Bilateral Stimulation (BLS) is nothing new. Yogis have been doing it through the meditative practice of Yoga Nidra for thousands of years. Qigong incorporates it into almost all their routines. Bilateral Stimulation refers to any activity that channels your attention from one brain hemisphere to the other. In EMDR this is typically done by tapping on alternate knees or watching someone’s fingers move rapidly from right to left. But you don’t need to do EMDR, Yoga Nidra, Qigong, or anything else that requires learning a new technique to alternately stimulate both sides of your brain. Every time you walk you do exactly that. Ditto for stair climbing. As typical of those behaviors may already be for you, it can only help to incorporate more BLS into your day as it clears the mind, induces calm, and enables easier decision making. No matter which techniques you choose, the benefits are nothing short of extraordinary in recalibrating your brain.
No doubt, you have noticed how simply taking a walk shifts your thinking and gives you a new perspective. It’s the balancing effect of bilateral hemisphere stimulation. Once you have some measure of hemi-sync, as it’s called, you can more easily tackle thorny problems.
In our thinking oriented world, it can be quite grounding to work intelligently with the body; especially, when that directly affects mental and emotional processing.
A VARIETY OF WAYS TO DO BILATERAL STIMULATION:
Take the stairs.
Yoga (Actually, the meditative practice of Yoga Nidra uses this in many ways that don’t require learning any postures.)
Tapping (See tapping post on this site.)
EMDR, usually done with an EMDR practitioner.
Acupuncture can have elements of bilateral stimulation depending on how it’s done.
Alternate nostril breathing.
Binaural beats, an auditory way of alternately engaging both hemispheres.
Cognitive techniques, when going back and forth from tasks that require the left hemisphere, like logic, to tasks that engage the right hemisphere through creative or artistic endeavors.
WHEN TO USE BILATERAL STIMULATION:
Extreme situations are often a great time to try BLS. When a traumatic memory is triggered, whether it’s the thought, emotion, or both simultaneously. This might be a sudden feeling of panic when flooded with an old disturbing memory or a deep upwelling of grief when watching a movie of a child dealing with a situation you experienced. Whatever the trigger, extreme emotional states are well suited to the calming effects of BLS. For instance:
When feeling stressed overwhelmed.
When you can’t make a decision.
When an unpleasant emotion, like anger, anxiety, guilt, etc. shows up and you have no idea why.
If you find yourself ruminating on negative what-ifs, something upsetting from your past, or a fear of something in the future.
When lonely or bored. (Also, see pieces here on Loneliness and Boredom.)
If you feel emotionally detached, untethered from reality, “floaty,” or simply want to feel more grounded. ( See the piece here on Grounding Techniques.)
This is another tool in your mind-body toolbox. As with all the others on this site, the more you practice it, the more powerfully it can help you recalibrate your emotions and calm your nervous system.
I am a huge fan of the free app: Insight Timer. It has over 40,000 meditations. While I certainly haven’t listened to all of them, I have sampled many. With such an embarrassment of riches it’s a bit daunting to sort through them and bookmark all the ones you love. I thought it might be helpful to share some of my favorite teachers with you.
I’m not suggesting specific meditations from each of them as I think it’s good to look at all their offerings and choose what benefits you most on any particular day.
I will keep adding new names to the bottom of the list as I discover more of these amazing resources.
I was recently listening to an episode of the podcast “Like Mind, Like Body,” in which Dr. John Stracks was talking about his experiences treating Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS), also called Tension Myoneural Syndrome or Mind-Body Syndrome (MBS). All of which refer to how the body expresses something the mind isn’t comfortable allowing you to think or feel emotionally. Dr. John Sarno, Dr. David Clarke, Dr. David Hanscom and others have written about TMS for quite some time. Dr. Stracks was saying how he has noticed many of his patients start showing physical symptoms after a death in the family. But, it doesn’t necessarily have to be as momentous a shift in one’s life as the loss of someone close to you, it can be a job change, a move, a physical diagnosis, divorce, a history of trauma, or anything that takes a fair amount of emotional and psychological restructuring to assimilate.
TMS can manifest as sleep issues, a backache, sciatica, neck pain, IBS, Gerd, migraines, tics, TMJ, palpitations, tinnitus, knee pain, pins and needles in your hands or feet, vision issues, numbness, sudden muscle spasms, or anything physical that stops you in your tracks and distracts you from feeling anger, grief, panic, or anxiety. Your body is simply processing something emotional and protecting you from what it unconsciously believes is worse: a flood of overwhelming disturbing or negative feelings.
One of the hallmarks of mind-body syndrome, is a rotating roster of physical issues. It’s like mind-body whac-a-mole. One day you might have Gerd, another day it’s a backache, next week it’s a migraine, next year it could be sciatica. To make matters even more complicated, some people find that when their physical symptoms abate they can be replaced by emotional issues, like anxiety, grief, or depression.
If you already know you fit Dr. Sarno’s pattern of someone likely to develop mind body syndrome, i.e.: you’re sensitive, generous, a do-gooder, perfectionistic, self-critical, have a variety of physical symptoms, are hyper-vigilant about what’s going on in your body, and you have had a major life change, it might be a good idea to consider your physical issues psychogenic. This doesn’t mean you’re making them up; rather, it’s your unconscious mind creating a physical symptom. It’s helpful to understand your body is simply trying to help you assimilate a major life change or something else you could find disturbing or overwhelming. Of course, these mind-body symptoms do not always come from something so easily traceable. They might just show up when your unconscious mind is concerned you’ll be drenched in grief and it wants to preoccupy you with something else it deems less bad.
One of the most useful things you can do is to keep a written or audio journal where you vent your deepest, darkest thoughts and feelings. Dr. Sarno used to say it was crucial to focus on your rage because people who are kind, nice, overly generous, sweet, considerate and perfectionistic generally have a tendency to not allow themselves to feel their anger to its full extent. In people with that constellation of traits and tendencies unexpressed rage can often turn into a physical symptom. The good news is: Getting in touch with your feelings, even ones you might think are unacceptable, can be safe and freeing. Simply writing about what’s going on in your life, including things you are unhappy about, allows them to move through you. It also lets your unconscious mind know you can handle feeling all your feelings.
Another aspect of moving through TMS into recovery is going against your symptoms by engaging in physical activity. Exercise is an essential component of healing from TMS.
While it feels wildly counter-intuitive to have real pain and convince yourself it’s in your head and you’re really OK, this is the road to feeling better. A short phrase that helps with this is: Hurt doesn’t equal harm.
When thinking of stressful events, it’s important to remember that positive life changes, like getting married, buying a house, starting a new job, or having a baby can also trigger TMS. It dosen’t have to be anger, memories of a traumatic childhood, or current annoyances.
Of course, with each new symptom it’s easy to get scared and think, “This time something is really wrong with me.” I certainly wouldn’t assume that every physical malady is a symptom of TMS. Check out whatever ails you with a doctor. If you find you’re really fine, there is a cornucopia of techniques that can re-orient your thinking and allow your body to come back to a more peaceful, pain free state.
A huge part of overcoming TMS is constantly reminding yourself that nothing really bad is happening to you physically, quite a feat when you’re suffering with an intense migraine, unpleasant stomach issues, or what feels like debilitating back pain. Yet, that is what ultimately allows your body-mind to switch back to a symptom-free state.
This is often a matter of retraining your brain, since a part of you unconsciously wants to create a physical symptom to distract you from emotional pain and while your conscious mind wants to get over the physical symptom and might be willing to feel the emotion. To make this even more difficult, you might also be aware enough to know you are grief stricken or furious at someone or something in your life; but, as Dr. Sarno used to say, there is a lot more anger there than meets the eye. This is why it’s so crucial to do the journaling and meditation.
Another important aspect of recovery is education. Current pain research is brimming with theories on the ways your brain creates pain. They are remarkably easy to understand, make sense, and help you see how easily you can re-train your brain. YouTube videos by Lorimer Moseley are engaging, fun and enlightening.
Dr. David Hanscomb has found 25-30% of a patient’s recovery from pain is based on getting enough sleep. (See Insomnia piece on this website.)
TMS can be a relapsing and remitting condition. That’s not a life sentence. It’s merely a way your unconscious mind shows you that you need to ratchet up your self care, create better boundaries with people, or start journaling and meditating again.
The good news is: There is nothing wrong with you. Even issues people have had for decades can suddenly resolve once the underlying psychological material is sufficiently acknowledged and you have been exposed to enough scientific information about the mind-body connection. At times, it’s helpful having a therapist on the journey, and an experienced body worker, massage therapist, acupuncturist. Not to “cure” you, but to support you.
I have suffered with mind-body syndrome since I was a young teen. It has manifested in myriad ways, none of which I enjoyed. The body can be astonishingly creative. No matter how many times I’ve been scared that something was really physically wrong this time, almost everything has resolved with a combination of journaling, meditation, education, and going against symptoms by staying active. The Curable app and their Facebook community are incredible resources, as they put all these healing tools in one place. I have also found reading Dr. Sarno’s and Dr. Hanscomb’s books incredibly helpful. Like so many things in life, dealing with this is both a process and a practice. If you have TMS please be patient and compassionate with yourself.
YouTube videos and books by Lorimer Moseley, Dr. John Sarno, Dr. Sarno’s 12 Daily Reminders, Dr. David Hanscom, Dr. Howard Schubiner, Alan Gordon, LCSW, Dr. David Clarke, Adriaan Louw and Beth Darnall.
There is an unfortunate trend in many self-help podcasts, books and YouTube videos that encourages you to let go, accept and forgive through the use of affirmations. Letting go, even accepting and forgiving, is wonderful as long as you’re emotionally ready. Spiritual bypassing comes when you force yourself to resolve something even though you’re still upset or angry about it. When you forgive someone or accept something before you’re ready you simply create a polarized part in yourself. In other words, you now have all the angry, grief-stricken or frustrated parts and a new (or more strongly activated) inner voice that says you shouldn’t feel any of those things, you should just forgive yourself and everybody else…as if that’s so easy, or simply saying it is going to make it so.
Nothing could be further from the truth. As a matter of fact, putting affirmations or positive self-talk on top of roiling emotions only suppresses them: the opposite of letting them out and letting them pass through you.
The thing to do with feelings is feel them. Emotions are truly energy in motion. If you try to squash them by covering them up with something that sounds or looks better you’re merely encouraging them to burrow into you more deeply.
If it were truly so easy to say a few affirmations and excise your demons everybody would have done it long ago and would feel happy and peaceful. Affirmations can be a useful adjunct in your mental wellness tool kit; however, you have to be ready for them. Merely saying them doesn’t make them magically change your life. If you don’t really believe them, they won’t work. Wanting to believe them is not the same as having done the emotional prep work that lets you fully embrace them.
So what can an angry or grief-stricken human do to pave the way for true acceptance and forgiveness? Allow yourself to feel your feelings no matter how disturbing, scary or unpleasant they may be. This is one of the hardest things you could possibly do and takes an incredible amount of practice, but it can be done. Just understand it may go against an almost cellular tendency to fight what feels unpleasant or overwhelming. Still, you invite in the scary, triggering, or disturbing feeling. It’s both counterintuitive and incredibly powerful.
The practice involves saying: Let me feel this. There are many variations on this essential phrase, like: I can make it safe to feel this. Or: It’s OK to feel this. Whichever one you use will open the door to greater calm, less muscle tension, and less cognitive dissonance.
When you allow the parts of you that are still disturbed about something to express themselves they relax. There’s nothing for them to fight against. On the other hand, if you force them into subjugation with forgiveness they’re not ready to truly accept, they will fight you by creating cognitive and emotional dissonance. This discomfort may not be conscious, because your ego and/or unconscious mind might succeed in suppressing it, but it will be there, just under the surface, waiting to pounce with either a physical or emotional manifestation (muscle pain, headaches, stomach aches, heart palpitations, addictions, insomnia, anxiety, depression, feelings of worthlessness, etc.).
There is no way to bypass the work of feeling unpleasant emotions when they arise without incurring negative consequences. On the other hand, if you practice feeling all your feelings, they will become less scary, intimidating and overwhelming. Adding a hefty dose of self compassion by using Kristen Neff’s three key concepts can make this a bit easier.
She suggests saying the following to yourself:
1. This is a moment of suffering.
2. Everyone suffers, no one has singled me out for this, it’s simply part of the human experience.
3. Let me be kind and gentle to myself as I experience this.
It’s easy to see how suggestions to spiritually bypass this work can be enticing, but resist their enchantments. They will only add to your unhappiness. The only way out is through. If there were a faster route we would all be taking it and feeling deliriously happy. Just as with everything else in your life you feel good about, it requires some work. To build a muscle you have to use it. If you want to build emotional muscle you have to practice feeling and acknowledging what’s true and real for you. You have to feel your feelings. That’s what they’re there for. Stuffing them, ignoring them, or beating them into submission will not work. Just like whack-a-mole they will emerge somewhere else.
Resist the urge to wallpaper over your sadness, disappointment, frustration, anger, anxiety, and grief with forgiveness and acceptance. Allow yourself to feel them all. Get to know them. Hard as it may be to believe, they’re there to help you. They’re simply parts of you that want to protect you from further pain by reminding you, through an unpleasant feeling, to take the very best care of yourself you possibly can.
Why hold a grudge? Holding a grudge typically involves repeatedly reminding yourself how somebody wronged you and how they deserve your continued anger, disappointment, resentment, and retribution. It’s a unique self-inflicted pain requiring incessant internal reminders of being hurt by someone’s indifference, willful behavior, or obliviousness. Who would want to reignite the emotional distress of feeling dismissed, ignored, rejected, or hurt?
When you think about it like that, holding a grudge seems completely toxic to the person holding it. However, humans usually do things for very good reasons even though they may not be apparent at first blush. What could possibly be the benefit of holding a grudge? It helps you protect yourself. If you keep replaying and reminding yourself why you’re wary of somebody or avoid them, you protect yourself from future hurt. Another benefit is it’s easier to deal with feeling angry than it is to deal with feeling deeply disappointed, sad, or grief stricken. Anger can feel empowering while the other options might be draining and depressing.
Nobody really wants to hold a grudge, no matter what it looks like it to an observer or to the person the grudge is held against. The reason it’s so difficult to let go of a grudge, especially if it’s a reoccurring issue with someone, is part of you thinks if you don’t remind yourself this is how that person has operated in the past you’re much more likely to be negatively affected by their behavior in the future. Almost like a psychic pain inoculation.
Adding to the unpleasantness of holding a grudge is the self-downing that can come from knowing how people view you. You can be seen as petty, unforgiving, emotionally ungenerous and even self-destructive.
This really complicates things as it feels like a double hit: now you feel the inner dissonance of holding a grudge, and the sense that people are judging you for being slow to forgive. Their judgment can easily lead to self recrimination, even feelings of guilt and shame. I’m here to tell you that holding a grudge is just a self-protective mechanism.It doesn’t make you a bad or mean person. Everyone knows it doesn’t feel good to hold a grudge. The only reason you would do it is if it had some utility.
Forgiveness is wonderful when you’re ready to forgive. However, forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting. A grudge is simply entrenching a bad memory so you won’t let what caused it happen again. When seen in that light, it de-pathologizes your harsh self-judgment and gives you some psychic ammo to counteract the negative feedback you might get from friends and family who don’t want you to suffer.
As with all emotions, the more you allow yourself to feel them the sooner they evaporate. When you tell yourself you’re horrible for holding a grudge it only cements your resentment. It even refuels it as people’s negative judgments can easily make you more defensive. That defensiveness means you’re going to come up with more reasons why you feel the grudge and hold it more tightly.
The next time you’re harboring a grudge against somebody look at how that might be protecting you from potential future pain. Allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling, to explore why you’re feeling it, and to consciously decide what the next best course of action with that person might be.
This is a good example of how creating a default of self compassion will always help you. Instead of lambasting yourself for not instantly forgiving someone, it allows you to gently and patiently explore your own reactions to their behavior. Ultimately, the kindness you show yourself redounds to everyone’s benefit.
This is the easiest self-help thing you can do, even though, at first, it looks as if you’re doing it for someone else.
All you have to do is say something nice.
There’s only one catch:
You have to mean it.
Surely, in almost all your daily wanderings you can find something nice to say to almost everyone you meet.
Don’t lie and don’t lard it on. Just find something you can honestly compliment.
At their house? Even if you hate the decor, say how lovely the light looks as it comes through the window.
Seeing them at the grocery store? Comment on their cheerful demeanor, their smile, their attitude, their clothes, their children. You don’t have to rack your brain that hard to find something positive.
Barbara Fredrickson, in her book: Love 2.0, makes quite a compelling case for the beneficial effects of micro connections. It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest these are even more powerful when they involve a heartfelt compliment.
There are many studies that show how much better people feel after they are generous. You don’t have to write a check, volunteer in a soup kitchen, or knit scarves for the homeless (though those would also be appreciated). Just say a few words:
You look so vibrant today.
You always have such good energy.
I love that color on you.
You have such a way with children.
You’re such a kind soul.
You really make a difference.
The world is so much better with you in it.
I really appreciate your unique view on things.
You get the idea.
Don’t wait until the urge strikes, cultivate the habit. I promise you will be the ultimate beneficiary.
So, go ahead, make someone’s day better. It’s free, easy (once you let yourself relax and let go) and it will increase your joy.
Clearly when you feel happy, elated or joyful your emotions are saying: “More please!” It doesn’t take a psychological sleuth to know what to do when you feel good; however, it does take a bit of digging to figure out what’s underneath the darker and more complex emotions.
When depression, anger, anxiety or grief show up they are messengers asking you to explore what you really want.
Grief, is a shape shifter. It can masquerade as anger, depression, anxiety, and guilt. (There is a piece on this site under the Depression heading called “Is your depression really grief” that points to how frequently people are misdiagnosed, or misdiagnose themselves, with depression when they’re really feeling grief stricken.)
While the following is a fairly oversimplified explanation, I think it can be a useful tool in exploring three major unpleasant emotions.
Often, anxiety covers depression, depression covers anger, and anger covers hurt. All four of those feelings are difficult emotions. They feel lousy, they usually involve unpleasant bodily sensations, and it’s normal to want to ditch them as fast as possible. Yet, if you push them out of your conscious awareness either with distractions, addictions, pharmaceuticals, alcohol, or other drugs, you will simply feel them more strongly in the future, or they will manifest in bodily conditions like backaches, migraines, tension headaches, IBS, palpitations, insomnia, etc.
As daunting as it may appear at first, it’s actually very liberating to plumb the depths of your initial feelings to see if there is something else underneath them. Since anger, anxiety, depression and guilt can be so disturbing, it’s a good idea to ameliorate their effect on you first.
Radical self-care practices, like yoga, qigong, walking, spending time in nature, music, self-compassion meditation, massage, acupuncture, healthy food, chocolate, inspirational videos and talks, and hugs can all soothe and mollify the harsh edges of these intense feelings.
After calming your body, mind and spirit as much as possible, you may want to do some deeper work to free yourself from the grip of the underlying emotion that is often at the root of your initial feeling.
While working with a therapist is one option, there is much you can accomplish on your own. EFT (emotional freedom technique), for example, provides a gentle, yet effective way to work with challenging feelings. You can find many helpful videos on YouTube. (Check out my piece on tapping for more information and specific suggestions.)
Another great path is through journaling. Whether written or audio, journaling can be be revealing, cathartic and calming, especially if you ask yourself some of the following questions:
Is my depression really grief?
Have I had a major change in life or a big loss recently?
Could my anger be hiding sadness and hurt feelings?
Is my anxiety covering a deeper sadness or depression?
Is there any chance anger underlies my depression?
Have my guilt feelings unconsciously created a lot of resentment?
These are very probing questions and it’s helpful to come back to them regularly.
Why do people unconsciously cover up deeper, often darker and scarier, emotions with other unpleasant feelings? It’s an unconscious choice to feel the lesser of two evils. For example, it’s easier to admit feeling angry than to get in touch with being hurt, sad, or grief stricken. Why? Because anger is empowering and feeds the ego. Just think of the Sea Witch at the end of the movie THE LITTLE MERMAID. As her anger grew she became enormous, finally imploding. Anger can be both seductive and destructive.
If depression feels so lousy and anger can be empowering, why unconsciously choose depression over anger? Because there is a gender divide in the world of feelings. You don’t consciously choose one over the other, you’ve been trained to do it. Men are allowed to express some measure of anger. Women are generally perceived as less threatening when they express depression, so they learn to stifle their anger, which then gets expressed as depression. They don’t prefer depression over anger, they’ve just been socialized to cope that way.
Whatever the origin of these tendencies, the good news is you can unearth your deeper feelings, work through them with patience, wisdom, and self compassion, and get to the other side.