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The term self-regulation means, “control [of oneself] by oneself.” It refers to a system needed to keep itself in balance.
Many different systems can self-regulate, including businesses, communities, financial institutions, political campaigns, and industries. In therapy, self-regulation refers to a being in a state of balance.
Self-regulation of humans (such as you and me) occurs on many different levels. For example, someone who has good emotional self-regulation has the ability to keep his or her emotions in check. They can resist impulsive behaviors that might worsen their situation, and they can cheer themselves up when they’re feeling down. They have a flexible range of emotional and behavioral responses that are well matched to the demands of their environment. Thanks to brain neuroplasticity, the adaptability of our nervous systems, humans are fortunately able to improve their emotional self-regulation over time.
Our bodies also have the capacity for self-regulation. There are many examples we experience such as when we exercise, our heart rates increases to get more oxygen. Similarly, our nervous system regulates and balances many functions of our bodies, including emotions. One of the most important (and frequently overlooked!) functions it regulates is our automatic, instinctive response to perceived threats in the environment. Our threat response system determines whether we are angry and want to fight, or scared and want to flee, or hunker down until the threat passes (freeze). This is known as the fight, flight, or freeze response.
When these responses are out of balance with our environment, we are not self-regulating well and we experience symptoms. This is why self-regulation is so important.
The fundamental goal of counseling is to restore healthy self-regulation, resilience, and the capacity to be fully present in the moment. By integrating tools that we learn in therapy, it is possible to work directly with symptoms “where they live”—in the person’s body and nervous system.
When our fear response is out of proportion to the current situation, we call that anxiety. It would be appropriate to experience a pounding heart, rapid breath, jitteriness, and intense fear if a grizzly bear were trying to attack us. On the other hand, these same physical symptoms are excessive if we are grocery shopping, conversing with a friend, or at home reading a book.
Whether or not it’s overtly stated, the goal of most counseling is to restore balance—self-regulation—in an individual, couple, or family. Since the threat response and related emotions are biological in nature, it is often useful to include awareness of the person’s bodily responses during the counseling session. For example, a person who has learned to notice when their heart rate is increasing and their jaw is clenching can take specific actions to stop a rage or panic attack before it really gets rolling.
In counseling, the therapist and client address to the client’s history, thoughts, emotions, and relationships, and the relationship between person in therapy and therapist (therapeutic relationship), just like in “regular” therapy. However, they also include a moment-to-moment awareness of what the person’s autonomic nervous system and body are “saying.” The person learns to have two-way communication between mind and body, which is often effective in restoring self-regulation and relief from symptoms.
The fundamental goal of counseling is to restore healthy self-regulation, resilience, and the capacity to be fully present in the moment. By integrating somatic tools into therapy, it is possible to work directly with symptoms “where they live”—in the person’s body and nervous system. Over time, these efforts to restore self-regulation allow the person to move on with their life, stronger and more resilient than ever.
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