About Self-Regulation


Self- Regulation is how we manage stress.” – Dr. Stuart Shanker

How much do you know about self-regulation? Keep reading to learn more.

Whether it’s rushing to work, meeting a deadline or planning a trip, stress is something we all encounter on a daily basis, regardless of our age. Even babies experience all sorts of stress, beginning in the womb and when they enter the world. Dr. Stuart Shanker, the founder and Science Director of the Self-Regulation Institute defines stress as: anything that requires our internal system to burn energy in order to maintain some sort of internal balance. What he means by internal system is our autonomic nervous system (ANS). Stress has a physiological affect on our bodies and can both positive and negative and varies from person to person (See: Stress & Stressors). When we talk about stress, we also have to talk about how we manage it. This is called self-regulation.


Dr. Stuart Shanker defines self-regulation simply as: how we manage stress. This is where our autonomic nervous system comes into play. Our autonomic nervous system is responsible for regulating many of the functions, organs and muscles in our body. Some of the functions it is responsible for regulating include our:

  • Heart and breathing rate 💓
  • Blood flow 🩸
  • Body temperature 🌡
  • Digestion 🍴

The autonomic nervous system is is made up of two parts: the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) (i.e., accelerator) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSN) (i.e., brakes).

The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)

  • Our fight, flight or freeze stress response
    • Helps to keep us safe from threat/danger
  • Responsible for our our quick action and is fueled by adrenaline
  • Is what gets you up in the morning when your alarm goes off
  • Physiological responses include:
    • Pupils: dilates (enlarged), to take in more light
    • Heart rate: accelerates, pumping more blood throughout the body
    • Digestive system: decreases activity
    • Liver: stimulates glucose production + release (for immediate energy) 
    • Adrenal glands: stimulates adrenaline + cortisol production (hormones that provides the muscles with oxygen to react to danger)

Scenario #1

Imagine your smoke detector goes off while you’re sleeping. Your SNS activates, your heart rate increases and adrenaline fuels your body for quick action so quickly you don’t even realize it’s happening.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSN)

  • Responsible for rest, digest and recovery (especially after the activation of the SNS)
  • Physiological responses include:
    • Pupils: constricts
    • Heart rate: slows down
    • Digestive system: stimulates activity
    • Liver: stimulates bile release (a fluid that helps with digestion)
    • Adrenal glands:

Scenario #1 (con’t)

You realize your alarm detector malfunctioned, Your PSN activates, calming you down and restoring your body back in balance. When both of the SNS and PNS are in balanced, you are in what’s called homeostasis. It’s important that each of these systems don’t remain activated for prolonged periods (i.e., remaining in excessive states of stress). This can cause over production of cortisol which can impact impact brain function and overall health. Alternatively, we don’t want to become lethargic and withdrawn. Stress in healthy doses and degrees is a natural part of our healthy development, growth and resiliency and the ability to manage it effectively is what allows us to thrive.

See: Stress & Stressors to learn more about them.

See: A Balanced Nervous System to learn how to keep your nervous system in check.

More on Self-Regulation

Self-Reg: Self-Regulation vs. Self-Control

Self-Reg: Communities


This website is provided only for informational purposes and not intended to be used to replace professional advice, treatment or professional care. Always speak to your physician, healthcare provider or pediatrician if you have concerns about your own health or the health of a child.

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