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  • Writer's pictureHelen

The right brain and the suitcase


Today I went to cranio therapy to deal with the suitcase. To understand what I mean by that, read on.


This summer my daughter had knee surgery. For obvious reasons it was quite upsetting and stressful for everyone. There's the distress of watching your child go under anesthetic and come out again, the pain of seeing your child in pain, the stress of recovery and rehab, the continual worry, the angst of dealing with your child’s frustration and anger and every emotion in between.


In an ideal world we would deal with these emotions as they arise, but as a parent we often have to keep it together for our child, so we tend to take the upsetting experiences and pop them in a ‘suitcase’ to be dealt with later. We then lug the suitcase around with us until there is enough time and safety to unpack it. Over time the suitcase can get quite heavy. This summer I have felt quite overwhelmed, on edge, tearful, and tense from lugging around a pretty heavy case.


My kids are now back at school, so I had the time to take myself to cranio to do some unpacking. I lay down on the bed and was instantly hit by a cacophony of noise from my body. It prompted me to write this blog post.


All humans have two languages that we use to process the world and events that happen to us:


1. Words. We all know about these. Most of our thoughts exist in words, and we speak and understand words in order to communicate with each other. The brain regions for language are largely in the left hemisphere of the brain, and since this side of the brain is also responsible for logic and reason, most of our thoughts are organized into narratives that we believe to be logical and true. Words are a very ‘mental’ phenomena


2. Sensation. The right side of the brain doesn’t speak in words because it doesn’t have the same language centres. The right hemisphere is also less about logic and reason, and more about sensation, emotion, creativity, and expression. The right side of the brain therefore speaks in sensation, metaphor, and pictures. Sensation is a very ‘body or somatic’ phenomena.


When we experience life events, those events are processed with both sides of the brain – the left side will encode a story and words, the right side will encode sensation and pictures (incidentally, during traumatic and stressful events the language centres often go offline, so such events are sometimes only encoded as sensation and imagery, and we lack the words to describe them).


When we feel stressed and overwhelmed, we may notice that our thoughts tend to race, we can’t follow them easily, and it can become a noisy jumble in our mind. The same applies to sensation; the more overwhelmed we are, the noisier and confusing it becomes (sometimes so much so that we become numb in an attempt to drown it out). When I lay down on the table today I was hit with a very messy, noisy, jumble of sensation – a pain here, a heat there, a numb calf, a fizzy hamstring, a twitching, popping, twisting, pulling, bubbling....


Gradually I became aware of a feeling of my body being pulled to the right. In the same way that in psychological therapy we might look at the thought and unpick it a bit, in body work we sit with the sensation and wait for more. So I sat with the pulling on the right, until my body gave me more:


At one point soon after Cleo's surgery she became really scared when the nurses talked about moving her from the operating room bed to the bed in her room. As adults we know that they slip a sheet under and slide us, but at age 10 she didn’t know this and since she was in a huge amount of pain she panicked that they were just going to drag her body from one bed to another. As a parent I witnessed her distress and tried to soothe her. I popped own distress (about seeing her pain) in my suitcase.


What I felt at cranio today was the memory of that event. The somatic memory of my distress at my daughters distress about her body being yanked to the right. Once the sensation and memory came up I had a cry (the reaction I wasn’t able to have at the time), talked about it (processing the left hemisphere version of events too), and removed the event from my suitcase.


The rest of the cranio session went along the same lines; tracking a sensation, giving it attention, words, and then lobbing it out the suitcase. I left the session feeling calmer and more peaceful, with a quieter body and a clearer mind.


If there is a point to this blog post it's this: if we don’t learn to speak in sensation, we miss half the story. If we miss half of the story, we don't really understand what’s going on. If the event was traumatic, we may miss the entire story and feel totally lost. If we don’t learn to speak in sensation we may continue to lug around suitcases full of pain and distress. Those suitcases don’t tend to get any lighter, we just keep dumping more weight in.


And here’s the other thing. Heavy suitcases that we cant put down eventually force us to find ways to alleviate the pain of carrying them. For some people this may look like numbing the pain with drugs and alcohol, for others it may be distraction with work, exercise, or screens. For some it may be seeking extreme sensation to override the pain, for others it may be dissociation to block out the pain altogether.


If you are carrying around a suitcase of pain and are struggling to find the left hemisphere words to unpack it, try using right hemisphere sensation instead. Any practice that allows you to become more in tune with you body and to feel more can support this process. And yep, yoga is one of them




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