This is Part FOUR in a four part series exploring Trauma.
Part ONE - Trauma
Part THREE - Healing
Part FOUR - Trauma and Self-Regulation
Self-regulation is the ability to monitor and manage our energy states, emotions, thoughts, behaviours and attention in ways that are acceptable and help us achieve positive results such as well-being, loving relationships, and learning. Our ability to self-regulate as an adult has roots in our development during childhood. Childhood trauma and being raised by parents that are stressed and/or dysregulated themselves, can affect our ability to self-regulate as adults.
Dr. Stuart Shanker uses a car analogy to explain self-regulation, which I have paraphrased:
Self-regulation is like maintaining a consistent rate of acceleration.
If we want to go 100km/h, then we will need to adjust the pressure to the accelerator to allow for changes to the road, incline and wind. Driving requires constant changes depending on traffic conditions and speed zones, etc. Learning to accelerate, brake, and change gears smoothly takes time and practice. This is quite similar to learning how to self-regulate. Some of us are always pushing too hard on the accelerator, while others jump between gears quickly, and some are slow to accelerate. We need time and support to master the ability to find and sustain our optimum speed and level of arousal while dealing with a range of stimuli and stressors.
Self-regulation is an essential skill for adults that care for and educate children. As an adult, the first step in practicing self-regulation is to recognise that every one of us has a choice in how we manage difficult situations - We can approach, avoid or attack. There are many things we can do to enhance our self-regulation skills and help with the affects of trauma. If you want to give it a go, read through these techniques and find what resonates with you.
Arousal / Energy Regulation -
“A stressor is anything that requires us to expend energy in order to keep some system (within the body) operating within it’s optimal, functional range… If there’s too much stress the amygdala is primed to go into fight or flight, and when it does it puts the muscles in a semi contracted state so that we can instantly spring into fight or flight, but that semi contracted state burns an endless amount of energy” Dr. Stuart Shanker
Every part of the body needs energy to work. How much activation or recovery is necessary for any particular task is going to vary from person to person and situation to situation. We can support our flow of energy by incorporating practices that are restorative to our personal energy stores. Using relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, mindfulness, grounding, meditation, movement, yoga, and vocal toning can help us reduce stress and keep calm.
You can calm your arousal system by focusing your attention on your breath. When we regulate our breath, it regulates our body, which regulates our nervous system and brain, which regulates our attention, impulses, and emotions.
Movement plays an essential role in regulation by increasing oxygen, blood flow and the heart rate within the body. Our brains light up after short periods of movement. Intentional, rhythmic and coordinated movements have a profound effect on our ability to focus and calm ourselves.
Attention Regulation -
In order to direct our attention towards where it needs to be, we must first be able to recognise where our attention has drifted to and be able to bring it back. It sounds easy enough but how often do you find your mind wandering?
Mindfulness helps us maintain our moment-to-moment awareness, which in turn helps us delay gratification, manage our emotions and obtain conscious control over our attention.
To feel in the present and more grounded, look around you, observe and identify 5 things you see, 4 things you feel, 3 things you hear, 2 things you smell and 1 thing you can taste. Notice how your breathing begins to get deeper and calmer.
Sensory Regulation -
Everyone responds to sensory input a little differently. Some things may make you feel over stimulated while other things make you feel calm. Experiment with touch, sight, sound, smell or taste. Maybe petting an animal, listening to music, giving yourself and hand massage or watching the clouds help to soothe you.
Emotional Regulation -
Let yourself feel. We have to feel, to heal. The truth is, feeling bad can be good for us. While it’s not always possible to feel our emotions during or after a traumatic event, it is vital that at some point we re-experience anything that we have kept inside. What we suppress tends to have a way of building up within. At some point, we need to let it all out, and this will either happen from our conscious intentions, or as an unconscious reaction.
Emotional regulation is the ability to effectively respond to how we feel rather than allowing inappropriate, extreme or unchecked emotional reactions. We can’t control how we feel, but we can control what we do with those feelings.
“Rather than being your thoughts and emotions,
be the awareness behind them.”
Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth
Cognitive Regulation -
Trauma affects how we think about ourselves. As children we take things personally. We are egocentric, we believe that we are responsible for what happens around us and that the bad things that happen are our fault. As children in times of trauma we often blame ourselves and develop feelings of insecurity related to shame, guilt and fear. Overtime this can grow into thinking and feeling like we don’t belong, that we are not safe, that we cannot trust others and that we are unloveable.
Have you ever wondered where thoughts come from?
Do we create them or do we receive them?
Do they come to us or do they pass through us?
We are not our thoughts. Thoughts are energy. They come and they go, emerging and fading away. When we attach to them and begin to believe everything our thoughts tell us, we suffer. Unwelcome thoughts that occur suddenly in the mind can feel intrusive but the more we try to push unpleasant thoughts away, the longer they stay.
Our thoughts only mean something if we believe they do. When we become a witness to our thoughts and develop an awareness of them without attachment we can let them come and go.
“Leave your front door and your back door open.
Allow your thoughts to come and go. Just don’t serve them tea.”
Have you ever had a song stuck in your head? One that plays over and over again, to the point it gets frustrating. You hear it and sing it, again and again. It’s on repeat and you can’t stop it - until you hear the end of it. Our thoughts and feelings are the same. They have a beginning, a middle and an end. When we let them run their course - they pass.
We can’t stop our thoughts any more than we can stop ourselves from blinking. But we can make a conscious effort to change or reframe our negative thought patterns.
Affirmations can help us rewire the brain and help us tap into our inner strength by combating traumatic thought patterns with more positive and encouraging thoughts. Affirmations for trauma can interrupt and challenge self-critical thoughts, they promote acceptance, and support self-compassion by encouraging us to be kind and understanding to ourselves.
Affirmations for Trauma
I am exactly where I need to be on my journey.
It’s okay to not be okay.
Each step I make takes me further from trauma and closer to healing.
I am capable of transforming negative experiences into something positive.
I am opening my heart and learning to trust again.
I am making peace with my past and accepting myself.
I am safe and I am loved.
My soul knows what to do to heal itself.
Each day I am creating a more meaningful life.
I use negative feelings as motivation to make positive changes.
I trust my instincts and listen to my inner wisdom.
I have the power to turn trauma into healing,
conflict into growth and fear into love.
I keep the lessons and let go of everything else.
Behaviour Regulation -
Behaviour regulation is the ability to act in a way that aligns with our deepest values and meets our individual needs.
It involves being mindful of how we behave, the influences on our behaviour, the consequences of our behaviour and gaining control of our urges and impulses. It is the pause we take between a feeling, a thought and an action, taking the time to think things through, make plans, and wait patiently.
Cultivating a sense of self-awareness helps us live a life in alignment with our values. We can identify what our strengths are, where we thrive and work towards our goals. Self-awareness also helps us discover what triggers us into a difficult state of mind. Being conscious of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviour is the foundation of self-regulation.
This information is purely based on experience. I am not a healthcare professional. This material is intended to be educational and not for diagnosis, prescription, or treatment of any health disorder. This information should not replace consultation with a competent medical practitioner or mental health provider. The author is in no way liable for any misuse of the material. We strongly urge you to use your own judgement, undertake your own research and do what you feel is best for you.
About the author
Jen has been an educator for nearly 2 decades. She holds a Bachelors Degree in Applied Social Science and Early Childhood Education. She is a Mental Health First Aider and certified Mindfulness Instructor.
Jen is the founder of LovePedagogy. A platform established to support, guide and inspire heart centred parents and educators. LovePedagogy is the philosophy that we teach children more through who we are, than through what we do, so it is our role to be the best adults we can be. The foundations of this are love, personal growth, healing, mindfulness, reflective practice, listening to your inner voice and self-care.
Ackerman, C. (2019, June 21). What is Self-Regulation? (+95 Skills and Strategies). Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/self-regulation/
Fahkry, T. (2017, September 16). Here’s Why You Are Not Your Thoughts. Retrieved from https://medium.com/the-mission/heres-why-you-are-not-your-thoughts-5459b0b96ba0
Shanker, S. (2017). What you need to know. Self-Regulation: The Impact of Trauma. Retrieved from https://self-reg.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/TRAUMA_printable.pdf?pdf=trauma
Shanker, S. (Unknown). Self-Regulation. Retrieved from http://www.self-regulation.ca/uploads/5/6/2/6/56264915/foundations_magazine-_self0regulation_by_stuart_shanker.pdf
Shanker, S. (2017, April 29). Self Regulation Institute. Energy and Tension. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4A5J-IcjagM