What is Self-Regulation?

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What is Self-Regulation?

Do you ever feel like you have no control over your emotions? Do you find it difficult to manage disruptive impulses and behaviours? Well, self-regulation may be what you are missing. According to Ottawa Public Health, self-regulation is the ability to adjust our thinking, attention, emotions, behaviour, and bodies so we can be in a calm, focused, alert state when learning and responding to our environment. Self-regulation can be categorized into two different types:

Emotional self-regulation: Control of/influence over your emotions. The ability to cheer yourself up when you're down and calm yourself down when you're upset.

Behavioural self-regulation: Control of/influence over your behaviours. The ability to act in your long-term best interest, consistent with your values. If your values are violated, you may experience shame, guilt, and even anxiety which impairs emotional well-being.

Self-regulation is closely linked to brain maturation and generally develops over time with the support of nurturing parents and caregivers. However, self-regulation doesn’t always come naturally to everyone which is why recovering from stressors can be a challenge for so many.  

How Does Self-Regulation Work?

Imagine you are studying for a very important exam. If you feel optimistic about the learning outcome, possess effective study strategies, and are able to monitor your thinking, you would be considered a good self-regulator. Yet, if one piece of this suggested cycle is not present, you may be unsuccessful. For instance, if you’re pessimistic about the outcome of the exam, you may not be motivated to study even with learning strategies and self-awareness at hand.

Essentially, self-regulation is a balancing act and consists of three things: recognition, approach, and action. You must first recognize your short-term feelings. For instance, do you feel like running away from a stressful situation? Are you angry at someone and feel like lashing out at them? In the moment, it may be difficult to address your transient feelings but you can use your body as an aid. For example, an increasing heart rate may be a sign that you are in a state of panic.

Once you recognize your feelings, you can begin to restore balance by shifting your focus and approaching your values. Once you become focused on your values, you will be able to see beyond the stress, anxiety and/or discomfort in that present moment and be able to look at the bigger picture. Also, when you recognize that you are becoming stressed or when you are losing focus you can plan breaks to ensure you are more effective with your time. It is only then that you’ll be able to act in your long-term best interest, consistent with your values.

Using Neurofeedback to Self-Regulate

While self-regulation may seem like a simple concept, it can be difficult to achieve without some assistance. This is where neurofeedback can help.

Neurofeedback is a non-invasive therapy which allows individuals to practice being in a calm, alert, and focused mental state. During a neurofeedback session, an individual is rewarded with a visual and auditory stimulus when certain brain waves increase or decrease. The rewards act as a reinforcement for your brain which essentially teaches you to have better control over your brainwave patterns.

Essentially, neurofeedback training provides individuals the opportunity to exercise their ability to enter, recognize, and maintain the desired state. This takes time as everyone learns at different rates. When enough training is done, they improve their ability to self-regulate their brainwaves and mental state.

Click here for more information on Neurofeedback.



Thibault, R. T., Lifshitz, M., Birbaumer, N., & Raz, A. (2015). Neurofeedback, Self-Regulation, and Brain Imaging: Clinical Science and Fad in the Service of Mental Disorders. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics,84(4), 193-207. doi:10.1159/000371714

Dr. M. Arnold Muller

Dr. M. Arnold Muller

Dr. M. Arnold Muller is a licensed School and Clinical Psychologist currently based in Toronto, Ontario, with 31 years of practice experience in two countries. Prior to his time in Canada, he spent the first half of his career in South Africa. Dr. Muller has a Ph.D. with specialization in Psychotherapy from the University of Pretoria, and a Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology. He also has a second Masters Degree in Practical Theology from the University of Stellenbosch.

Dr. Muller has worked in many settings including school boards, addiction centres, correctional institutions, the military, churches, and private practices. Spending time in these organizations has allowed him to gain an astounding amount of experience in psychological assessment, diagnosis, and treatment plan preparation and application.

Dr. Muller also has training and exposure to Neurofeedback Training, Somatic Experiencing, crisis intervention, conflict resolution and managing cultural differences. In his spare time, you can find him hiking, travelling, working on his photography, poetry, and spending time with his family and friends.

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