The field of Interpersonal Neurobiology and my training in Somatic Experiencing® have profoundly changed the way I practice psychotherapy and psychodrama, as they have both served to deepen my understanding of how the nervous system operates and the importance of co-regulation. Dr. JL Moreno, who created psychodrama almost a hundred years ago – long before f-MRI machines could show us what was happening in the brain – developed the core psychodramatic technique of doubling, which I have come to realize is co-regulation at its finest.
In an effort to define co-regulation, we have to remember the concept that, “No man is an island.” Co-regulation comes as a result of our nervous systems “talking” to each other, picking up on each others energy and feeling what each other is feeling. That profound connection to another person; that experience of a sense of oneness with him/her is exactly what happens in doubling.
In the book Interpersonal Neurobiology in Group Psychotherapy and Group Process (Badenoch and Gantt, Eds., 2013), Dr. Mitchel Adler writes, “The therapist and other members help in [this] co-regulation by offering calming prosody, a caring gaze, empathy, concern and an attempt to understand the other.” No wonder doubling works so well.
A double is someone who “gets” you and who is so attuned to you that she/he can speak for you: to help you speak the unspoken; tap into feelings and thoughts you didn’t realize you were having; give permission to say what you really want to say, and in effect, co-regulate you. In classical psychodrama, a double sits or stands behind you (imitating your body position and posture and attuning with your energy) and makes a statement as though she’s you. You can then either accept the statement by repeating it – if it fits what you’re thinking or feeling – or change the words to better reflect you. Even when she gets it “wrong” and you need to change the entire sentence, it helps you tune into what you WERE feeling or thinking. That ruling out process is powerful as it allows you to take a moment to take a breath, and sort out what is going on in your body and in your mind. That moment of connection with another human being; that pause; that breath, allows for co-regulation and eventually, self-regulation.
Having a regulated nervous system – feeling calm, content and connected with yourself and others – as opposed to being dissociated, highly agitated or disconnected from yourself and others is a goal, and while we all strive for that sense of regulation, as a human being, your nervous system is constantly being exposed to other people and situations, not to mention it’s being affected by your own thoughts and feelings. Many things can dysregulate you: an argument, running late to an important appointment, worrying about a sick child, ruminating about something “stupid’ you said, being on deadline at work, etc. – and there are many things that can help you bring yourself back to a sense of calmness after you get activated. Some of the healthy ways to do it are through meditation, therapy, talking to a friend or sponsor, taking a walk on the beach or in the park; taking a hot bath, prayer, etc.
If you have suffered from trauma, you probably have a really hard time regulating your own nervous systems, and frequently default to the only ways you know how to calm yourself: dissociation, overeating, overspending or shopping, drinking, drugging, etc. The good news is that because your nervous system is interconnected through mirror neurons (Iacobani, 2008), other people can actually help you come back to a sense of regulation, and eventually learn how to regulate yourself.
Doubling can be particularly effective when someone’s nervous system is highly charged – or dysregulated – due to anger, sadness or fear. At moments like that in the course of a psychodrama, or when a group member is sharing, the content of their story can be so intense that everyone in the room stops breathing. My instinct for a number of years, as I have learned more and more about Interpersonal Neurobiology, is to invite everyone in the room to take a deep breath in and a deep breath out. In that moment, we are collectively co-regulating each other, bringing calmness to each other’s nervous systems, and in effect, doubling each other. No one needs to say, “Wow, this is so uncomfortable, I stopped breathing.” Everyone is feeling it and everyone’s nervous system is getting activated.
But as a result of that deep breath – that moment of connection and co-regulation – the feeling of tension that was just in the room dissipates, and everyone’s capacity to stay present for deep healing increases. The more the group can support each member in staying present on a consistent basis, the more each member can develop a sense of self-regulation and maintain it out in the world when she/he gets dysregulated. It’s like a muscle that grows over time. We call it building capacity.
As Moreno ‘s contemporary, group psychotherapist L. Cody Marsh, observed, “By the crowd they have been broken, by the crowd they shall be healed” (Bloom, 1998, p. 179). We are wounded in relationship and we must heal in relationship, and I’m incredibly grateful that when my nervous system gets highly activated and I’m struggling, I have some really safe people in my life who I can reach out to to help me co-regulate it. I hope you do, too.