Emotions are our involuntary reactions to the environment. Emotion regulation is how we modulate/modify/change those reactions. When it comes to managing our emotions, we have two main routes through which we can help ourselves ride the waves of emotional experiences and soothe our nervous system: Self-regulation and co-regulation. Both routes are important and can be more or less available to us at different times.

Self-regulation refers to tools we use by ourselves to manage our emotions. Examples of self-regulation: Exercising, listening to music, taking a walk, focused breathing practice, mindfulness, grounding exercises, positive and self-soothing self-statements, pleasant imagery exercises, etc.

Co-regulation, also known as social regulation of emotions (see the work of James Coan from the University of Virginia), refers to our neurobiological capacity to be in resonance with one another and to help soothe/regulate each other’s nervous system through presence and connection. Lack of connection is inherently dysregulating and can even be traumatizing. Peter Levine, the founder of Somatic Experiencing, once said: “Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness.” Feeling our feelings with a responsive and attuned other helps us feel less alone and regulates our emotional state. A safe touch, physical proximity, and an empathic response of another person are examples of co-regulation.

Research shows that self-regulation and co-regulation have distinct neurobiological mechanisms. Self-regulation engages areas of the brain that are responsible for executive functioning (e.g., prefrontal cortex). While the exact mechanisms of social emotion regulation are still being investigated, they seem to be distinct from self-regulation mechanisms.

In Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, we help couples develop their capacity for co-regulation. As the couple learns to decrease their reactivity towards each other and to have bonding conversations, their safety and security in the relationship grows. And as the safety grows, they become a greater resource to each other in terms of co-regulation. As Sue Johnson says, “The most functional way to regulate difficult emotions is to share them.”