What “Co-Regulation” Means & Why You Should Do It With Your Partner
When you're feeling anxious, sad, or unable to cope, a few things hit as hard as talking to or cuddling with your partner, amirite? The emotional support they give just by being there and being empathetic can be so meaningful and helpful.
Then, add in love languages like quality time, words of affirmation, or physical touch, and it's like your problems melt away a little bit.
This leads us to the concept of "co-regulation."
What is co-regulation, exactly?
Co-regulation is when someone feeling relaxed can basically "share their calm" with someone experiencing intense negative emotions. It's a warm, responsive, and empathetic way to support or even "coach" people through hard feelings to help them regulate their nervous system.
While the term was initially used in the context of parenting, co-regulation can happen between friends, partners, or other loved ones, too.
How to co-regulate effectively
You and your partner can co-regulate by holding hands, taking deep breaths together, hugging, using a calm voice, being compassionate, modeling healthy coping responses, etc.
It's helpful if both partners can recognize the signs their partner needs to co-regulate (such as hyperventilating or crying) and communicate when they need to co-regulate. These two things may get easier over time as you learn more about your typical reactions and your partner's.
Communicating before this intense moment occurs is crucial, too. It allows you to share your boundaries when you're both in a regulated state. For example, do you not like being touched when struggling to breathe? Does your partner need to self-regulate or co-regulate with someone else when they're angry because it triggers you?
How co-regulation works
Co-regulation activities can help more than you think: Studies show a gentle, warm touch can calm cardiovascular stress, spread compassion, and turn off someone's "threat switch." (Wow!)
Caroline Leaf, Ph.D., a neuroscientist, mental health expert, author, and host of Cleaning Up The Mental Mess podcast, explained it for Well+Good. "As you co-regulate with someone, the mirror neurons in their brain are activated, and this enables the person in the deregulated state to literally 'mirror' your calmness," she said.
Why co-regulation is worth trying
While being able to self-regulate is an important skill, co-regulation is just another tool in your "toolbox" you can use when self-regulation feels too hard.
It's also important to note that co-regulation isn't about "fixing" someone or invalidating them, and it can't take the place of therapy or medication.
But at the same time, co-regulation is powerful. I mean, the fact that a hug can help someone breathe normally? The fact that "putting on your therapist voice" can help intense emotions feel less powerful? That's pretty cool.
According to Dr. Leaf, practicing co-regulating can even rewire your brain over time to where triggering things aren't so triggering anymore. And hey, it's free!