Healing from trauma: Co-Regulation and Feeling Safe in Our Relationships

Healing happens in relationships. 

Here’s something many may not realise: the way we were held and soothed by our caregivers (parents, nanny, teachers, etc) as a child has a deep and formative role in shaping how we hold and soothe ourselves as adults.

In other words, if we were never held and soothed in the way we needed as a kid, we would not be able to apply them to ourselves nor to others.

This has a huge impact on the way we regulate our emotions and feelings, as it is through the connections established with nurturing, safe, and reliable caregivers that we — especially as children — learn to develop our own abilities to self-soothe and calm down when hit by distressing emotions and sensations.


The fundamental human need to feel safe

In their years of research dedicated to understanding the role of the body in trauma treatment, Stephen Porges and Bessel Van Der Kolk consistently highlight the fact that feeling safe is a biological imperative. This builds upon foundational psychological theories such as Erik Erikson’s psychosocial development and John Bowlby’s attachment theory, where the emphasis was placed on the significance of early caregiving relationships that offer children a sense of safety and belonging in their growing up years.

Our biological need to attach to another person is what lays the foundation for our attachment patterns, a mental model that shapes our relationships.

Humans have a fundamental need for physical and social safety, before we can evoke and sustain curiosity for learning and more complex cognitive tasks. But feeling safe is not simply a removal of threats. Feeling safe depends on unique cues in our physical and social environment that engages and soothes our nervous system.

As we continue this reflection on what safety means and what trust looks like for our brain states and our nervous system, we want to remember a key guiding principle: neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the ability of our brain to adapt to and change in relation to new experiences and information. Despite early traumatic experiences in our lives, whether acute or complex, there are opportunities to rewire our neural circuits, re-pattern our emotional and bodily responses with new experiences that we imbue in our day to day living.


Impact of not feeling safe on our nervous systems

Safety is an internal mind-body question of “Can I approach? If I choose to approach, can I continue to stay in this space safely?”

When we do not feel safe, our sympathetic nervous system is activated by the amygdala in our brains, which sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus at the onset of receiving the information from the environment. With this process kicked in, the hypothalamus sends signals through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands. These glands respond by pumping adrenaline into the bloodstream.

What we would notice in our body, is that our heart beats faster, and our breathing becomes rapid and shallow Sight, hearing, and other senses become sharper; we feel more energetic with all the additional blood sugar released throughout the body.

All of these changes happen so quickly that people aren’t aware of them. In fact, the wiring is so efficient that the amygdala and hypothalamus start this cascade even before our brain can fully process, cognitively, what is happening.

This stress response model informs the classical “fight or flight” behaviours.


…and in our healing from trauma

Recent studies, such as the Polyvagal theory, refine the classical understanding of the autonomic nervous system and vagus nerve in finding safety during the process of healing from trauma.

An enormous and ongoing body of work done in the last decade on our vagus nerve also supports findings from the polyvagal theory that when we find ourselves in a calm physiological state, we can begin to find cues of safety within ourselves and convey these cues of safety to another.

One of the key purposes of our vagus nerve is possibly, to receive and send the message to ourselves that “it is okay to relax and let our guard down now, because we are safe” (Menakem, 2017).


What does this mean?

When we find ourselves in relationships that force us to surrender our power, agency and resourcing to the other(s), these three nervous system functions may go into disarray. We need to understand that our nervous system is at any moment, attempting to move into a physiological state that would be the most adaptive for our survival, based on our accumulated cues of safety and danger in our life experiences. Our conscious brain often tries to make sense and build possible personal narratives and assessments.

However, the cause of certain physiological responses may have nothing to do with these cognitive narratives. Features of oppression, violence and rejection in our social and physical environment can also cause our physiological and emotional responses to become unbearable to ourselves or others.

What could thus offer as support towards healing after trauma, whether the trauma was acute, chronic or complex, could be the unlearning and relearning of the strategies that our body had taken to help us adapt and survive in previous experiences and/or relationships.


Co-regulation through relationships we feel safe in

Co-regulation processes lay the foundation for our relationship with ourselves and the world. It’s like a mirror that we continue to carry in our pockets. This mirror witnessed how we were loved, held and soothed in our early years, continues to tell us who we are into our adulthood. Whether we see ourselves as capable, unique, and confident beings, whether we view the world as supportive, dangerous or unreliable, depends on the mirror that our caregivers and teachers once held in front of us.

There are endless opportunities for co-regulation to happen in a child’s growing up years, but not all of us had the opportunity to experience it in our childhood. Little traumas that form from not having our needs met, experiencing rejection and dismissal in our relationships are examples of experiences where co-regulation from our parents and/or caregivers were either unavailable or disrupted.

Without the opportunity to experience healthy co-regulation, we learned a multitude of ways to help us adapt to stressful life circumstances growing up. Our nervous systems get wired into fight, flight or freeze responses. With enough repetitions, it becomes our default engagement with everyone. Our minds form narratives like “I am a failure” “I am never good enough” and “I am not worthy of love”.

It is not easy to help our mind-body simply let go of those fixed patterns of cognitive, emotional and bodily responses. After all, they were protective responses that were once safe, that once helped us survive a world that rejected us. 


It takes two (and more): supporting trauma healing through re-experiencing co-regulation 

One possibility to explore in healing could be re-experiencing the presence of supportive figures — new cues of safety in our environment — who could guide us through co-regulation. A new experience of co-regulation could look like (but not limited to):

  • calming down in another’s calm presence
  • returning to a felt sense of safety and stability internally
  • experiencing the present moment instead of slipping into the haunting past or the uncertain future
  • feeling safe to be vulnerable with our distress
  • feeling seen and understood in the unravelling of our distressing emotions, and dissolving our sense of shame of experiencing this distress
  • Experiencing joy and aliveness in our body in this other’s presence 

Only when we experience physical and social safety can we begin to evoke parts of our thinking brain — our creative hub — to sustain learning, creation and productivity. With co-regulation, and through reconnecting with supportive figures who calm and ground us, we all have the chance to gradually reconnect with our healthy adult-selves once again.

This is originally published HERE, as part of a series on trauma written in collaboration with the white book. In this series, we unpack what trauma is and where it lies for each of us, as well as how we can start to move away from existing traumas through self-awareness and coregulation. Find out more at thewhitebook.info