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Co-Regulating with Nature & Animals: Creating a Secure Attachment With the World Around You.

When I was a tiny queer child, I had some issues at school, like most of us queer kids do. I didn’t connect or identify with the kids in my grade. I knew there was something different about me, and so did they. A professor of mine in undergrad called queerness, “that thing about you that just doesn’t fit.” A family friend’s kid, who also had that thing that made him “not quite fit”, had just built a chicken coup in their backyard, and I was instantly intrigued. Did you know there are so many breeds of chickens? That they have enormous personalities? That there is nothing more magical than waking up to your first egg, or first hatched chick?

In the years I kept chickens, I had a security in my life. A way of managing any kind of feelings I was having about being different. These chickens served as a transitional attachment as I moved between the liminal spaces of puberty and finding oneself. They greatly improved my mental health, and contributed to my sense of self. I had a job, I had a beating heart to regulate with, I was always welcome.

I have countless clients who look at their animal companions as absolutely vital to their health. These animals are family members, caretakers, reasons to get out of bed in the morning, a reason to stay alive. To go outside. To clean the house.

One of the best parts of having part of my practice remote is getting to meet client’s wonderful animal companions. I can just feel the difference in their nervous systems when their companion is with them. They feel more grounded, calm, secure.

For so many of us, living in this weird late stage of capitalism, we are disconnected for a number of reasons on a daily basis. Emphasis on the individual versus the collective. Working all the time. Living alone during a pandemic. Struggling to find people we can fully be our authentic selves with.

Having these companions creates daily opportunities for co-regulating our nervous systems with living, breathing beings. This isn’t a replacement for human connection, but simply another avenue that is also available to us.

So what if you don’t have an animal companion?

Another story. In my early 20’s I was in a difficult relationship. Weren’t you too? It was very hard for me to regulate in that relationship, and one of the only ways I could fully rest and recharge during that time was to be by the ocean. The waves cresting and falling would lull my nervous system into a deep state of co-regulation and relaxation. I felt such a deep resonance with this enormous natural entity. When the water held me as I floated on my back, I felt an expansive state of ventral vagal deliciousness. The ventral vagal nerve being the part of your nervous system that invites a feeling of safety and connection. You can learn more about that here.

We can co-regulate with most parts of the natural world. We can have a secure attachment to nature, or a specific part of or place in nature. While I never knew how my girlfriend at the time was going to act, I always knew how I would feel with the ocean. I felt secure in my relationship, held, and loved.

It’s different for everyone where they feel the most secure. For some of us it’s an open field, for others a dense forest. For some of us, we live in big cities and have to build relationships with the breeze, sunshine when we can, clouds, plants between the side walk cracks, any tree we can find, and always, birds. The promise of birds is everywhere.

We can always return to a calm place in nature in our mind's eye. Remembering how a place we have visited feels in our body, what it smells like, looks like, feels like. We can hang pictures on our walls of the natural world, which is scientifically proven to ease our bodies.

When we are rushing through our days (because capitalism makes us rush, or makes us feel like we have to rush) we miss these chances for regulation. We only pet our cat for 1 minute instead of a nourishing 20 minute cuddle session. We miss that the goldenrod is blooming on the corner of our block. How delicious the sun feels on our skin and the rain smells on the pavement. It is incredibly recharging to stay at home in our nests, and also, it can be so helpful to make time to really spend long periods of time outside co-regulating with nature.

Some ideas:

Take a page out of How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell and buy a bird book for your area. You can also download the Merlin Bird ID. Learn the names of the birds on your land and greet them as you start to recognize them.

Practice deep breathing outside. Notice the temperature of the air. How it smells. How it feels entering your nose. Feeling the wind on your skin.

Spend the same amount of time you might spend scrolling on an app or on a TV show giving your animal companion your full 100% attention.

Plan to spend the whole day outside in a calming environment. This could look like a hike, a day by a body of water, at the park on a blanket in the grass, snowshoeing or sledding in the snow. Check in with yourself, how do you feel after this day? How is different or similar to a day spent resting indoors? How does your body feel?

Make a list of all the animals and parts of nature you can connect with and next time you need that co-regulation, return to it.

Learn the name(s) of the tribes whose land you are on here. Research them and what life was like before colonialism. Imagine how that world must of been. Learn what birds and plants are indigenous to where you are and try to find them.

Read Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

Ask a stranger if it’s ok if you pet their animal.

Imagine your calm place in nature, or look at pictures of it. Imagine it with your whole body. Notice what happens to your stress levels.

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