Understanding Co-Regulation: A Guide for people who love someone who has experienced trauma
*Disclaimer: This blog is for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to treat or diagnose. Reading this blog does not create a therapist/client relationship with Sahra Riccardi, ATR-BC, LPC. If you find this information to be relevant to you, you are encouraged to connect with a licensed mental health care professional who specializes in treating PTSD or C-PTSD. If you are interested in Online Therapy in Pennsylvania for PTSD or C-PTSD, or becoming a client of Embodied Expressions Therapy, please connect with me by visiting:
Co-Regulation and Complex/Developmental Trauma
Loving someone who has experienced developmental or complex trauma can be confusing. Symptoms like emotional flashbacks and survival responses such (fight/flight/freeze) can leave loved ones unsure of how to offer support. Co-regulation is a great way to help your partner feel safe when triggered and helps you to build your bond.
Humans are wired for connection. From infancy, our bodies “speak” with our caregivers’ nervous system to let us know we are safe. You have probably seen this before: a child becomes frightened, a safe adult picks them up, rocks them, reassures them they are safe, and the child begins to calm down.
As children, we regulate through our caregivers. When we are young, our brains are not fully developed, so we don’t have the capacity to calm ourselves down the way adults do. Children are not biologically equipped to regulate themselves. They rely on their caregivers to help them process how they feel and to bring their bodies back to a safe state.
This shared autonomic experience lays foundation for our ability to regulate ourselves and for navigating interpersonal relationships throughout our lives.
So what happens when we grow up in inconsistent, neglectful, or abusive homes? Often, individuals who have experienced developmental or complex trauma (more on that here and here), missed out on these essential experiences of consistent co-regulation.
This means that it is often harder for people who have experienced abuse or neglect to feel safe or calm in their own bodies.
An extremely healing practice for individuals who have experienced childhood abuse or neglect is to practice safe co-regulation with a trusted loved one.
Co-Regulation is essentially a feedback loop in which one nervous system calms another nervous system. So, while one partner soothes the other, they are also likely to feel calmer and safer themselves. Both partners win! In addition to feeling calmer in the moment, co-regulation helps us bond and increase intimacy in our relationships.
Many people have experienced the opposite of co-regulation, when in an argument one dysregulated partner’s responses actually increase the distress of the other (and so on) until someone shuts down, acts out, or leaves. When this happens, both people end up feeling worse, and often less connected. In co-regulation, both people typically end up feeling calmer/safer and more bonded.
Here are 6 steps toward practicing co-regulation when your partner becomes distressed:
1. Sound Check: Try to reduce the volume (stimulation).
Do: use gentle, warm, & soothing tones. Just let your partner know you are here with them and that things are safe. Get quiet. If you'd like, you can ask what they need, but be sure to leave lots of extra space/silence for the dysregulated partner to respond.
Don't: get defensive, or try to explain your point. Dysregulated brains aren't great at good thinking. Get calm first, then you can talk about it productively.
2. Be aware of body language: Remember that people who have experienced trauma are likely to be more sensitive to (and may even misperceive) facial expressions, body language, and where others are located in relation to their bodies.
Do: Try to get "softer" and smaller. Soften your face, offer a warm, loving gaze. Be there for eye contact if your partner can tolerate it. Get on your partner's level physically (squat, sit beside them). Reduce your gestures, move slowly.
Don't: Stand over your partner, talk "down" at them, use large or fast gestures. Don't force eye contact or intrude into their space.
3. Breathe! As the safe & regulated partner, take some deep, slow, calm breaths and encourage your partner to join you. You may exaggerate so that your breaths are audible and let out some relieving sighs. You can also model any breathing tools that you are both familiar with. If it feels comfortable, you can allow your partner to notice your breath by placing a hand on the belly, the chest, or feeling the air leaving the nose/mouth.
4. Focus on feelings, not facts.
Validate the dysregulated partner's feeling (even in a disagreement-we can offer validation if we don't agree). Remember that until your partner is calm & safe, reviewing facts or trying to problem-solve likely will not be helpful.
Validation sounds like: "that sounds painful" "you seem really upset" or "I can see that you are hurting."
5. Make contact.
Offer your partner a reassuring touch. This might look like: holding hands, putting your arm around them, touching their shoulder/back, sitting closer so your legs or sides touch, cuddling, squeezing, or prolonged hugs (belly to belly, chest to chest).
6. Engage in gentle movement.
This can look like: rubbing or patting your partner, but can also move into rocking, swaying, or moving from a hug into a "slow dance." For some, walking or throwing a ball can be very regulating.
These 6 tools don’t all need to happen at once, they don’t need to happen in order, or be perfect to be helpful. I recommend discussing this list with your partner to explore which types of co-regulation feel best for BOTH of you so the process can work in both directions. Additionally, it is best to practice these tools BEFORE a major trigger or trauma response occurs so you have the skills ready for when you need them.
If you find this information to be relevant to you, you are encouraged to connect with a licensed mental health care professional who specializes in treating PTSD or C-PTSD. If you are interested in Online Therapy in Pennsylvania for PTSD or C-PTSD, or becoming a client of Embodied Expressions Therapy, please connect with me by visiting: