Using Bilateral Stimulation to Deal with Big Emotions

Having intense emotions when navigating life is understandable and human. However, not everyone knows what to do with these big emotions and how to navigate them in a healthy way. In fact, not learning how to work with big feelings can lead to problems with substance use and problem behaviour, as people turn to these for escape and relief from their discomfort. It can also contribute to and/or exacerbate other mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, personality disorders, and more. Dealing with feelings can feel complicated and confusing to those who are not used to it, but what if there were fairly simple, low effort ways to help us navigate the world of feelings?
In fact, there is! These techniques are based on the principle of bilateral stimulation, which is a rhythmic balance of stimuli to the left and right hemispheres of the brain. This can be accessed in easy ways using various senses.

How does bilateral stimulation work? It is working to create electrical activity in different parts of the brain and encourages better communication between the two sides of the brain. This inter-hemisphere communication is important for better emotional processing and regulation, which is the reason we are talking about it here. Yogis have known about this benefit for ages, though perhaps not knowing the science behind it, but incorporating bilateral breath work as a branch of yoga technique that is still practiced world-wide today. We can expand bilateral stimulation beyond the breath and incorporate it into other senses.

So, have you been feeling stuck dealing with big emotions? Are you interested in incorporating some new, user-friendly techniques into your self-care? Here are some suggestions for you:

1) Sound. There are many bilateral stimulation meditations out there, including on YouTube. Often these are referred to as Binaural Beats meditations. These rhythmic sounding meditations are actually sending frequencies back and forth to each side of the brain in a consistent fashion. These meditations are best done with headphones for the brain to really appreciate the bilateral stimulation it is receiving. There are other bilateral music sessions and meditations available online for free which can be done anywhere from a few minutes to longer/day. With any of these techniques, you do not have to worry if you don’t have a lot of time as even a few minutes provides support to our emotional regulation.

2) Tapping. There are various therapeutic techniques that incorporate tapping into them as this is another way to use our senses to bilaterally stimulate both sides of the brain. The Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) is one example of a therapy that incorporates tapping. If you are working with a therapist or seek one out for additional support with this, that is recommended before starting EFT yourself. You can incorporate tapping into your routine in a more straightforward way, which is simply by tapping your feet back and forth, one beat at a time; tapping your knees with your finger tips back and forth, one beat at a time; or tapping your clavicle (the bones just below your neck. Doing this for 1-2 minutes at least once/day can help activate our parasympathetic (relaxation) nervous system and support grounding.

3) Eye Movement. Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) is one of two World Health Organization techniques approved for the treatment of trauma of PTSD and incorporates eye movement into it. Accelerated Resolution Therapy incorporates some of these principles as well, while having clients replace their negative memories and associations with positive ones. Eye movement is another example of bilateral stimulation. To do this on your own, simply take time at least once/day to sit or lay with your head stationary and gently shift your gaze to the right, hold your gaze comfortably there (while blinking normally) for 30-45 seconds or until you notice yourself yawn, swallow, or sigh. Then gently shift your eyes to the other side and repeat. It is recommended that if you are experiencing a significant amount of trauma symptoms, anxiety, and general agitation that you practice this technique multiple times/day. Since it only takes a minute or two to do, the time effort is low but the benefit can be significant. At first you may not notice an impact, but doing it regularly over a longer period of time can help stabilize the nervous system. If you are interested in EMDR or ART therapy, please reach out to a trained professional in your local area.

4) Breath. As mentioned earlier, yogis have been practicing alternate nostril breathing for a long time. This technique involves gently pressing on the outside of one nostril, taking a thoughtful inhale and exhale, before doing the same on the other side. It is recommended that you do this for 3-5 breaths on each side daily. If you are interested in more training around breath work, please reach out to a trained professional in your area.

These are all easy techniques that can be used to help support your emotional and mental health. For demonstrations of these techniques and more information, please check out our YouTube video on this topic.

This is a friendly reminder that these are self-guided techniques and meant to provide general information to support you in your wellness journey. Stop all techniques immediately if you are experiencing an adverse effect. If you are interested in additional professional support, please contact a trained and trusted provider in your local area.

Sana Psychological is a group of clinicians located in Calgary, Alberta, Canada who can provide virtual services to those throughout Canada, Alberta, and locally to Calgarians.

Thank you for reading and all the best in your journey.