Relational  – Co-Regulation

When our fight, flight, freeze response is triggered by frightening circumstances or our own thoughts, we often need the support of “co-regulation” to regain a sense of safety and calm. Co-regulation happens when two nervous systems get in sync. While systems can move into co-dysregulation, with each one heightening the alarm of the other, one “non-anxious presence” can help the other’s alarmed nervous system find calm. Co-regulation includes non-verbal cues such as a smile, melodic humming, and reassuring safe touch (if and when touch is welcomed). Verbal cues also support calming co-regulation such as singing together or  sharing stories. A non-anxious presence says: “I’ve got you. I am here. You are not alone.”  The alarming circumstances may not change, but thoughts that maintain internal alarm bells can soften so that the “anxious other” begins to experience a sense of safety instead of fear. As a child of God, your Heavenly Father is always beside you as your Divine Non-Anxious Presence (Matt. 28:20; 1 Pet. 5:7).

“Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” –Jesus, John 14:27

  1. Grow spiritually. Our Heavenly Father is with us always!  Since we have confidence in God’s love and care for us, church leaders can “fix their eyes on Jesus” (Heb.12:2) as the first co-regulation step.  Breathe deeply and let the love of God fill you and calm your heart. What cues do you use to remind you to fix your eyes on Jesus during times of emotional distress?
  2. Identify. Begin by identifying those individuals in your circle whose non-anxious presence helps you to return to a sense of safety. If you are a parent, be sure that you are not looking to your own children to serve this function, unless they are adults, because you are their non-anxious presence. To whom do you turn to when you are alarmed who helps you regain a sense of safety?
  3. Look, listen, be present. When you are in a situation where you need to be the non-anxious presence, make eye-contact with the other person, soften your face and your voice, and give this person your full attention in the present moment. In this way you are saying, “You are safe. I am with you.” Your communication of safety is beyond his/her conscious awareness. Your actions that communicate safety are intentional. How aware are you of your own “signals” when in the presence of someone who is frightened?
  4. Breathe. Because co-dysregulation can happen quickly, be the boss of your own nervous system. Become aware of your internal state of rising alarm, and act quickly to calm yourself. Intentional, slow, deep belly breathing will turn off your alarm bells and will simultaneously help the other person to do the same. How quickly can you engage your calming skills?
  5. Be creative. COVID-19 restrictions require creativity to create contexts for co-regulation. As a church leader and as a leader in your family, use virtual face-to-face opportunities to build communities of safety. Who can help you brainstorm ways to engage others?

To learn more about Co-Regulation, see the following resources:

  1. Edwin Friedman, “Understanding Family Process” chapter two in Generation to Generation, The Guilford Press, 1985.
  2. Co-regulation as explained by children
  3. Read the article: Co-Regulation
  4. Review the Co-regulation tips chart
  5. Watch the YouTube video What is Co Regulation?

Relational contributor: Virginia T. Holeman, PhD., LMFT, LPCC, Retired Chair of the Department of Counseling and Pastoral Care, Asbury Theological Seminary
Executive editor: Russ Gunsalus
Curator of content: Dave Higle