better choices for yourself now, and to choose kinder self-regulation strategies over other less beneficial options. Somatic awareness is necessary to build these kinds of resources effectively. As you build up your resource tool kit, and learn to have a really good connection to yourself, you might also notice the positive effect this has on others around you, and to your greater community. Speaking from almost four decades of living in a dysregulated state this connection to yourself is possible. A lot of my own healing came from learning from a lot of really smart people (yoga teachers, movement coaches, head docs and neuroscientists) and then experimenting on myself. I want to share the benefits of what I’ve discovered with the following body based self-regulation tools. They are my ‘go to’s’ when I feel activated, dysregulated and overwhelmed.

Massage the soles of my feet to ground: There are like 8000+ sensory receptors on the soles of your feet. When triggered with gentle self-massage they can help you reconnect with your body and come back into the present moment quickly. Using a massage ball (something that has some give) or even a tennis ball, gently roll out the underside of one foot. You can do this in sitting or standing, just notice how hard you are pressing your sensitive sole (and soul too) into the ball. I connect to a pressure that doesn’t interrupt my natural breathing and feels a bit pleasurable, soothing and anchoring. See if you can spend just a minute on one side, pause and notice how the foot feels (sensations, temperatures, etc) and then switch to the other foot. Ball rolling is a great way to bring awareness back into your body while finding a neutral sensation that isn’t associated with a traumatic memory, physical pain or story on repeat in your head. Even if the act of rolling doesn’t discharge the activation entirely what it does do is bring me back to a place where I’m better able to access the executive rational capabilities of my brain. A tip would be to keep a ball in your purse, bag or even at your workstation, so you always have it available. The next time you’re reviewing emails consider getting some ball rolling going and notice if you are able to be more responsive and less reactive to your inbox.

Orient myself with my surroundings when I’m feeling anxious and distracted: Here’s a freebie. You can bring your awareness back to the present moment through your senses – seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting. In my work I generally focus on the first three. I really find orienting helpful when in a meeting or called into the boss’s office – both of which I have anxiety about even when the experiences are positive. I will notice the texture of the objects around me (from ceiling to floor), the colours in the room, the sounds, the sensation of air on my skin, temperature, light, etc. I will also work at being intentional in what I’m orienting to. Instead of just sweeping my gaze fleetingly around a space, I slow it down by registering what I’m seeing, naming it in my head, before moving my attention to something else. By taking stock of your surroundings you can orient yourself away from inner sensations of discomfort and speak to that ancient part of your nervous system – continually scanning for threat – that you are generally safe in the present moment. It does wonders for my confidence when I’m able to acknowledge that the perceived anxiety provoking experience is actually going to be sometime positive (like a raise!).

Shake out my stuff to let go of tension built up in my body: My top tool to self regulate is to shake my body. This is how I’m able to let go of stress and tension in little bits throughout my day or specifically after stressful interactions. Let’s look at our canine friends for a moment. According to Jae Allen who published Why Do Dogs Shake Themselves? (link to full article below) “Dogs may shake as a way of relieving tension. If a dog is feeling nervous or uncomfortable in a situation, it might shake the whole body as a way of shaking out tension.” So, human friends, shall we give this one a try? Standing with both feet grounded like suction cups to the floor begin to shake from your knees. After a few moments see if you can make that less mechanical and allow for a rippling effect to travel up your body. See if you can imagine shaking the soft tissues of your body around your bones. You can also achieve the same effect with small bounces originating from the feet. Can you bring the shaking/bouncing into the whole body including the cheeks (just like dogs!). After about 60 seconds or so notice your breath and how your body is responding. Do things feel a little looser and more relaxed? I also learned that dogs might shake for attention, and if this isn’t what you’re looking for you can find a bathroom stall or other private space to shake your s**t out. Also a great opportunity here to regulate with your kids in a fun and silly way. Give this one a try and let me know how it goes!

These three practices have been really effective in helping me ground and reconnect to the present moment no matter the situation. It is from this place of neutrality where I’m able to think more clearly, pause before reacting and to make better decisions about what my body needs – which might include take bigger resource steps like going to that yoga class, talking a walk with my dog, or calling a friend. I have many more options in my own tool kit know than I recall being aware of even just 3 years ago. Back then self-soothing was more about coping strategies that were more harmful than beneficial. Today, most of those old habits don’t even come to mind even in the most stressful of situations – and I let myself off the hook when they do. Practice, practice, practice.

Key Takeaway:  By finding ways to be grounded in your body everyday, as often as possible, you can train your brain to be less reactive overtime. This will help you feel better in your body and able to respond from a place that is strong and calm!!

If you’re interested in learning more about how we can better resource ourselves I’m running a Self-Regulation Tools For Resilience: Holiday Edition workshop on Sunday, December 2nd from 1-2:30pm at the Healing Collective. No equipment required – just your nervous system in whatever state it might be in.

Learn more and register here – https://www.healingcollective.ca/event/self-regulation-tools-for-resilience-holiday-edition/


Why Do Dogs Shake Themselves? By Jae Allen – https://pets.thenest.com/dogs-shake-themselves-3960.html


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