What’s not simple, however, is defining what it is to govern oneself and learning how to do it well.
Self-governance/regulation happens both sub-consciously and consciously. Our brain stem and cerebellum (lowest part of our brain) manages the auto-pilot. Without our thinking about it, our amazingly complex and miraculous system sustains basic regulation – our heart beats, our blood flows, our lungs breathe. As we receive and process sensory and conceptual information, however, we engage the mid-brain/limbic system, which manages emotions and memories and, hopefully, the neo-cortex/frontal/human brain that houses the executive capacity to analyze, reason and make good choices. Truly conscious self-regulation requires high level executive function to integrate sensory messages, reflect and create options.
Monitoring and managing our energy states, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in ways that are acceptable and produce positive results such as well-being, loving relationships, and learning, takes support, tools and practice. Developing the ability to deal well with stressors lays the foundation for all other activity and requires the synergy of many factors: self-awareness, emotional intelligence, efficient filtering of sensory stimulation, coping strategies, relating well to others, and sustaining focus. This synergy is not possible when a person is in a stressed state/fight or flight response that moves them into brain stem based “survival” thinking. It is only possible from the neo-cortex, home of executive function, which you can only reach through the mid-brain emotional center. This is why addressing stress proactively, teaching emotional awareness and nurturing social-emotional skills early are so important.
Dr. Dan Siegel, author of Brainstorm and The Mindful Brain, and founder of Mindsight.com, believes that the reflection and integration (executive function) required in self-regulation leads to well-being. In other words, he considers emotional and social intelligence the foundation for health. Why? Because these intelligences allow us to more consciously manage our stress and sustain an optimal mind-body state with a positive outlook. When you know you can and you regularly do – nurture yourself, breathe deeply, take time to reset, relax and regroup, you feel and do better on every level from your immune system to your interpersonal behavior.
Dr. Stuart Shanker, agrees that the explosion of health, learning and behavior issues are a result of difficulties in self-regulation. Problems with self-regulation during children’s early development can be a risk factor for the development of personality disorders, immune system disorders, alcoholism, extreme risk taking, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. The famous Marshmallow experiment by Mischel etal (1989) found that the 30% of 4 year-old children who were able to wait longer for the preferred reward tended to have better life outcomes – higher academic achievement, and lower body mass index, anti-social behavior and susceptibility to drug and alcohol abuse.
Self-regulation involves the whole person/child and takes energy. When a person/child acts out or melts down, it is because s/he has no more fuel for managing stressors. That’s why it’s important to notice what stresses yourself/children and what soothes you/them; to practice / teach them mindfulness skills; to play yourself and with them; to make sure you/they get exercise and plenty of sleep.
How do you develop self-regulation?
Ideally, the ability to self-regulate evolves throughout childhood. The dependent infant’s needs are met by an attuned parent/care-giver. After thousands of these responses, the infant learns that distress can be tolerated, help is on the way. The child builds the capacity to tolerate the primal urges of hunger and sleep as well as the sensations of frustration, anger, and fear. This is the beginning of the transition from external regulation to self-regulation, considered by Dr. Bruce Perry as one of the most important tasks to learn growing up. The ability to put a moment between the impulse and the action is an essential life skill and one of his 6 core strengths or building blocks of healthy development.
Self-regulation is learned organically from being around self-regulating adults, and matures naturally as children play and exercise, enjoy time in nature, eat healthy foods, get plenty of sleep, and go to school. Children/adults, who struggle with self-regulation, are usually over-stimulated, around others who are stressed and/or dys-regulated, and do not get enough exercise, time in nature, sleep, hydration, and healthy food. From a stressed state, we cannot access the executive function to focus, cope, connect, reflect or integrate. Attention, learning, creativity, close relationships become unsustainable.
Susan Kaiser Greenland, founder of Inner Kids, has developed a new set of ABC’s for nurturing mindfulness and self-regulation. Her program is all about helping kids monitor Attention, sustain Balance (ie: their mind-body state), and develop Compassion. It teaches them seven steps to being present with both their inner and outer worlds:
- Stop – pause to pay attention
- Focus – be present with what is happening inside and outside
- Choose – to not react but be thoughtful
- Quiet – drop into breathing and centering
- See – what is happening without judgment or interpretation
- Care – and be kind to yourself, which translates to others
- Connect – share and listen to create caring relationships
Many other organizations, such as Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL), Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, and the Committee for Children, also advocate the development of social-emotional competence as core curriculum. Programs are being integrated into an ever-growing number of schools as research validates the profound benefits of emotional intelligence, self-regulation, and mindfulness. These “inner skills” that help us not only tolerate but also understand and thoughtfully navigate our internal dynamics produces more conscious external communication, problem-solving, social harmony, productivity and academic excellence.
If you are an adult who’s looking to bolster your own ability to self-regulate, the good news is that the brain is “plastic” and will grow new pathways, connections and skills that are practiced. If you want to nurture your executive function and cultivate the part of our brain that can consciously self-regulate, start meditating, make time for more human connection, be of service, get out in nature, and maintain a healthy lifestyle. As you strengthen the ability to both “be with” feelings/emotions and reflect upon them, you will add layers to your neo-cortex, cultivate greater personal understanding, non-reactivity and kindness to self, which leads to empathy, compassion and kindness to others.