Our nervous system is constantly in communication with the nervous systems of the people around us. This is an innate ability that does not involve our conscious minds. We subtly share information about how we are feeling and what we are thinking. That information is transmitted to others similarly to how your phone transmits information to another phone via AirDrop. As we send these signals to others, we are also constantly receiving this information from those around us as well.
This process is called co-regulation. It is a biological imperative, or an essential behavior, and it creates a foundation from which we can then learn to self-regulate. Co-regulation is one of the reasons it is so important to become more familiar and aware of your own nervous system, its resting state, organization, and signals. At any given moment, do you know what state your nervous system is in? Furthermore, do you know what information or signals you might be both picking up from other people and transmitting to them?
The polyvagal theory, developed by pioneering researcher Dr. Stephen Porges, helps us to understand the role our nervous system plays in building our capacity for safety, connection, and communication. The polyvagal theory gives us a foundation for understanding how we regulate on our own as well as in concert with one another.
Regulation is not something we can cognitively teach to another individual. It is something we share; It is developed through us and to others. Due to the way our nervous system is designed, we are unable to help another person become regulated when we are not. To understand self-regulation, we must feel it within our own mind and body. That is why the practices of breath, movement, and mindfulness can be so powerful.
Research has demonstrated how these types of practices help to build our awareness of what our own mind and body are sensing and feeling. Developing awareness of the thoughts that are continually generated in the mind habitually (versus those that we choose to think through our intention) aids in our ability to shift our state of being. These practices also improve the functioning of the vagus nerve, our 10th cranial nerve that travels from the base of our brain stem to the abdominal cavity. The vagus nerve provides important two-way communication between the body and brain as it listens to what is happening within the body, in our external environment, and between us and other people. It sends signals of safety as well as danger.
To begin to harness your own power of helping someone else regulate THROUGH your nervous system:
- Check in often with your own state of being. This can be done by just taking a moment to stop, breath, and turn your attention inward. You are looking for honesty here. Simply notice how you are feeling
- Practice focused breathing for one to two minutes. This helps to tone your vagus nerve so that you are able to harness a state of calmness more often.
- Notice the activities, people, and situations throughout the day that foster a joyful, grounded state within you. Try to participate with those things and individuals more often.