The psychiatrist Bruce Perry describes regulation as about being in balance. Stress is what occurs when a challenge takes us out of balance. We become dysregulated where we experience distress and discomfort. Finding balance again – becoming regulated – is rewarding and we experience pleasure. In all areas of our lives, we are seeking balance and regulation.
We learn how to regulate in infancy. Our caregivers act as external regulators that help keep us, and bring us back, into balance. Rhythm is one of our most powerful tools for helping ourselves regulate. All life and the natural world is rhythmic – we experience this in the womb with the beating heart of the mother. It creates sound, pressure and vibration that provide input to the brain as it is starting to organise. These become implicit memories that associate 60-80 bpm rhythms with the sense of feeling warm and safe. After birth rhythms at these frequencies can comfort and soothe. Loss of rhythm or unpredictable patterns can become associated with threat.
Rocking the baby when it is distressed soothes it. Feeding, holding and giving affection to the baby increases this association between rhythm and feeling safe. Loving interactions with caregivers increase this sense of safety by mixing in the comfort of human contact. Smells, touch, tone of voice of our caregiver become linked with that sense of safety. Perry calls this creating the roots and trunk of the tree of regulation.