What Is Bilateral Stimulation? 

Bilateral stimulation (BLS) refers to the use of a stimulus that is presented to both sides of the body. BLS is a key component of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). During EMDR therapy, an individual uses BLS while attending to distressing material, such as a traumatic memory or uncomfortable body sensation. The primary forms of BLS are eye movements (EMs), tactile and audio.

Numerous hypotheses exist for why BLS works. Many studies have shown benefits from BLS, including facilitation of memory processing and inducing a relaxation response.

  • Eye movements are guided by a visual stimulus, such as a dot moving across a person’s visual space. Studies have demonstrated that EMs facilitate decreased vividness of memories and thoughts, decreased emotional response to a memory, enhancement of the parasympathetic system, and increased cognitive flexibility. One hypothesis for these effects is that lateralized eye movements suppress the fear response in the brain. EMs are thought to facilitate memory processing by uncoupling the distressing emotions of traumatic memories.
  • Tappers or buzzers provided a tactile form of BLS using an alternating buzzing sensation. TouchPoints are one form of alternating somatosensory stimulation that can be worn on the wrists or other parts of the body. A randomized control study of these particular BLS found a significant reduction in the body’s stress response within 30 seconds of usage.
  • Audio BLS provides an alternating sound, normally through headphones, to the ears. There is less research supporting audio BLS; however, case studies and anecdotes from clinical experience have demonstrated the effectiveness of audio BLS for many people.
  • Manually tapping using one’s own hands to each side of the body simulates BLS. The butterfly hug is one way of manual tapping where you cross your arms and tap on the sides of your arms. This is a popular BLS to use with children. Also, the butterfly hug can be self-administered outside of EMDR therapy sessions. Manual tapping can be akin to the soothing feeling of rocking or swaying back and forth.

BLS is thought to facilitate the processing of distressing psychological experiences by reducing emotional overactivation. Studies have found a simultaneous activation of the limbic areas responsible for emotional processing and the prefrontal cortex associated with higher-level thought functions.

The Working Memory Hypothesis

Maintaining dual attention to both disturbing material, such as traumatic memories, and the BLS is thought to facilitate effective processing. BLS also taxes working memory as a person is talking about distressing events in the past. In doing so, this decreases emotional activation while engaging in recalling memories.

Working memory involves using an active memory along with performing cognitive operations. When recalling a memory and engaging in BLS, working memory is taxed and the memory may become less activating. Disturbing memories that are brought into consciousness while engaging in BLS are subsequently stored back into long-term memory with less vividness and emotional intensity. Thus, memory is reconsolidated with less activation, facilitating traumatic healing.

Bilateral Stimulation for Relaxation

In addition to trauma processing, BLS can be used to generate relaxation. Using calming or safe place visualizations along with BLS allows the autonomic nervous system, or parasympathetic system, to induce the relaxation response. For example, thinking about lying on a sunny beach while performing the butterfly hug and holding tappers, may induce feelings of calm and serenity.

BLS Exercise

You can use self-BLS to facilitate a calm and connected mental state.

  1. Find a quiet place and get into a comfortable position.
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Take some deep breaths. Breath a 10 second breath cycle. Inhale 5 seconds and exhale 5 seconds. Focus on expanding your diaphragm during the inhale and contracting upon the exhale. Let your breathing be smooth and relaxed. Notice how you feel.
  4. Recall a place where you feel calm or peaceful. This place can be real or imagined. It’s a special place where you feel especially good and at ease. Access all the sensory details to make it feel as real as possible. How does it look? What you do you feel? What do you hear? Do you taste anything? Try to access all the positive feelings associated with this place.
  5. Cross your hands and bring your arms towards your shoulders. So, your left hand will be touching the upper part of your right arm and your right hand will be touching the upper part of your left arm. Begin tapping the palm of your hands and fingers back and forth. Alternate each tap from left to right. Try to go at a medium pace and touch, not too fast or slow, or hard or soft. Tap each side about 10 times (20 taps on each side). You can change this depending on what works best for you.
  6. Notice how you feel and what sensations are in your body.
  7. You can always return to this place whenever you need.
How to Use EMDR Therapy Butterfly Hug

BLS in Counseling

Dr. Mazzei uses BLS in psychotherapy, including during EMDR therapy. If you are interested in getting professional mental help, follow these simple steps:

  1. Text today at (480) 448-6755 or e-mail us for a free consultation
  2. Or, you can book directly online with Dr. Mazzei
  3. Begin your journey towards a fulfilling and healthier life

Dr. Mazzei offers both in-person and online counseling for residents of Arizona, Illinois, and Nevada. Her private practice is located at 3377 S. Price Rd., Suite 2104, Chandler AZ, 85248.