“Affect” refers to your moment by moment experience of your internal bodily sensations. Think of affect on a scale of 1-10, where 1 represents completely numb and shut down and 10 represents panic, rage, or terror. On this scale, 5-6 represents a slight feeling of relaxed excitement—you are alert, present, and attentive. When you become dysregulated, your body’s greatest need is to return to a regulated state in that 5-6 zone. Affect regulation lies at the core of feeling like you can control your insides. Moreover, all dysfunctional ways of being in the world—all addictions and compulsions—are, at their core, attempts at affect regulation. An impaired ability to self-regulate wreaks havoc in interpersonal relationships because, when you become dysregulated, you are no longer present.

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“Affect” refers to your moment by moment experience of your internal bodily sensations. Think of affect on a scale of 1-10, where 1 represents completely numb and shut down and 10 represents panic, rage, or terror. On this scale, 5-6 represents a slight feeling of relaxed excitement—you are alert, present, and attentive. When you become dysregulated, your body’s greatest need is to return to a regulated state in that 5-6 zone. Affect regulation lies at the core of feeling like you can control your insides. Moreover, all dysfunctional ways of being in the world—all addictions and compulsions—are, at their core, attempts at affect regulation. An impaired ability to self-regulate wreaks havoc in interpersonal relationships because, when you become dysregulated, you are no longer present.
First of all, what is affect?
“Affect” is the felt sense of what is happening in your body.
Affect refers to your inner emotional and bodily experience.
It’s your moment to moment experience of your internal bodily sensations.
Affect exists on a spectrum.
Think of affect on a scale of 1-10, where 1 represents completely numb and shut down and 10 represents sheer panic.
On this scale, 5-6 represents a slight feeling of relaxed excitement—alert, present, and attentive. (Hopefully, you are in the 5-6 range right now!).
When you are in the 5-6 range you are regulated. It’s the zone of optimal arousal. When you are in the 5-6 place you are not dysregulated. 
In the 1-3 range, your body is in a state of hypo-arousal (hypo just means low—your arousal is very low).
Hypo-arousal, the 1-3 range, is marked and by bodily sensations such as a sense of numbness or being shut down, shallow breathing, difficulty concentrating, you feel checked out.
This range also correlates with emotions such as shame, hopelessness, and/or despair. When you are in the 1-3 range, when you feel yourself numbing out or shutting down, you will often be experiencing some measure of shame, hopelessness, despair.
In the 8-10 range, your body is in a state of hyper-arousal (hyper means high). In hyper-arousal you will experience the bodily sensations of a racing heart, faster breathing, a tightening in the chest or stomach, a sense of jitteriness. It’s this sense of being amped up inside.
You will also feel emotions such as panic, terror, and/or rage.
So, 5-6 is optimal arousal—you are present, alert, slight feeling of excitement.
Whenever you are out of the 4-7 range, your body is in a state of dysregulation.
The 8-10 panic zone is dysregulation, and the 1-3 shut down zone is dysregulation.
People in hypo-aroused states may not appear to be dysregulated (they often look calm and sometimes they might even look present), but they are just as dysregulated as someone in a panicked state of hyper-arousal.
It just looks different on the outside.
So, affect or arousal exists on a continuum.
It ranges from numb and shutdown (1-3), through relaxed attentiveness (5-6), on to panicked and frenzied (8-10). 
Okay, so that’s affect. Now, what is affect regulation?
Everyone gets dysregulated. Everyone.
However, some people get dysregulated more frequently than others.
And some people get dysregulated by more subtle stimuli. For example, if you’re at a restaurant and a man walks in with a semi-automatic weapon demanding everyone’s wallet, you—and everyone else in that place—are going to get dysregulated.
But some people will also get dysregulated by something more subtle—such as an argument between two people at the table next to you. Or when a waitress drops someone’s plate and it makes a loud noise.
When you become dysregulated, your body’s greatest need is to return to a regulated state in that 4-7 zone. When you become dysregulated—when you either move into a state of panic or a state of numbing out and shutting down, your greatest need in that moment is to regulate your affect—to get back to 5-6 land.
Self-regulation simply means bringing your body back into the 4-7 zone from either hypo-arousal (the shut down state of 1-3) or hyper-arousal (the frantic state of 8-10).
When you are hyper-aroused (8-10), affect regulation means calming and soothing your bodily sensations of fear, panic, rage, etc.
When you are hypo-aroused (1-3), affect regulation means invigorating and awakening your current sensation of feeling numb or shut down.
Here’s the catch: Just as some people get dysregulated more often than others, some people have a MUCH harder time getting regulated again.
This is the double whammy of trauma—if you have a history of trauma you will get dysregulated more often than others. AND, as if that’s not hard enough, if you have a history of trauma you will also have a much harder time getting regulated again.
Not everyone’s brain has the same ability to self-regulate.
Now, Why does affect regulation Matter So Much
Developing the ability to self-regulate is absolutely essential to living life the way God designed it.
There are several reasons that affect regulation is so vitally important.

First, your ability to self-regulate lies at the core of feeling like you can control your insides.
Affect regulation gives you a sense that you are a self, independent of your environment. This cannot be overemphasized.
The capacity to self-regulate is the foundation upon which a functional sense of self develops.
The way a young child first learns that they are an individual is through their bodily-based experiences of regulating their own affect.
When a 7 year old is calming herself down in her room after getting really angry at her brother, she is learning what it means that she has a self. There is nothing abstract or conceptual about this… Your sense of your self is first and foremost, “I can exert control over my body to make my insides feel better.”
IOW, your ability to regulate your affect makes you feel safe.
In a dysregulated state, we do not feel safe.
When you are able to regulate your affect, you can enter states of high and low arousal without becoming dysregulated.
You can be angry (hyperarousal) without losing your temper. You can experience sadness (hypoarousal) without becoming numb and withdrawn.
Next, all dysfunctional ways of being in the world—all addictions and compulsions—are, at their core, attempts at affect regulation. REPEAT
Above all else, human beings are driven by a biological mandate to find a way to regulate arousal.
We can put it like this: whenever you become dysregulated, you will do whatever it takes to get re-regulated.
If it’s drinking, you’ll drink.
If it’s over-working, you’ll do that.
If it’s following your spouse into the other room and continuing the fight, you’ll do that.
But, let’s be clear: it’s not that you are “a workaholic or an alcoholic” (though you may be), it’s that you are committed above all else to bring your body back into a state of regulation and to keep it there.
Why do you stay at the office until 8 PM? Because you know that when you get home, your wife is going to be there and she is going to say or do something that dysregulates you.
The final reason it is so vitally important for you to learn how to regulate your affect is because affect regulation is a requirement for healthy interpersonal relationships.
An impaired ability to self-regulate wreaks havoc in interpersonal relationships.
When you become dysregulated, you are no longer present.
Our ability to choose is diminished, as is our well-being and our availability for a relationship.
Your defensive limbic brain has taken over and your cortical, rational brain has shut down.
Your ability to send and receive signals of interpersonal safety becomes compromised—which keeps you in a state of feeling like the other person is more like an enemy than a friend.
Are any of your thinking of your marriages yet? The vast majority of fights with your partner are driven by both of you desperately trying to regulate your insides.
You are constantly reading your partner’s affect. Your observation of your partner’s affect informs your of their inner states: their intentions and what things mean to them.
So, when your husband shuts down and checks out in a conversation, your nervous system picks up on that and you interpret it (usually) to mean that he doesn’t care about you or what you just said.
Affect tells us about another’s subjective state—crucial information for negotiating relationships.
Affect is conducted nonconsciously from brain to brain—in, for example, an ever so slight pause or a barely perceptible change in pitch, or a split-second facial expression.
The exchange of affect is the fundamental way we know what we mean to one another—whether we care and the nature of our intentions.
People who are prone to states of dysregulation tend to behave in ways that alienate others. For example, when you get enraged (9-10 on the scale), it’s very hard for your partner to hear what you’re saying. Your rage pushes them away. Likewise, when you shut down, your partner feels like you’ve just abandoned them.
And so here’s the critical sentence: the ability to regulate affect preserves connection between people. When affect gets dysregulated, some measure of disconnection is inevitable.
But here’s the bind: when you are dysregulated, what you need most is connection with another person. Because it is connection with another that brings you back into a state of regulation. Do you see the dilemma?
This cycle of dysregulation and alienating behavior can lead to an immense sense of powerlessness since you are unable to make the dysregulation stop (and return to a calm and centered place) which increases the dysregulation and makes changing your behavior even more difficult.
This dynamic is perhaps one of the most agonizing byproducts of trauma—feeling at the mercy of bodily sensations that make you react in ways that alienate people at the very moment you most need connection with them.
Are you curious about why some people are better able to regulate their affect than others?
Why do you get dysregulated so easily when others’ don’t seem to? And why is it so hard to get back to a regulated place?
If you’ve been listening to this podcast, it will likely come as no surprise that the answer, of course, has to do with attachment.
Your ability to self-regulate was largely determined by your relationship with your primary caretakers early in life.
Now, I’m going to talk about infants and caregivers, but what I’m about to say also applies to all close relationships: spouses, partners, adult children.
Infants and toddlers have many, many experiences of moving from a comfortable, regulated state to a state of dysregulation. They often become cold, wet, hungry, or frightened.
However, at such an early stage of development, these little ones have extremely limited ability to regulate their own affect.
Thus, in response to these unpleasurable states of hypo-arousal or hyper-arousal, the child expresses displeasure through facial expressions, bodily postures, vocal utterances, and crying. This is a critical moment.
Will the child’s caregiver pick up on the child’s attempts to communicate distress?
A good-enough caregiver will be attuned to the child’s signals, respond by identifying the source of the child’s distress, and then help the child back into a regulated state.
Ideally, this process will repeat itself thousands of times.
The child will therefore accrue a storehouse of experiences of moving from regulation to dysregulation and back again to regulation—all through the guidance and support of their primary caretaker.
This is how a secure attachment to your primary caregiver is formed.
Infants have virtually no ability to regulate their own affect. The infant is dependent on the their primary attachment figure to regulate their affect for them.
In fact—and this is critical to understand—the way an infant learns to regulate their affect is by having it regulated for them by another.
This is the first gift of a “good-enough caregiver.” It is also the most valuable gift.
There is no greater gift that a parent can give to a child than being attuned to when the child becomes dysregulated and then helping the child move back into a state of regulation.
Why is this such a precious gift?
Because the relational process of “being attuned to dysregulation —> responding with care and containment —> re-regulating the infant’s body” results in the building of those portions of the brain that will allow the child to one day regulate their own affect.
Let me say that again: the way that the neural structures necessary for self-regulation develop is via the interactive regulation of the primary caretaker.
More on the neurobiology of this in a moment.
The key to fostering the development of a child’s ability to self-regulate is attunement.
The primary caregiver’s constant—and most important job—is to attune to the ebbs and flows of the infant’s internal states of arousal.
Since the infant has no words, the only way to understand its bodily-based shifts in affect is to pay exquisite attention to the infant’s nonverbal communications.
An attuned caregiver is able to reliably appraise their infant’s state of arousal by reading the infant’s nonverbal communication.
The child communicates that it is dysregulated via barely perceptible changes in facial expression or slight shifts in vocal pitch or minor adjustments of body posture.
Caregivers can discern the level of affect dysregulation in their infants by “reading” their nonverbal communication.
Now, let’s confess the obvious: parenting—for even the best parents—can rightly be characterized as “adventures in misattunement.” This is no big deal.
A child does not need their caregiver to get it right every time.
A child needs their caregiver to want to attune, to get it right about half the time, and to re-attune when they get it wrong.
As a child, you didn’t really need your mother to “get you” all the time—you needed her to realize when she had missed you (misattunement) and then seek to find you again (re-attune).
Again, all of this applies to all close relationships—your relationship with your spouse partner, parenting your 12 year old. All of it.
Attunement is only the first half of the process.
Once the caregiver has become aware of the internal state of their infant (through attunement), the critical question becomes, “Is the caregiver willing and able to up-regulate hypo-aroused states and down-regulate hyper-aroused states?”
The answer to this is as simple as “Has the caregiver herself learned to self-regulate?”
Securely attached parents are able to regulate their infant’s affect because they already possess the neural architecture necessary to regulate their own affect.
As a result, they are able to regulate the affect of their children.
For insecurely attached parents, however, the ability to regulate their child’s affect is almost entirely a function of the degree to which the caregiver has made sense of their own developmental story.
A caregiver who has not engaged their own trauma will be either unable or unwilling to regulate their child.
Let me talk for a moment about What Good Parenting Actually Does to the Child’s Brain.
If a child’s caregiver provides attunement and interactive regulation, the child will develop the necessary neural circuitry to regulate their own affect.
The brain of a child with affect-regulating parents looks different than the brain of a child without such parents.
If the parent is able to attune to the child’s shift into dysregulation, and then to respond to their child by either down-regulating hyper-arousal (through soothing) or up-regulating hypo-arousal (through amplification of positive feelings), then critical structures in the right hemisphere of the brain will be built.
Moreover, the child will develop descending fibers from the orbital prefrontal cortex down to the amygdala.
These brain structures allow the child to regulate their own affect (calming feelings of fear or arousing feelings of numbness).
What attuned and responsive parenting really does is build a competent right hemisphere in the child’s brain—a right hemisphere that is able to down-regulate high arousal fear states and up-regulate shut down states. Repeat.
On the other hand, prolonged mis-attunement or unresponsiveness can result in chronic emotional dysregulation.
In these cases, the child’s brain does not develop the necessary pathways between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic brain to regulate their own affect.

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