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A Therapist's Guide to Self-Regulation

Anxiety, Coping Skills
6 min read

Self-regulation refers to our ability to self-soothe, ground, and feel connected to our emotional and mental experience during times of discomfort. It is a great skill to practice since we can easily become overwhelmed by our external world, as well as our internal thoughts. 

The way we “reset” is by focusing on our body and nervous system, rather than getting lost in the tumbleweeds of our mind/thoughts.

The mind can get hectic, chaotic, and overwhelmed. Thoughts start to race, we try to make sense of them, we try to control them, which leads to feeling even more dysregulation, or discomfort. A great way to create calm in the body is to detach from the thoughts or thinking, and focus on the sensations in the body.

Our mental/emotional experience works in 2 ways. First, there are messages that are sent down from the brain into the body, referred to as top-down information. Secondly, there are messages sent from the body up to the brain, which is referred to as bottom-up information. 

People occasionally are more familiar, and more aware of one type of information flow over the other. It can be beneficial to begin to build awareness and pay attention to both, and notice how they interact, and affect your overall sense of well-being.

For this five-minute mental health reset, we are going to explore a tool from EMDR called “Resourcing”. 

EMDR stands for eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing. This tool was developed originally for PTSD symptoms. In today’s day and age, a lot of our anxiety can be experienced in similarly dysregulating ways. Some dysregulation symptoms include rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, rumination of thoughts, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, feeling out of control, feeling on edge, feeling like a sense of safety is threatened, irritability, and more.

By practicing this tool of “resourcing” from EMDR, we will work on developing a felt sense of calm, safety, and groundedness. 

We are not going to be worried about the thoughts, the meaning making, or the logical content of our experience. We are going to focus solely on the body, and create a grounded felt sense experience. 


LET'S BEGIN: 

1. The Physical Practice- 

The root of this type of resourcing is "bilateral stimulation", which means having a stimulation occurring on both sides of your body, in an alternating pattern. 

The most common and soothing practice is either the butterfly tap, tapping your feet, or tapping your knees in an alternating fashion. 

You can adjust the speed and intensity to whatever feels right to you. 

Give that a go for a few seconds. Tune in to the sensation of the alternating tap. Bring awareness to the pace, pressure, and sensations which are activated internally.


2. The Internal Practice: 

Next, we are going to bring forth an internal resource using our imagination. 

An internal resource is a person, place, thing, or imaginary character, which brings you a sense of nurturing, wisdom, protection, or any other internal quality that you would like to strengthen within. 

You can really customize and tailor the type of internal resource you want to strengthen depending on what’s happening in your life. 

For example, if you are struggling with confidence, social anxiety, or impostor syndrome, it can be helpful to imagine a character from a movie who you might admire in those situations. Someone who is fearless, outgoing, confident, resilient, and bold.

If you are seeking more comfort, nurturing, or unconditional love, you might want to imagine a beloved pet for example. 

If you are seeking stillness or peace, you might want to resource yourself with a place (real or imaginary) which evokes a sense of calm. Perhaps a beautiful waterfall, a beach, or the mountains. 

Follow your intuition, and give yourself what you are needing in this moment. 

If you feel comfortable closing your eyes, that can deepen the experience.  Practicing this with eyes closed is something to build up to. The experience seems very subtle and neutral from the outside, but it can be a profound experience for the person practicing it.  [PLEASE NOTE: If you have a history of complex trauma, dissociation, or difficulty being in an embodied experience, I encourage you to keep your eyes open, and always listen to your body. If things get too uncomfortable, please stop or discontinue these practices.]

Next, see if you can describe with as many sensory details as possible, the essence of this person/place/character.

For example, How do they walk? How do they talk? What are some distinguishing characteristics that they embody? Do they have a phrase that they often say? How do they make you feel when you think of them, or think of being around them?

Engage the bilateral tapping and bring into your awareness all of the details of this person, place, or character. 

Tune in to what you notice in your body. Notice if your breathing slows down a bit. Notice if any images, sensation, colors, or sounds appear.

Take some deep breaths and continue tapping on this practice. 

See if there’s any wisdom, internal messages that come forward, or any internal shift that might be experienced.  

When you feel complete, bring yourself back into the present awareness and into the room. 


A FEW REMINDERS:

This is a practice that you can do anywhere and anytime. 

Play around with different characters, locations, and experiences. 

Play around with different internal characteristics that you feel you would like to strengthen within. The traditional ones to start with are peace, nurturing, protection, wisdom.

Notice how you can carry this experience throughout the rest of your day. 

The more you practice this, the more you are hardwiring your brain to be familiar with the characteristics that you are working on. 

For example, if you are tapping on confidence, you will most likely begin to re-wire a familiar sense of confidence in the neural pathways of your brain, and make it more easily accessible to feel confident in difficult situations. 

This is not a practice to do once and expect miraculous results. 

This is something to practice, build on, and have in your mental health toolbox for whenever you feel dysregulated or emotionally experiencing discomfort.

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About the Author: Ilona Varo is a Therapist & Coach based on Los Angeles. To learn more about her approach, and explore addition content she has authored, view her Frame profile here.