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Understanding How to Manage Emotions Using Self-regulation and Co-regulation

Updated: Mar 25

Written by Ashley Gray, LCSW, MFTC

If you love someone, they have likely evoked a lot of other emotions in you as well. A colleague of mine once said that emotion can be like a pendulum and swing the same degree in each direction. Therefore, if you can feel a great deal of love, you can also feel a great deal of less pleasant emotions.

As you experience these emotions, you tend to have ways that you prefer to manage them. I want to be very clear that when I mention managing emotions, I am not talking about making them go away. It is very important for you to feel your emotions and listen to the needs beneath them. When I mention managing emotions I am talking about giving yourself space to feel them, validate them, and move through them in a way that is healthy and productive for you and those around you. Once you engage in your emotions in this way, they tend to pass.

Now, back to your preferences in managing emotions. If you are like most people, you weren't taught a number of ways to manage your emotions and you ended up picking up what you saw around you or whatever helped you survive in the moment without evaluating if it is the best option for you. This isn't your fault, but it is your responsibility to do better once you know better. If the way you are coping is unsafe or unhealthy or is just ill fitting in this phase of life, then it is time for you to do something new. Let's look at some of the patterns that come with managing emotions.

In my last blog post, I mentioned self-regulation and co-regulation as ways to manage emotion. Self-regulation is when we calm yourself on your own. Co-regulations is when you calm yourself with someone else. Many people tend to prefer one over the other. When we are talking about attachment styles (see last blog post) we tend to see that when people are in the more avoidant part of their attachment they tend to prefer self-regulation over co-regulation to help maintain their autonomy. Those who are in the more anxious part of their attachment tend to prefer co-regulation as it gives them the reassurance that they often crave. In a romantic relationship, this can create a bit of a chase. In this instance, the more anxious partner tends to reach for the more avoidant (or at least less anxious) partner for reassurance and co-regulation and the more avoidant partner tends to pull away to regulate and to protect their autonomy. This dynamic can create gridlock and the couple often wants to change this pattern. While tricky, learning a new way is possible. When you learn how to lean into our least comfortable regulation skills, you can start to change the pattern. This means that the more anxious partner is engaging in more self-regulation and the more avoidant partner is engaging in more co-regulation. Below are some examples of self-regulation and co-regulation.

Self-Regulation (calming by yourself)

  • Deep breaths

  • 5 Sense Grounding Exercise (Notice 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste

  • Progressive muscle relaxation (start at the top of your body and start to tense and relax different muscle group, take deep breaths between each muscle group)

  • Go for a walk by yourself

  • Write about your thoughts and feelings in a journal

Co-Regulation (calming with someone else)

  • Hug, hold hands, cuddle, or some other form of physical affection

  • Talk about your feelings with someone, try to stay away from problem-solving for now

  • Calmly, sit together through tough emotions

  • Engage in an activity together (puzzle, go for a walk, engage in a shared hobby, etc)

  • Make eye contact when interacting

There are many more activities that could count as self-regulation or co-regulation. Also, any of the activities on the self-regulation list could also be a co-regulation skill if you are intentionally doing it together. An example could be, looking into your partner's eyes while calmly, taking deep breaths together or gently guiding one another through the 5 senses grounding exercise.

The criteria for self-regulation is that it allows you to slow your thinking by either helping you get out of your head and into your body, while noticing the feelings in your body at times, or allowing you to engage with your thoughts and feelings more mindfully. With co-regulation, you're doing a similar thing, but you're allowing yourself to experience safety and security with another person during that process. While everyone needs both co-regulation and self-regulation from time-to-time, co-regulation is especially important for those with more avoidant attachment patterns to learn because they often fear that they cannot be fully safe and secure with another person. Self-regulation is especially important for those with more anxious attachment patterns to learn because it allows them to engage with their own feelings and experience without being overly dependent on someone else. This is important because sometimes those with more anxious attachment patterns can rely too heavily on other people that it prevents them from understanding and connecting with their own identity and experience.

To begin leaning into the regulation skills that you are less comfortable with, give yourself permission to go slow, be gentle with yourself and do not jump into the proverbial deep end. You can make a list (or start with the one above) of the regulation skills that you are less comfortable with, but would like to engage in more. Then rank each one on a scale of one to five, where one means you experience very little discomfort with it and five means you feel extremely uncomfortable. Then decide that you will start practicing the skill(s) that you rated a one and then as you master them, move up to the next higher ranking and keep doing that until you have grown comfortable with all or most of the skills on your list.

Growing your repertoire of skills in this way allows you to not only calm yourself, but also to work towards a more secure attachment (read more on that here), and allows you to expand your window of tolerance. Your window of tolerance is your ability to respond to situations in your life in a healthy and mindful manner. Some people have a narrow window of tolerance and therefore respond to stressors well, less often. Those with a wide window of tolerance can respond to stressors well more often. Your regulation skills can help widen that window.

It takes time to gain these skills. If you're not progressing as quickly as you would like, that is normal. Oftentimes, when you are first learning a skill, you start out by thinking about what you could have done differently after the opportunity to do something differently passes. Over time, you may start to think about it closer and closer to the moment in which it would be most beneficial to use the skill and then finally you start to use the skill when you need it. Applaud yourself, every time you take a step forward, be gentle with yourself regarding your timeline.

If you notice that you have been trying to practice these skills for a really long time and you're not able to slow down enough to choose a different skill, this may be a time to get curious about your trauma history. Trauma causes us to come up with automatic responses to keep us safe at a moment's notice. This can make it difficult to learn new coping skills at times because the way that you need to slow down to choose a different way of responding can feel dangerous to someone who has experienced trauma. It feels like if you slow down to do something different, you would make yourself vulnerable to something very dangerous. The best intervention in these instances, is often trauma therapy. This can allow you to heal from your past hurts in a way that allows you to feel safe enough to trust yourself and others and choose different skills. I will cover this more in a future post.

So now you have a place to start when learning to work on managing your emotions! For next steps in this process, check out the links below. If you would like to start therapy with me, you can click the contact buttons at the top of this page.

If you would like to be more intentional about practicing new self-regulation and co-regulation skills, check out my free guides here!

If you would like to learn about your own attachment style combination, click here to take a free attachment quiz!

Happy Healing! :)

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This post is written by individual and couples therapist, Ashley Gray of Arvada, Colorado. Ashley works with her clients using Gottman Method Couples Therapy, EMDR Trauma Therapy, Prepare and Enrich, attachment focused therapy and techniques from Emotionally Focused Therapy. As a therapist, she is passionate about helping people build healthy relationships and supporting people with the resources they need. In her free time, Ashley hikes, paddle boards, reads, spends time with her husband and her cuddly dog. For more information about Ashley and her practice, click here.


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