This morning, I woke up feeling like a butcher knife was lodged in my heart, the memory of barking and snarling voices ringing in my ears. No surprise there; it’s to be expected.
My first coherent thought was, “This needs to be better.” I think that about a lot of things, but this one is mine to deal with.
I pulled one of my tools out of my mental toolkit, and flicked my eyes from ceiling to floor, ceiling to floor. (I’m a side-sleeper.) When I felt an urge to close my eyes, I did. When I opened them again, the butcher knife had shrunk to the size of a stiletto, maybe a medium-sized knitting-needle.
This magic technique is one way of using “bilateral stimulation.” Bilateral stimulation is a way of using neuro-anatomy to manage neuro-chemistry, using your brain signals to heal your mind. There’s loads of material on it in the field of trauma psychology.
Basically, the way our brain processes “sidedness” (the fact that we have a left, a right, a front, and a back) is even deeper than the way it processes strong, primitive emotions, like fight-or-flight-or-freeze. Those emotions tend to disrupt the brain’s normal processing of memory, thought, and decision-making, which can be useful when mastodons are stomping over your village — what you need to do is move faster than you’ve ever done in your life, and not camp on their migratory route in the future.
Most decisions we have to make are not on that order. Even when we live with a brain that keeps wanting to go there, it’s still rarely useful. So, it’s wise to have a few tools that can keep it in check when it’s working “after hours”, so to speak.
One way to do that, which works for most ordinary stressors, is meditation. It gives me practice in creating a still space inside, where I can survey my surroundings, assess things, and choose the best way forward, from this non-triggered space. The “success” of individual meditation sessions is irrelevant to this skill, because it comes naturally as a result of persistently going back to meditation and working on it over and over. Like with many things regarding central nervous system care, persistence is key.
When my skills are toppled over by what goes on around me (cf. my last post! A perfect example of losing it and coming back again), these other tools come out of my “bag of tricks.”
Glancing from one side to another is easy, portable, and requires only some vision and muscular control of your eyes. Pick a spot about 45-60 degrees ahead of you on your left, and a corresponding spot on your right. Flick your glance from one to the other, and back again, not too fast, not too slow. The right speed varies from person to person and time to time. Feel out the point where your system naturally drops to a median, attentive level. It doesn’t feel dramatic or unnatural; I experience it as a sort of a natural pause, as if it’s waiting calmly for something reasonable. Getting someone properly trained in EMDR to teach you what this feels like is really helpful, but you might be able to find it yourself.
There’s a bit more to it: real EMDR training starts with finding, and programming into that deep layer, a “safe place” to go to in your mind; establishing a certain connection with what some call “your wise self”, so you can re-assess your situation and re-evaluate your responses without the triggering; and learning what happens to you, in particular, during the process, so you can self-treat with fewer problems and more success.
Other techniques of bilateral stimulation include the “butterfly hug.” Cross your arms so your hands rest on your opposite collarbones, and tap one side, then the other side. This feels very comforting. It’s not my go-to, because the nerves going through my elbows don’t like bending up that much.
Thigh tapping is widely taught in disaster- and war-related trauma recovery. It can be done sitting, standing, or lying down. Simply tap your legs, first one side, then the other, with the hand on that side. Left hand left leg, Right hhand right leg, back adn forth. The signal demands attention from the brain, which pulls itelf off of panic duty and gets back to processing information and sorting memories in a healthier way.
My physical therapist recently taught me the cross-body crawl. I can do this standing, sitting, or lying down on my back. Reach over with one hand and bring up the opposite knee, then switch sides, back and forth.
This does several things: it provides bilateral stimulation, which calms the panicky system down. It tones the core muscles, especially done while walking! It reminds the brain where the limbs are, which is kind of a huge deal with CRPS, which tends to muddle our brain’s map of our bodies. The cross-body crawl tops my current list of things I wish I wouldn’t do in public, because people look at me funny, but I’m going to do it anyway, because it’s so helpful to me.
I’m also able to focus on nutrition, physically the biggest player in the healing game. I made a green soup last night — Not Chik’n brand bouillon with all the green things I could find in the store that weren’t cabbage relatives (because they push down on my thyroid), and yesterday that was parsley, leeks, mature spinach, celery, and dandelion greens, plus carrots to smooth it all out. I cooked the rather harsh-smelling leeks in butter until the smell sweetened, then dumped everything but the spinach in and simmered for awhile, letting the minerals leach out into the broth. Then I cooked the spinach on top more briefly (so it wouldn’t get bitter) and threw it all in the blender.
As my friend said, “It’s like a chlorophyll bath.”
Meanwhile, as long as I persist in my meditative practice, the work on finding a home charges ahead. It’s a lasting puzzle to the linear part of my mind why an hour spent on meditation makes the other 3-4 functional hours I can squeeze out of the day ten times more effective. I’m gaspingly glad that it does, because it’s a heck of a job to find a safe place for this body.
This cascade of events has carved into my very bones the understanding that it’s meditation that will save me in the end. It’s the axis of my mundi, strange as that may seem to those who’ve witnessed any of my eventful life.
I feel the wings of angels stirring my hair now, and I can’t worry, only take the leap and trust that I’ll fly, rather than fall.