Talking About Co-Regulation - Kathryn Bruni-Young
  • May 20, 2017
  • Kathryn

These days in yoga and fitness we have begun to take a more holistic approach to movement and health. We have come to understand how stress negatively affects our bodies, and that self regulation is the key to success and longevity. In these fields, we sometimes use movement to regulate the way we feel, and the levels of stress we can manage. I will preface this by saying, movement and somatic work should definitely be part of any stress reduction plan, but if we rely only on exercise, yoga, running, biking and others, we aren’t getting the full package. The other half comes from co-regulation and community.

There are so many languages to talk about the nervous system. One very simple way of viewing the autonomic nervous system is imaging a peak where stress is highest, a low where we are totally relaxed and a large in between where we live out most of our daily lives. There are different ways to up-regulate our nervous system, to bring some stress and activation to the surface, but so many of us are living in a constant state of up-regulation. There are ways to bring ourselves back down, through breathing, self massage, movement, meditation and more. When we become dysregulated its harder to bounce back from stress, although this is a different experience for everyone, it can sometimes feel like we are stuck on a track that just keeps spinning. People experience dysregulation to varying degrees. A stressful phone call at work can elicit dysregulation, as will an accident, or witnessing something distressing. Dysregulation can be another word for trauma, when I think of dysregulation I think of something that has just been scrambled, rather than broken, which is an interesting way to think about trauma or chronic stress.

Whether we have survived some level of trauma, or we are experience chronic fatigue or stress, finding ways to regulate ourselves is at the heart of over-all health. Regulation can come in many shapes and sizes, and we can also confuse regulation with tiring ourselves out or zoning out of the present moment. Sometimes the behaviours we use to regulate, just mask our feelings and make us feel better temporarily. I think true regulation comes with a reduction in stress, and unmanageable feelings, and a new capacity to be present and communicate with others.

Co-regulation is a concept that is common in psychology and occupational therapy. Co-regulation refers to our social relationships and the ways we can adjust and regulate ourselves when interacting with another. I personally believe this is why so many people have such loving and healing relationships with pets and dogs in particular. The challenging part of co-regulation with other humans is being able to communicate with the people around us.

I think this is hugely important for teachers, leaders and trainers, because people are frequently using our classes as a method of healing and regulation. Fitness levels aside, people know that going to a class will make them feel better, and as teachers we can have a positive effect on our students if we are aware of our own regulation, and the dysregulation around us. In a teacher to student relationship, regulation can be more simple than we think, we don’t have to pry into our inner workings or even understand why someone is feeling a certain way. So much of our positive effect can come from modelling regulated behaviour and simply being present to what shows up in the room. The more present and non-reactive we are, the more calm we are for our students and the more people will gravitate towards us. The more we know our students and the more training we have the more steps we can take towards helping people manage their stress.

Taking it over to personal experience for a few moments I will share the ways in which I have struggled with regulation in the past. Throughout my life there have been certain times of extreme stress, and exercise or movement has always been there to help me feel more regulated. Whether it was actually regulating me in the most effective way possible is another story, but it was better than other forms of stress relief I could have chosen. Movement is part of a healthy stress reduction protocol, but it can’t be the only way we ease our dysregulation, I come from a family of recreational athletes, in my family it definitely seems like exercise is the coping mechanism of choice. When I learned how to better communicate, and tell someone about what I was experiencing, co-regulation became and option and excessive movement and exercise was no longer needed to make me feel functional again. 

My partner and I both come from a background of high powered movement practices, and we often joke around about how our practices have changed post falling in love and learning to co-regulate. Its been an interesting change of pace for two ex-competitive athletes, to not feel the need to bust our butts in the gym to relieve our stress and dysregulation. For us going to the gym is now about having a good time with movement, learning some new skills and feeling good. It’s not an addiction that has to happen at the same time every day, and we can easily trade it out for another meaningful and active event.

When there isn’t another person available to trust and confide in we can also turn to group activities. Finding a group with whom we really jive with, and that offers support and positive modelling can be helpful. I think this is partly why yoga classes are always busy, and why people become hooked on specific teachers classes. We like being around certain people for certain reasons, finding people to hang around with that make us feel good and stable is at the heart of community healing.


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