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Self-Reg Definitions Series

by Stuart Shanker

The Origins of Defining Self-Regulation

“Self-regulation” is frequently defined in terms of the mastery of skills that control what we think and feel or how we act. But the origins of the concept trace back to Claude Bernard’s research (The Wisdom of the Body, 1932) on the mechanisms whereby an organism regulates its “internal milieu.” Walter Cannon then developed this idea with his theory of “homeostasis.” Cannon coined the term “self-regulation” to refer to the mechanisms in both the brain and the body that maintain homeostasis in the face of the myriad stresses that we encounter in our daily living. Physical as well as emotional and social stresses. Cannon also introduced the idea of self-regulating behaviours that we learn and consciously apply so as to aid these mechanisms and reduce the load on the body.

For example, the hypothalamus triggers a cascade of neurobiological and physiological processes to maintain a stable internal body temperature when the body is exposed to cold temperatures. But these processes can expend an enormous amount of energy. (You burn the same amount of calories when you shiver for 10 minutes as when you do an hour of exercise.)  But we can assist these internal processes by wearing a hat and coat. In so doing, we reduce the amount of energy that our body must expend in order to thermoregulate.

Extending the Definition with Self-Reg

In Self-Reg we extend Cannon’s definition in a critical respect. Cannon’s view of self-regulation was still based on a “solitary individual” model. But self-regulation applies to any of the ways that we deal with stress, including turning to a trusted Interbrain when the stress is too great to manage on one’s own.

This point has enormous implications for the defining principle of Self-Reg that “There is no such thing as a bad kid.” We now know that excessive stress in the early years can have a profound impact on a child’s self-regulating mechanisms (e.g., the HPA pathway). Yet the child learns to turn to their caregiver when the stress is too great for them to manage on their own. This too constitutes a “self-regulating behaviour,” and it is as relevant for mature adults as it is for a young child.”

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