The more and more I learn in my own practise, in working with others and in my continued study to become a yoga therapist, is that so much of mental health or ill health, shares the same thing. A person's struggle or inability to self regulate sufficiently.
What is self regulation? It is interestingly something not talked about widely in the self help literature for adults. It is however, a common and often emphasised theme in books on parenting and childhood development. At it's core, it's one's ability to regulate themselves emotionally and behaviourally to that which is happening around them. It is not just the act of holding back from saying something in retaliation, it is the understanding of our internal reactions and managing our subsequent reactions to the stimulus.
Examples of moments where self regulation has been challenged or lacking include
- A toddler and parent are in a room playing together. The parent has to go and answer the door. A toddler who is still developing self regulation sees the parent leaving the room and immediately assumes the parent as abandoning them, and start to cry for help. A toddler with better self regulation might still not initially understand what is going on, but is able to wait a few moments, and after a while is able to notice that they can still hear the parent's voice in the hall and return to solo play
- A discussion between two friends: Friend A states an opinion for a lifestyle decision (eg exercising daily) that Friend B follows. If Friend B was self regulated, they might notice their internal disagreement with Friend A, but knows that they each have difference thoughts around the 'right' amount of exercise, which is person specific, and can state that they have a difference of opinion in a calm way. If Friend B struggles with self regulation, they might notice their internal disagreement and view the words of Friend A as a personal attack, and start to defend their stance, which depending on the reaction of Friend A, could turn heated
- A couple are returning home from work. Person A has less self regulation strategies and immediately needs to vent on the day they've had from home. They speak in a continuous way, irritable at first but start to talk more slowly and calmly the more they have spoken. Person B has had a challenging day at work too, but was aware of this and decided to walk a bit before coming home to take some time for themselves and be present for their partner on return
- A person is feeling anxious that they have no plans for the weekend. They immediately text all their friends to see who they can spend time with this weekend. They struggle with their own company, seek distractions from being on their own through TV, social media, and value the opinions of others on the choices they make. They are easily influenced by others and often buy things on impulse online and in shops when they don't actually need it. Buying things and seeing people often brings a spark in the moment but doesn't relieve the underlying dislike of being on their own and with their feelings
- A person suffers with claustrophobia and avoids crowds for fear of having a panic attack in them.
- An substance user who goes to recreational drugs to 'escape from it all' or 'not feel the pain'
- A person reads an article stating a political/social opinion that someone they distantly know has posted on Facebook. The person stews over the difference of opinion they have with the poster, and writes a long chain of comments in response, despite not having seen the poster in years
- A person is crossing a road when a car pulls out in front of them, they step back in time and no one is hurt, but they are still shaken up hours or days later
Let me caveat by saying that in the examples of clinical mental health conditions, there are often multiple mechanisms at play, including socioeconomic, support network, biology and psychological. But in each of the above scenarios, a struggle to self regulate is at play. Strong self regulation skills are at the heart of not only our day-to-day common interactions with our communities but also in a person's ill health. If you or someone who know is perceived by others to have a reputation of being 'hot headed', 'irritable', 'flighty', 'needs to be handled gently', 'highly sensitive' then these can be signs of an emotional reactivity underpinned by a person's struggle with their own self regulation. Of course there are also times where these labels speak more about those who feel the need to label others with them than the labelled.
For those that I speak to that struggle with stress and their own mental wellbeing, they often speak of situations where things happen to them but they struggle to get over them. They feel constantly on edge even when home in the evenings after the working day. They often get into funks that they can't seem to shift no matter what is happening around them. They have trouble figuring out what will help them calm down when they get upset. They might perceive the world as things happen TO them or that 'the world is out to get them'. Of course, each person is a unique multifaceted product of years of influences from their genetics, upbringing, social circles and lifestyle choices, yet this thread of struggle with self regulation straddles generations, gender and world view.
Self regulation skills are developed in early life, often modelled by care givers (whether they be parents, extended family networks, communities and teachers). As the child grows, an ability to control impulses, focus, calm down after something exciting or upsetting and regulate reactions to their emotions helps with building friendships, behaving in socially appropriate ways, memory and learning, and develop a sense of healthy independence from the caregivers.
Notably development of these skills in can (but not always) be hindered by, learning difficulties, Adverse Childhood Experiences, parental attachment style, large changes to lifestyle such as moving schools often or moving countries, a lack of social support, sensory processing conditions, an overstimulating environment, a child's unique biology and a lack of modelling from caregivers of what it looks like to be self regulated.
For instance, if a child is raised in a home where both parents are angered at the slightest thing (think noises from neighbours, what they see on the news, parking tickets) a child might well learn that the way to respond to these same situations is through anger. Of course this is not to say it all comes down to parenting. It might play a part, but it is just one of many interactions that happen throughout a developing child's life. The wonderful thing is that skills of self regulation can be learnt at any age. Yoga and mindfulness in particular, offer a body of evidence based wisdom at improving people's skills of self regulation into adulthood.
Yoga can help to strengthen self regulatory pathways in the brain in a variety of ways. It offers a practical toolkit to help increase Parasympathetic activity in the nervous system, which helps to act as a break on Sympathetic activity that arises because of stress and mobilisation. From the bottom up it gives us tools, through asana or breathwork or meditation, to be able to calm ourselves down. Over time, as these practises are repeated, a person can start to utilise them out of context of a yoga class. They might face a stressful situation at work and take themselves off to the bathroom to do some breathwork, showing increased awareness of their arising dysregulation, and their self efficacy that they can enact effective change and bring themselves back to baseline. This is self regulation.
Mindfulness is the non-judgemental awareness of our moment to moment experience. It is generally practised by deliberately focusing one's attention on an anchor (sounds, breath, body, thoughts), noticing when distraction arises and non-judgementally returning focus to the anchor. Over time mindfulness can help increase the grey matter in our pre frontal cortex, part of the brain responsible for executive thinking, planning, long term strategizing. It also reduces the size of the right amygdala, our fear centre which acts as an alarm system for us to be on edge. Together this means that the relative size changes and increase in connectivity between the PFC and the amygdala, give the PFC more power over the amygdala. Going back to our earlier example, the person pulls out in front of a car but is uninjured, the PFC can communicate to the amygdala that the fear has passed and can bring the person back to their baseline. This is self regulation.
As both of these are practised further and over time, these pathways in the brain become more myelinated - meaning that not only can Parasympathetic activity be induced more easily but it can be induced more quickly during self regulation. Activity of the amygdala can be quietened by the PFC more quickly, so as time goes on people are not able to just self regulate more effectively but efficiently too, it takes less and less time for people to come back to baseline after a stressor or upset.
There is so much more to unpack with this, and for those who like a research paper and are interested in finding out the ways yoga can support developing self regulation further in adults then this paper (Potential self-regulatory mechanisms of yoga for psychological health, Guard et al, 2014) provides an excellent model.
As yoga and its wider practises can directly help the stress mechanisms through the influence of the autonomic nervous system, working 121 with a yoga teacher, yoga therapist or mindfulness teacher can be a really positive way of building your self regulation skills. It is the sort of thing that is covered in some classes by some teachers, but not all methods work for all people. Working with someone 121 can help you find the most effective and realistic methods to support with your self regulation development, based on your available time, the situations you struggle to self regulate in and your wider life context.
Businesses as well will benefit from employees that are able to self regulate themselves. I go into this in detail in my new 90 minute workshop 'The art of self regulation in business' which offers accessible practises that will work with most people, as well as unpacking the science behind them to increase empowerment and create that top down reasoning with why people should be working on their self regulation. I can also work with managers too, as in order to co-regulate your colleagues and support them, you too need your own self regulation sills.
Reach out to me today ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) with any questions about this topic, and to get in touch with regard to 121 or corporate sessions with myself.