ARTICLE: What is Regulation?

Emotional regulation flowers against blue sky

This article explores the meaning of regulation and the role it plays in wellbeing.

The term regulation means to set or adjust or control the amount, degree, or rate of something, or put another way to control or maintain the rate or speed of (a machine or process) so that it operates properly.

In humans, regulation is the ability to change arousal to match the environment and the activity. This includes adjusting heart rate, temperature, blood sugar levels and emotions so that they are the best fit for the current situation.

The term arousal refers to states of physiological and psychological alertness, wakefulness, stimulation and attention.

Emotional regulation

Emotional regulation serves to modify the nature, intensity or duration of emotions. There is a survival reason for experiencing emotions; they drive our behaviour to take actions that will best protect us. At times, it is necessary for unpleasant emotions to be felt and arousal to increase, as this prompts us to take the necessary action and supports our survival. If we need to get away from a source of danger, for example, such as a fire, then we do not want to be relaxed, but rather to be alert and ready to move in order to escape. Although the things we do on a daily basis today are generally not for our immediate survival, our body responds in the same way. For example, before a presentation, we may feel a little anxious and this actually helps us to be more alert and do a better job, however, if we become too anxious, our performance reduces. Optimum coping and performance occurs when arousal is not too high or too low for the present situation or task that is to be carried out. Emotional regulation allows us to calm down and recover after a frightening incident and be joyful or excited, without getting over-excited.

Dysregulation and how we try to regulate

Dysregulation occurs when overly intense emotions are experienced relative to the situation. Sensations and emotions can become overwhelming when very anxious or over-excited. People with high emotional reactivity experience intense emotions more frequently and for longer durations.

If our system is always in a state of high arousal, even when we are safe and when no action is needed, it does not have the chance to rest and recover. Prolonged states of high arousal can put us in a state of stress and this can be harmful to our health and wellbeing.

It might be helpful to reflect upon what do you do to attempt to regulate? Some of the things you might have experienced are pacing up and down, going for a walk, fiddling or fidgeting, eating, breathing consciously, stretching or having a glass of wine. Some of these things might be for stimulation or to help calm and some may be more healthy than others.

You could also reflect on how it feels when you are dysregulated and what effects does it have on your behaviour and wellbeing. People with severe and profound intellectual disabilities and those on the autism spectrum are at higher risk of experiencing dysregulation. They are more likely to have suffered from trauma, neglect, attachment disorder, brain injury and pain and to experience invalidation (not feeling seen, heard and felt), an unsuitable sensory environment and level of stimulation and to have not had the experiences or cognitive capacity necessary to learn to self-regulate. Lack of sleep, nutrition, hydration and hormonal changes can also lead to difficulties with regulation.

Perhaps take some time to think about when and why people you know may become dysregulated and how does it show?

Some behaviours that you may observe might be serving to immediately decrease the current level of emotional distress. It is therefore important to look out for the things that someone does naturally to try to self-regulate, such as rocking, moving, running around, seeking closeness and comfort and self-injury, and to support these attempts when they are safe, or, when unsafe support towards alternative ways.

The neural basis of regulation

Neurologically the front part of the cortex (the frontal lobe) is responsible for using thoughts and cognition for emotional regulation. Think about how you talk to yourself (inside your head) to deal with difficulties as they arise through the day, perhaps reminding yourself ‘I will be ok’, ‘This will pass’, ‘I am going to speak to someone to try to help resolve this problem’. However, the regulation centre of a toddler’s brain is still developing and continues to develop into adulthood and the ability to regulate emotions improves as neural connections strengthen and cognition and language develop. Repeated experiences are vital for these connections to strengthen and, over time, people can learn these self-soothing techniques.


Learning to self-regulate starts with learning to co-regulate. Co-regulation helps to develop the brain networks and strategies needed to self-regulate. Co-regulation is when someone else helps another individual to regulate. We typically learn to self-regulate through co-regulation and get better at it as we grow older, but may all need help at times and throughout our lives. We usually think of adults helping children. However, adults often also need help from others to regulate. Think about when a friend or family member was upset and you gave them a hug, a time when they were angry and you listened or how calming and soothing it can be to merely have someone you trust with you when you are having a difficult time, feeling scared, sad or uncertain.

The brain needs a level of developmental maturity to self-soothe or self-regulate, and children and adults who are at an early developmental level may need more support from others. If someone has not developed the necessary neural pathways it may be unrealistic to expect them to be able to self-regulate (in a safe and healthy way). Co-regulation is therefore critical and happens largely through non-verbal aspects of interactions such as facial expressions, eyes, touch and tone of voice.

To find out more about how we can use co-regulation, as well as other strategies (including predictability, calming experiences and invigorating/stimulating experiences) to support the wellbeing of people who use ways other than words to communicate, see our on-demand course on Emotional Regulation.


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