Self-regulation involves having some control over how we respond, what we choose to do or say or what we don’t do or say. It means being an active chooser and active responder in our moment to moment experiences with our spouse, at work, at meal times. It isn’t uncommon that we feel pulled around by our emotions, impulses, and desires whereby we act out impulsively and without conscious and clear wisdom.
Somatic therapies involve both an understanding of, and attention on, how various systems of the body function. So, let’s get nerdy for just a brief moment. Difficulties in self regulation can result from dysregulation in the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Essentially this means that the fluctuations in our ANS are moving in a disorganized, or even chaotic, way. From the perspective of Polyvagal Theory, a regulated ANS involves an organic pendulation between the branch of the ANS that energizes the body (the sympathetic nervous system, or SNS) and the branch of the ANS that brings the body back to rest (the ventral vagal complex, or VVC). To keep things simple, dysregulation means that this organic back and forth between the SNS and the VVC has become disrupted. There are myriad reasons that this can occur, such as various forms of trauma, difficult experiences with caregivers early in life, the general overstimulation and pressure to perform and do inherent in our culture, and the disconnection from the sacred dimensions of being. More on all of this in other posts…
In my Somatic Experiencing practice, based in Guelph, Ontario, I often use a metaphor to invite my clients to consider one way of understanding our subtle skill of self-regulating. I invite you to consider it with me. Imagine that we are on a vessel at sea, and that we are seafarers navigating the ever changing waters and atmospheric conditions around us. The tide ever turns and the weather torrents or rests in stillness – all seemingly entirely on its own accord. In order to keep our vessel from capsizing, it would behoove us to pay very skillful attention to these ever changing conditions so that we can respond skillfully to what is occurring in the sea and the weather around us. When we spot a storm ahead of us, we may skilfully choose to turn our vessel ever so slightly, to a new bearing, so that we can continue to navigate ourselves to a calmer sea, a quieter sky, and a more stable vessel.
Our body and ANS are very much like the sea in how their conditions are constantly changing. It appears to me that many, if not most, of us regularly find ourselves in the midst of emotional, mental, and somatic storms throughout our day to day. As the Buddha’s first noble truth points out: life is inherently unsatisfying, and at the worst of times it is incredibly difficult, full of suffering. Each person is experiencing their own version of this.
The Self (who and what we are) is the seafarer of the mind, body, and ANS. In any given moment, somewhere in the field of experience, there is the presence of a stormy sea, and the presence of a clearer sky with more settled waters. This is true in every moment. Becoming a skillful navigator of the ANS demands we become skillful in how we use our attention. Where the seafarer turns the vessel toward the desired bearing, possibly away from a raging storm system, the ANS-wise self regulator skillfully directs their attention to the aspects of their somatic experience where they find a signal that is a little more calm, a little more settled, a little more at peace with gravity, a little more willing to connect with loved ones and community members.
In any given moment there is the presence of a storm inside and the presence of something less stormy, or possibly more calm. If the seafarer points the vessel toward the storm, well, the seafarer enters the storm. In this moment as you read this, stop for a moment to feel into your body, and see if you can name to yourself what you are experiencing. Take all the time you need… It is likely that you found yourself naming thoughts, sensations, feelings, emotions, or external circumstances that are uncomfortable or that you would rather not feel. This is perfectly normal. Welcome to being human. However, what I am pointing out here is that you have an opportunity and choice to point your attention toward something other than all the stuff you don’t like. You have the power to point your attention to a signal in the felt sense of your body that, when you do, has a soothing or calming impact. This soothing and calming could be called “downregulation” – that is, the downregulation of your ANS. We aren’t pretending the storm isn’t there, or suppressing it or repressing it. We acknowledge it, but choose to attend to something that supports our self regulation and that supports the regulation of our ANS. This is skillful self regulation – on purpose, with intention.