Image Description: A graphic of a brain viewed from above. At the top of the image, it says “Left Hemisphere” and “Right Hemisphere.”
A Stress Relief/Trauma Life Hack*:
Move your body side by side.
Bilateral stimulation is a big form of stress release for the body. Swing your arms. Left side, right side in a repetitive way. Take a walk. Left side, right side in a repetitive way. Use your hands to tap on your chest or your legs. Left side, right side in a repetitive way. With headphones, listen to bilateral stimulation music on Youtube. Left side, right side in a repetitive way.
Bilateral stimulation is soothing. Even more significant, it can help the brain store memories in new, helpful ways. (More about that in a moment).
We are living a time of collective trauma, and in the midst of this, we can experience emotional flooding. We can have big, internal reactions of anxiety, irritability, restlessness, hyper-vigilance, and trouble sleeping. These physical feelings give us the sensation that we are continuously on guard, waiting for something challenging but unknown to happen. With all of these, our nervous systems are in a state called hyperarousal. Or, in emotional flooding, we can sense our emotions going flat or numb. We might sleep more, struggle to get out of the bed in the morning, have depressive symptoms, feel continuously fatigued, or get to a place of dissociation where we lose contact with our feelings — becoming disconnected from the moment, ourselves, or our typical lives. With all of these, our nervous systems are in a state called hypoarousal.
We might experience one of these more than the other, or we might bounce back and forth between hyperarousal (top of the next image) and hypoarousal (bottom of the next image). This can be jolting. If you’re experiencing any of these things, please know that they make complete sense given what we’re experiencing collectively, and you’re not alone. We can be very gentle and kind with ourselves in the midst of these things.
(Levine, Ogden, Siegel)
In the midst of present, collective trauma, older traumas from our lives might resurface too, either in our thinking memories or in physical reactions in our bodies. We might not be aware that this is happening because the experience can be one of additional hyperarousal and hypoarousal without necessarily being one of thinking and recollection. We need to show ourselves gentleness and kindness here too.
Bilateral stimulation can be helpful.
When we experience trauma, individually or collectively, the memories of that trauma can be split in our brains. The thinking, recollection, logical memory of the event is stored in left brain, while the emotional memory of the event is stored in the right brain. And if these are not reprocessed physically (building brain connections between the thinking memory and the emotional memory) these can keep us feeling stuck. Hyperarousal is traumatic stress stuck “on” and hypoarousal is traumatic stress stuck “off.” In the midst of these, bilateral stimulation is soothing (try it!). And it can also help move these various forms of memory around in our brain so that they are no longer stuck.
One extremely powerful and effective form of bilateral stimulation is a form of therapy called EMDR. (Check out this article: The Best Drug I’ve Ever Taken Wasn’t Even a Drug. It was EMDR Therapy) EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. When we move our eyes back and forth side to side, or do other forms of bilateral stimulation, we can create a physical state that is something like our REM cycles of sleep. With a therapist, we can use these forms of bilateral stimulation to reprocess traumatic memories, shifting how they are stored physically in our brains and bodies. This helps us shift the ways we are stuck in post-traumatic states of hyperarousal and hypoarousal.
It’s amazing that this stuff works!
So I recommend doing EMDR with a therapist, and this can be done for large traumas and for smaller forms of stress too.
But you can try some forms of bilateral stimulation at home as well. Here’s one form of bilateral stimulation that I learned from Andrea Thomas, one of my colleagues. It’s called the Butterfly Hug.
- Cross your arms across your body in a self-hug.
- Allow your thumbs to be the “body” of the butterfly. Your other fingers are the “wings.”
- Tap your fingers — the wings — on your arms, left side, right side in a repetitive way.
This can be soothing. While you try this, tell yourself messages that are loving, kind, and gentle. Your brain and body are processing these messages at a deep, physical level. Bilateral stimulation makes those connections deeper.
What a great life hack.
* I want to thank Shannon Dingle for a series of tweets she did in which she gave some valuable ‘trauma life hacks.’ I’m borrowing her phrase, so I want to give a nod to her work and her Twitter handle: @ShannonDingle