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How regulation improves relationships

Updated: Sep 8, 2023

Nervous system regulation is a hot topic these days, and for good reason. For many years, we've believed that the mind and body are separate from each other.

It turns out that this couldn't be further from the truth. Nervous system regulation, achieved through somatic practices like grounding, breath work, and play, have an incredible power over our mental health and our relationship health. When we're regulated (which we'll define below), we're calmer, happier, and better able to connect with our sweetheart!

What is nervous system regulation?

Our bodies have a few options to choose from to meet our unconscious needs:

  • Sympathetic (SNS) - this is a stress state, commonly known as Fight or Flight. Energy is mobilized through our system in order to meet a threat. Threats can be physical, emotional, or social.

  • Parasympathetic Dorsal Vagal (PDV) - this is another stress state, also commonly known as Freeze or Collapse. Energy is conserved in this state in an attempt to survive an attack. Again, the attack can be physical, emotional, or social.

  • Parasympathetic Ventral Vagal (PVV) - this is baseline, or Rest and Digest. When we're in this state, we're ready for social connection. There is no perceived threat.

Learning to read what state our body is currently in is known as "interoception." It's one of the senses we're born with (it's what tells us we're hungry or need to go to the bathroom), although many of us need to relearn how to tap into this sense in order to care for ourselves and our relationship.

Cycles of burnout (high motivation and energy, followed by periods of crashing and, often, depression) and disassociating (a numbness where we may leave our bodies and have difficulty with memory) are common when our interoception needs improvement.

How Interoception Can Improve Our Relationships

When we're caught in cycles of fighting, numbing, avoiding each other, or other signs of the Insecure Phase, it's often in part because our nervous system is not regulated. When we're dysregulated, we'll find connecting to our sweetheart challenging, if not impossible (more detail on this below).

Our bodies cannot determine the difference between a physical threat, like a tiger, and a social threat, like being left out of a group, or an emotional threat, like our partner criticizing us. When we perceive that our safety (physical, social, or emotional) is threatened, the organs send signals to the brain that activates one of the threat states.

When we're in a threat state, our prefrontal cortex shuts down. This is the part of the brain responsible for logic--we become emotionally reactive and unable to think. We also can't listen to our sweetheart. These threat states literally change the way our ears hear, so that we no longer hear the sound of human voices and instead hear tones that resemble twigs snapping nearby.

By developing our interoception, we can learn to recognize when we (or our partner) are unable to think or hear. When we know this is happening, we can have more productive conversations, argue less, and feel more connected when we disagree with our partner.

The next section covers details on the threat states. Many couples find this information helpful to learn to recognize when they or their partner are in a threat state. If you're unfamiliar with how Fight/Flight/Freeze/Collapse show up in relationships, definitely read this section.

If, on the other hand, you've done a lot of work in somatics, you may find this repetitive. Skip down to the last section on strategies for your relationship to learn how to use this information to have more productive conversations and care for yourself and your sweetheart!

details on the threat states

Most folks are familiar with the names of the threat states, also known as "dysregulation:"

  • Fight

  • Flight

  • Freeze

  • Collapse

Each of these states correspond to a vagal nerve pathway. They have unique signatures that cause us to react in specific ways, and understanding these reactions can help us figure out how to return to our baseline. It's important to note that these states are unconscious. We don't choose to engage them, they are automatic reactions we've been conditioned into. They don't have to remain this way, but they can.

Baseline is known as the parasympathetic ventral vagal system (PVV). This is our social connection state, and it's the ideal place to have challenging conversations from. When we approach disagreements as teammates finding a solution together, when we laugh at how silly our disagreement is, that's the PVV. When we refer to "being regulated," this is what we mean.

Fight or Flight are the two states associated with the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). These states are responses to stress and danger -- either fight it off or run away from it. How this shows up in relationships is lashing out angrily (Fight) or feeling a desire to get away at all costs (Flight). Flight can sometimes show up as questioning if it's time to break up.

(I'm specifically not covering the "Fawn" response, also a part of the SNS, because it's tied up in a lot of other patterns I'll cover in a future post. However, if you know that you tend to go into placation mode or contorting into what someone wants you to be to soothe anger or upset, you'll want to follow strategies for soothing the SNS response.)

The Freeze and Collapse states are part of the parasympathetic dorsal vagal system (PDV) and they are also responses to danger. Instead of mobilizing energy, like the SNS, these states conserve energy. Freezing is a form of shut down. Being unable to speak or answer questions during a discussion is a classic sign of Freeze.

Collapse is even more extreme energy conservation. Technically, it's preparing to die. Sudden depression, weariness, hopelessness, and exhaustion during a discussion point to Collapse. Speaking in a monotone and the cheeks collapsing or looking hollow are other signs.

Perhaps you've recognized yourself and your partner in a few of these descriptions. If that's the case, congratulations! This is the first step to learning how to re-regulate.

We are supposed to experience these states. While your partner is not a shark about to eat you, your sense of social belonging and emotional safety is as important to your survival as your physical safety. The goal is not to avoid those states completely (that is impossible), but to train ourselves to return to baseline quickly, versus getting stuck in Fight/Flight/Freeze/Collapse.

strategies for your relationship

Taking space or breaks when we're triggered or dysregulated is one of the most important skills for couples to employ. Why? When we enter these states, we are unable to think, communicate well, or hear.

When we can't hear each other, there's no hope for understanding and solution-finding together, so breaks are crucial, no matter the type of dysregulation.

when you're triggered or dysregulated...

If you notice yourself getting activated into one of these states, it's time to take a break. The general rule is 30-minutes of distraction. Put a show on, go for a walk, listen to music, then come back to the conversation.

Communicating this to your partner can look like...

  • "Something is coming up for me, and I need some time before I'll be ready to talk about it."

  • "I need to take a break. I'll be back in 30-minutes." (Always come back when you say you will.)

If your dysregulation shows up as SNS, a brisk walk or shaking to release the energy in the body usually feels better than lying down.

If your dysregulation shows up as PDV, something still and quiet will usually be more soothing than forcing an activity. Let your energy return naturally.

When your sweetheart is triggered or dysregulated...

Offer your partner a break. This is particularly important if you notice your partner going into Freeze or Collapse because they may not be able to communicate what they need.

This can sound like...

  • Freeze/Collapse: "I'm noticing you're struggling, do you want to take a break?" (If affirmative, leave them plenty of space to find a safe place to regulate. Let them come back to you when they're ready.)

  • Fight/Flight: "I'm feeling like we should take a break."

final tips

Taking breaks is one of the best strategies for having productive conversations in the immediate, but what about long term?

Nervous system regulation as a practice gives us the ability to bounce back from threat states more quickly, and even enter them less frequently. We call this resilience. Increasing your nervous system resilience can happen in many ways:

  • Get enough quality sleep. If you're a parent with young children, this is not fully in your control, so have grace for yourself and your partner during this time.

  • Minimize alcohol consumption. Alcohol is unbelievably dysregulating. If you're already sleep-deprived, consider significantly reducing alcohol.

  • Prioritize play. Most adults are play-deprived. Find ways to have fun both on your own and with your partner.

  • Get outdoors. If any kind of nature is accessible to you, get into it, even if it's just a park in your neighborhood.

  • Incorporate stillness into your day. Stillness, quiet, and solitude have become abhorrent, scary even, to folks who are under chronic stress. We can train our ability to tolerate, and then enjoy, stillness, even just five minutes at a time.

Meditation, breathwork, and cold exposure can also be effective for nervous system regulation. If you choose these methods, work with a professional to ensure you're incorporating them appropriately for your nervous system. They are easily misused!

Listening to our bodies and making adjustments to both our conversation tactics and lifestyle has enormous transformative power in our relationships. If you're struggling to communicate well, to act as a team, this is the best place to start.

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