This is the first in a series of posts that explore the common theme of the experience of overwhelm. Whether onset suddenly from dramatic life events, or more slowly by the side effects of maladaptive coping, or felt in the symptoms of mental health challenges, people need support when their internal stress management system is no longer cutting it. But how can someone else help?
The most profound lesson of modern attachment science and neurobiology is that stress management—what Psychologists call affect regulation—is both an internal mechanism and a social mechanism. Our ability to regulate ourselves, by ourselves, is learned by sharing emotional experiences. Left alone, babies are overwhelmed by nearly any stressor. The capacity to self-regulate is not something we are born with. When babies’ more capable parents share new and difficult experiences with them and demonstrate the capacity to tolerate emotional discomfort, these experiences become encoded into neural pathways. At the root of this phenomenon is the extraordinary ability of humans to actually share emotional states in the structure of our brains. To put it another way, we don’t learn on our own; we learn together. As we grow up, this sharing and mirroring—what Psychologists call co-regulation—becomes increasingly complex as we confront the rigours of adolescence and adulthood.
We don’t learn on our own; we learn together.
When clients visit a therapist in a state of overwhelm, counselling therapists respond differently than psychiatrists or psychologists. Therapists/counsellors are not there to chart and catalogue what is wrong or to provide diagnoses or medicines. Instead, therapists leverage the power of co-regulation to manage stress. And over time, co-regulation works to reduce the painful discomfort of distressed feelings, reduce the need to exercise harmful coping strategies, and alleviate the mental health symptoms of chronic stress.
Co-regulation is effective for two reasons. First, it actually helps clients experience a sense of relief in the moment. Therapists, unlike our friends and family in everyday encounters, “meet us where we are.” Therapists step into the difficult and uncomfortable sensations of distress without needing to be taken care of. Clients don’t need to hide their feelings to be polite. And when clients meet those feelings alongside a grounded and stable therapist, those same “mirror neurons” that connected us to our parents, start to provide relief in the moment. New studies show that while self-managing our stress (“autoregulation”) is a top-down, energy-dependent process, co-regulation functions almost effortlessly. This is one way therapy begins the process of helping.
The other way therapists use co-regulation to help is provide a platform for experiential learning. Managing stress isn’t just about tools and techniques that we can call upon at will—it’s something we have to be introduced to and practice. During counselling we don’t just “talk about things.” Counsellors actively create experiences that mimic the challenges causing hardship. The difference between these healing therapeutic experiences and those overwhelming distress experiences is found in the therapists ability to “target and titrate.”