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  • Writer's pictureShaun McMahon

Why Every Trauma Survivor Needs To Learn About Self Regulation

Trauma can have devastating effects on our ability to take care of ourselves, and at times, cope with the challenges of life. One of the most profound challenges for trauma survivors is withstanding difficult situations wherein every part of their being is telling them to fight, flee, or shut down. Learning how to self regulate is a vital skill for all trauma survivors.

What Is Self Regulation?

The one thing we all share as humans is that we were once babies, tiny helpless creatures who depended upon the adults around us to care for us. Being so helpless, we start out not knowing how to soothe ourselves. If we’re cold, hungry, or need our diaper changed, we cry with the hope that someone will know what’s wrong and take care of us.

But as we grow older, and begin to become more independent from our caregivers, we start to explore the world. When we encounter something confusing, scary or overwhelming, we trust we can return to them as a safe base and be comforted.

The ability to regulate ourselves is transferred from our caregivers. They’re able to soothe us when we’re distressed, and over time, we learn to internalize these messages. For example, in an ideal world, a sick child will have a caring, compassionate parent there with them to guide and direct them towards the best way to get better. Eventually, when they’re sick as adults, they know what to do when they’re sick, having learned it from their parents.

The Missing Skill

Unfortunately, many of us have not had these ideal caregiving experiences, and as a result, have many mixed understandings about what it means to take care of ourselves. People who have experienced trauma in their early relationships, sometimes called childhood trauma, attachment trauma or developmental trauma, can struggle to take care of themselves. They might resist taking care of themselves, or not know how.

The result can be an inability to regulate emotions, handle stress, and stay level headed. Many people turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms in place of healthy regulation, such as substance abuse, compulsions or self harm. They might hold internal beliefs such as:

  • I’m not worth caring for

  • I’m unlovable

  • I don’t deserve protection

  • People who are nice to me or try to take care of me must have the wrong person

  • Someone else should take care of me

  • I’m not allowed to take care of myself

These internalized beliefs can form very early in life as a result of confusing and stressful interactions with our caregivers. Imagine a mother who gets angry about having to help you with your homework, or a father who ignores you when you’re upset. While our parents might not have bad intentions and could be dealing with their own struggles, the fact remains that we can internalize this behavior and make it about us.

A Simple, But Difficult Task

The good news is that self regulation is a skill that can be learned. In spite of your circumstances, you can develop the ability to regulate and care for yourself when you’re upset or overwhelmed. Working with your therapist to understand your triggers and resources to help you regulate may take time, but is a worthwhile skill to develop that can stay with you for life.

The bad news is that it’s incredibly difficult to develop the capacity to self regulate. This is, in part, because being able to self regulate requires being able to reflect on your experience. While some people who have experienced trauma can be incredibly self-aware and reflective, these capacities shut down in the midst of difficult experiences when our body takes over and drives us towards escaping the threat, real or otherwise.

It’s important to remember that children learn to regulate over years of being with their parents. To expect that you’ll be able to develop this skill seeing a therapist for an hour a week over a few months is completely unrealistic. Having patience and realistic expectations for yourself is a great way to start learning how to self regulate.

Three Steps Towards Self Regulation

When learning how to self regulate, it’s helpful to approach it like learning how to ride a bike. In principle, riding a bike is simple. You sit on the seat, grab the handle bars, push the pedals with your feet, all while maintaining balance. But barely anyone gets this right the first time. Most people fall off, and it takes a while to develop the fine motor skills needed to stay on the bike.

In the same way, self regulation doesn’t have to be a big extravaganza. Taking care of yourself doesn’t always mean booking a daily deep tissue massage, or jetting off to relax on a beach in Hawaii. Instead, self-regulation consists of very small steps that accumulate over days, weeks, months and years, culminating in a fully fledged skill.

A healthy first step is to reflect on your resistance to self regulation. Try talking to your therapist about why it’s so hard for you to take care of yourself. Do any of the beliefs mentioned above apply to you? Where might they have originated from? Do they still apply to you as an adult?

Secondly, try to start noticing when you’re dysregulated. One of the things that goes out of the window when we become distressed is our ability to reflect on our experience, and think rationally. When dysregulated, we just want to get out of there, fight it out, or shut down. The importance of noticing when you’re distressed cannot be understated, and sometimes just noticing that you’re dysregulated is worthy of celebrating in and of itself.

Lastly, it’s useful to set achievable, realistic goals for self regulation. Rather than saying “I will stay positive today”, try saying “when I notice myself getting upset today, I will slow down and take three deep breaths”. The strategies you need to use vary in different contexts, because some things might be more accessible at home versus being in public. Talk to your therapist about developing strategies to use when you’re dysregulated, and how they might apply to different situations.

Making A Start

Finding out how to best take care of yourself is a difficult, but rewarding journey. It might help to recognize that you likely already have healthy means of self regulating under your belt, even if they’re not something you rely on frequently. Acknowledging where you’ve come from, as well as being able to let go of some of the more unhealthy means of regulating, can be a great first step to take. And remember, if you get stuck on the journey, your therapist will always be able to support you and get back on the right track.

Shaun McMahon is a Melbourne based psychotherapist who assists people struggling with trauma. He offers sessions both in person and online, and is currently accepting new clients. If you have experienced trauma and are interested in working with Shaun to process and heal from your trauma, you can arrange a FREE 15 minute consultation by clicking here.

Source: Allen, J. G. (2001). Traumatic Relationships and Serious Mental Disorders. Wiley: London.

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