Cuddles, Chemicals, and Co-Regulation: Reflections on Stress and Resilience
Authors: Adam Graves, DeafBlind Education Specialist, TSBVI Outreach
Keywords: stress, hormones, internal teddy bear, self-regulation, co-regulation, resilience, interdependence, emotional development, social development
In her TED talk entitled How to Make Stress Your Friend, Dr. Kelly McGonigal describes the physiological changes that take place in the body in response to a perceived threat or stress factor (McGonigal, 2013). She describes the process in which the body releases hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol that help trigger the fight, flight or freeze response. She also describes new studies which suggest that by simply changing our perception of stress, from thinking of it as being harmful and damaging to our health to thinking of it as a process that helps our body prepare for a threat, it can help change the actual physical effects that stress has on our body (Abiola Keller et al., 2012, Jamieson et al., 2012). For those of us who have been taught about the negative effects that prolonged periods of stress can have over time, it is encouraging to know that by reframing our perception of stress we can reduce some of the negative physical effects that it may have on our mental and physical health. But how do we learn to change our own perceptions of stress? And how do we teach our children, who may not even possess the language to describe the concept of stress, to deal with and reduce the physical effects it can have? The answer may be found in the ways in which we connect with each other.
Dr. McGonigal explains that in addition to hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline that prepare us to engage in a fight, flight or freeze response, the body also produces oxytocin when we experience high levels of stress (McGonigal, 2013). Oxytocin aids in helping to relax the tension in our muscles including our heart and blood vessels. It is the same chemical that is released in response to prolonged periods of positive contact with other people. Consequently, oxytocin is the chemical that is most often associated with emotions such as love, intimacy, and bonding. Dr. McGonigal describes the release of oxytocin during periods of stress as the body’s built-in defense mechanism to combat the potentially harmful effects of the stress response on the body (McGonigal, 2013). What does that mean? It means that in order for the oxytocin to effectively do its job, we need to have someone we trust around to give us a cuddle. Then the oxytocin can reduce our heart rate, relax our muscles, and transfer the control of our cognitive functioning from the reactionary amygdala to the executive functioning frontal lobe of our brain.
As infants, we are completely dependent on others to help us stay alive. Any new or unfamiliar person or experience has the potential to be life-threatening. Consequently, we are totally reliant on others to help us regulate our bio-behavioral state. When we communicate our increased level of distress by crying, our caregivers respond by increasing their physical proximity to us in the form of picking us up and holding us close to their bodies. They gently hold us, rock us, sing to us, and offer us calming objects such as pacifiers and blankets to help reassure our hyper-responsive little brains that we are in no danger and that we have someone looking out for us. We literally begin to learn how to manage our stress through the process of receiving a cuddle from a familiar adult.
Dr. Suzanne Zeedyk describes this process of attachment and regulation between babies and adults in her book Sabre Tooth Tigers and Teddy Bears: The Connected Baby Guide to Attachment (Zeedyk, 2013). She explains that the more opportunities we have to receive an actual, literal cuddle in response to our fear of threats, such as being eaten by a sabre tooth tiger, the more we learn that even though the world is a scary place, we have people who will be there to protect us, keep us safe, and provide us with comforting teddy bears if we need them. As we continue to grow and develop more formal means of communicating our emotions, we learn how to give and receive figurative cuddles by listening to and sharing our fears, hopes, dreams, and ideas with each other through the use of words and language. This is what we refer to as co-regulation. Dr. Zeedyk describes the feeling of safety that is built up over time through the process of being the recipient of physical and verbal supports as an internal teddy bear. If we have been provided with a healthy and reliable internal teddy bear, we can learn to turn to it for a figurative cuddle when primary caregivers are not around. This is what we refer to as self-regulation.
In their article entitled Journeys Through the Land of Oz: Parent’s Top Twenty Strategies for Managing Life (Scorgie & Wilgosh, 2002), Kate Scorgie and Lorraine Wilgosh describe the journey of parents of children with special needs as being similar to that of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. In the article, the authors refer to the book When the Heart Waits by Sue Monk Kidd in which she describes “tornado moments.” These are times when, like Dorothy, we are all thrust into frightening and unfamiliar circumstances (Kidd, 2006). Scorgie and Wilgosh go on to explain that sometimes, like Dorothy in the land of Oz, we find ourselves completely separated from all of the people and places that help us to feel safe. They then offer strategies for reaching out to others and maintaining a state of emotional stability and self-regulation that caregivers of children with special needs have used to help them strengthen their own internal teddy bears and those of their children.
We will often find ourselves feeling isolated and alone. We may forget how to seek out and receive that cuddle from our internal teddy bear. And sometimes the cuddle from our internal teddy bear is not quite enough to help us manage our level of distress. Like the land of Oz, a prolonged state of distress can be a very confusing and scary place. Many of us set out, like Dorothy, to face our fears on our own either because we have been encouraged to demonstrate our “independence”, or because venturing forth alone sometimes seems easier and less frightening than trusting someone new and unfamiliar. Though she set out alone on her journey to find the wizard who could return her to the safety of home, Dorothy was only able to complete her journey through Oz and return to her family and friends in Kansas because she made the courageous decision to trust others along the way.
The scarecrow, the tin man, and the lion that Dorothy met on her journey were all living independent lives. Each one was free of reliance on others to sustain themselves physically. However, each one was isolated and alone in their independence because, in different ways, they all lacked the inner strength to face the world outside their little corner of the land of Oz. Through their interdependence on each other, they were able to gain the resilience they needed to try new things and rise to new challenges. Eventually, all the characters who journey through Oz with Dorothy learn that the individual attributes they each thought that they lacked were actually within them during the entire journey. Together they were able to overcome all the fears that arose from confronting witches, wizards, and flying monkeys to reach the safety of the Emerald City and help their friend Dorothy return home to Kansas.
By providing support for each other, the scarecrow, lion, tin man, and Dorothy came to realize that they had the ability to self-regulate by drawing on their courage, brain, heart, and ability to return to the safety of home on their own. However, none of the characters would have found their own inner strength if they had not first learned how to depend on the strength of others to help them co-regulate their emotions and manage the stress of leaving their homes and giving up a little of their independence. It was the strength they learned from each other that helped each one of them overcome their individual fears, manage their emotional states, and continue on their journeys. By learning how to co-regulate their emotions together to face the treacherous and unpredictable obstacles they encountered along the yellow brick road, each individual discovered the self-regulatory part of themselves that they had failed to recognize for so long.
Everyone needs to feel safe, and we don’t feel safe if we don’t feel like we have someone we can trust. For very young children and children with sensory impairments and multiple disabilities, this may be particularly challenging as there are often unfamiliar people interacting with them in ways that are often unpredictable. Many children with disabilities experience frequent visits to hospitals and other medical facilities. Children who are blind, visually impaired or DeafBlind often experience the emotional distress of finding themselves in unfamiliar surroundings or situations due to a lack of sensory information and incidental learning. These are experiences that are not only unpredictable; they can also be painful and scary. Children who don’t yet have the vocabulary or conceptual framework to describe the feelings of fear and distress that are induced by these experiences have few options to tell us that they are afraid of the flying monkey or the sabre tooth tiger [sic] or the person with the needle who may be waiting in the next room. Because they often have additional difficulties in reading facial expressions or vocal inflections, it is especially important for infants and children who are blind, visually impaired, DeafBlind or who have other special needs to have the safe touch of a trusted adult available to help their bodies learn to regulate their responses to stress in times when they feel a heightened sense of danger, whether the actual threat of harm is imminent or not.
Even as these children grow older and more independent in other physical aspects of life, the recurrence of calming touch from a caregiver provides a bio-behavioral model that the child’s body unconsciously attempts to emulate. Without the language to express and process their emotional distress, these children will continue to need physical reinforcement to remind their bodies and brains of the physical attributes which create a calm, well-moderated, physical and emotional state. If trusted adults and caregivers can provide physical reassurance to the child that they are safe, it will help the child build resilience. These interactions help children mentally and physically learn how to self-regulate and feel safe on their own by reinforcing the neural pathways in the brain which control the organ and muscle functions in the body that help them remain calm in times of danger or distress (Center on the Developing Child, 2011). With the practice that comes from having someone respond to their stress or check on their bio-behavioral state with a calm and supportive demeanor, the child’s brain and body continue to strengthen the memory of being successful in regulating itself in response to stress. They begin to build a more reliable internal teddy bear. As the child’s internal teddy bear grows stronger, so too does their social, emotional and physical development and the quality of their INTER-dependence with others.
Just like the characters in the land of Oz, none of us can learn to self-regulate, manage our own heightened feelings of distress or face our fears on our own. We all need someone we can trust to teach our bodies how to remain calm in the face of fear or unpredictable challenges. Our emotional independence, and that of our children is only possible when we learn that we can, and must, depend on the emotional support of those around us to help us to continue moving forward on the path of self-discovery, self-regulation, and resilience. As Dr. McGonigal explains, our body reminds us of this biological need for co-regulation by producing oxytocin every time we begin to experience any sort of stressful situation or emotion in our lives. So the next time you or someone you know seems sad or mad or scared, just remember that somewhere in the mix of hormones telling you to run away there’s also a little chemical teddy bear that is reaching out for a cuddle.
Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. (2011). Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function: Working Paper No. 11. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.
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Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L.E., Maddox, T., Cheng, E.R., Creswell, P.D., & Witt, W.P. (2012). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology.
Kidd, S. M. (2006). When the heart waits: Spiritual direction for life’s sacred questions. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.
McGonigal, K. (n.d.). How to make stress your friend. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend
Scorgie, K., & Wilgosh, L. (2002, November). Journeys through the land of Oz: Parents’ top twenty strategies for managing life. Exceptional Parent.
Zeedyk, S. (2013). Sabre tooth tigers & teddy bears: The connected baby guide to attachment. [Pamphlet]. Dundee: H.B. Rutherford & Co.