Essential Left & Right Brain Engagement During Times of High Stress

Originally published Jan 2018

The Case for physical engagement

For four months, I was employed by the Department of Defense (DOD) alongside a group of a dozen other young post-college students. We were assigned to work on US military bases in Italy and Germany. As civilians we were employed to care for soldier’s children in the daycares as the soldiers reunited after direct combat. Most of the centers were run by active duty spouses who were mandated to return stateside for a furlough with their families. Vacancies in the childcare centers created a place of need for workers like us to care for the remaining children whose parents were still at war. This post-war care plan attempted to implement new efforts designed to alleviate post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) seen evidently from previous wars and rather promote healthy bonding and attachment within the family units in the midst of re-entry.  This re-entry care was what I was passionate about learning from. 

The invitation enticed me personally for several reasons. I already knew I wanted to work in the field of care for expatriates. Yet the opportunity came during an in-between stint of re-orientation & re-direction in my own life. Caring for and being present with children I knew would be a reciprocal gift and ultimately part of the physically-engaging healing triad I needed at the time.  I predicted that it would allow me to give my life away in an I-need-you-you-need-me interdependent way. Not to mention the allure of free European travel; also a life-giving space for me sparking new joy to my adventurous side! 

The assignment for caring for these children provided first-hand insight into processing grief. For eight emotionally & physically exhausting hours every day I engaged with these little 1-5 year-olds. I was amazed at how each small child carried burdens beyond their years. I felt the weight as a parent wanting to love and rescue each one from the pain inflicted on them by the ugliness of war. My job: Play, draw, interact, encourage.

I recall one unique day of reprieve for all of us. In a big room with padded walls, filled with soft toys, myself and two other workers engaged in physical play with a group of 8, 4 year-old boys. Simple safe-zone forts constructed, ammunition of plastic balls gathered and a plan of spontaneous attack was created to let out all their little-self energy.  I watched the children come alive as we engaged in a very physical but safe soft-toy “war” for over an hour. The smiles on their faces were unmatched to anything else we had done up until that point or would do thereafter. I watched as otherwise normal little kids burdened by their environment, were given permission to once again play and engage in child-like behavior. By accident we created a space for these boys to be physically engaged in their own developmentally-appropriate and needed way. It also unleashed in us, the workers, an ability to come to their level and release our own weights. This modeled for me evidence of the way our bodies, of any age, respond to the release of intense emotions. Re-enforcing for me the need all humans have for play and especially in the midst of the intensity life hands us. 

What happens in our brains when we play?

Much research has been done on how the right and left hemispheres of our brain function. In summary, the Right brain (sensory brain) is earlier developing, holistic, nonverbal, uses images, metaphors, whole body sense, & raw emotions. This is the brain the children had to work with.The left brain (logic brain) is later developing, linear, linguistic, logical, literal, labeling and list-making. The logic brain is the survival brain and kicks into survival mode when threatened. As with these children aged 1-5 we could see the tension in the developmentally impossible requirement of their logic brain for 8 hours a day of preschool. The best gift we could give them was NOT to require them to process their feelings or take on the responsibilities of adulthood but to attend to the present creating spaces of play and healthy outlets; physically engaging opportunities.

What happens when we’re left dominant?

When one hemisphere of the brain dominates for a long time rigidity, disconnectedness and/or chaos results. When the two collaborate we achieve horizontal integration.  

“There are many reasons that someone might grow up ‘leaning to the left’. What if our need to be close to others – to share our non-verbal signals, to feel seen and safe – is NOT met by a caring, connecting, communicating other? Or even worse, what if those early interactions are terrifying? If we live in an emotional desert or are being tossed about by violent storms, our right hemisphere may shrivel in response retreating to a more left-dominant mode.(Siegel,  Mindsight).

As our brains develop, an over-emphasis is placed on the left, linear, logic brain and the right brain becomes under-utilized. So many of us are forced to live daily life in our logic brain in survival mode. Therefore we must be intentional about tapping into and filling the often empty well of our right, artistic, sensory brain. Take for example: Walking, cooking, washing dishes, biking, driving a car on a long road trip, even a shower. All of these activities are repetitive and rhythmic in nature, taking us from our word-based logic brain into our creative sensory, rhythmic brain. These mundane daily activities when done with attention can allow us to create in new and richer ways we never thought possible. As well, in our right brain we have the potential to flee from ruminating over-analytical thoughts to a centeredness and a grounded presence actively engaging in the world around us. Our presence allows others the invitation to be present to their whole self, as well. 


 During the most painful times of my most recent transition, during moments of intense stuckness all I naturally could think to do was to process, analyze and try to fix my way out of my situation. In actuality I became obsessed with thoughts of what was said or not said that led me to where I was. I wanted to figure out the next steps, NOW! I knew the answer for how to approach my future was somewhere in me if only I could figure it out. If only I could think my way to it, like my INTP/J, strategic, analytical self could often do. Then I would know what to do next. 


This type of ruminating only created greater frustration and paralysis taking me into a tailspin of panic as my future looked so confused and hopeless and my normal mode of operating fell short. I slowly learned that the best thing I could do for myself in these times was to actively engage kinesthetically. So I walked. I walked and I hiked and I thanked God that the beauty of nature was so accessible within 5 minutes from my house.  I needed to basically shut down the thinking. When I walked or drew or rode bike my mind had a chance for stillness. Sybil McBeth states in Praying in ColorIf I permit my body to move - even just the movement of my hand, fingers, and arm with pen and marker - then my bones and muscles are content. I can become calm and relaxed enough to find inner stillness and to pay attention.” 

In general it's not the body that needs to be stilled; it's the mind. In stilling my mind, my body caught up. It released the intensity of emotions that would otherwise flood my brain. I had to, like these children of soldiers find my way back into the space of engaging my body in movement and play. And in that space of play I began to once again find my true self.


For deeper thought:

How often are you intentional about utilizing both aspects of the brain?

Which activity sparks greatest creative potential for you?

Are you aware of intense feelings that are released when you engage with certain activities?