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what is bilateral stimulation?

In 1987, Dr. Francine Shapiro went for a walk.

As she walked, she noticed that her eyes were moving from side to side, and that some disturbing thoughts she’d been having were easing.

She said: “The thoughts weren’t as bothersome. I wanted to see if it would work if it was deliberate, so I brought up something that bothered me, moved my eyes in the same way and saw the same thing happening.”

What she had discovered was something that many of us “know” instinctively– going for a walk can help us to process difficult material, so that its power over our psyche is less painful or pervasive.

EMDR is a treatment that works by alternating left-right brain stimulation to help process and integrate difficult memories. It is often used to successfully treat traumatic stress. In EMDR therapy, the client recalls emotionally disturbing memories while the therapist directs them through an external bilaterally stimulating (left-right) process. The therapist may use finger movements, hand tapping, or sounds.

The EMDR Institute says as a result of this technique, “affective distress is relieved, negative beliefs are reformulated, and physiological arousal is reduced.” Anecdotally, many of my clients report that after working through the process of EMDR, their traumatic memories no longer hold the same emotional charge; they’re able to integrate these into their lives and move forward in ways that weren’t previously possible.

Why and how does EMDR work?

Dr. Shapiro’s theory was that EMDR mimics the eye movements we make during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep; this is the time when our brain processes memories. Another theory suggests that when we’re remembering something painful while also focusing on bilateral eye movements, the “working memory” part of our brain has to process so much information that the disturbing memory starts to get blurry and feel more distant.

You can harness the power of bilateral stimulation for yourself.

If you are experiencing active trauma symptoms, please seek out qualified, licensed mental health support. Call 988 if you are experiencing a mental health crisis. You can find a list of EMDR providers here.

If you’re dealing with pervasive anxious thoughts, or you keep replaying an uncomfortable memory or stressful fear, bilateral stimulation is a natural activity that can help to discharge some of the emotion. Any activity that alternately stimulates the two sides of the body can be helpful in processing & integrating challenging thoughts.

A few ways to explore bilateral stimulation might include:

  • taking a walk or a run

  • drumming

  • swinging Indian clubs

  • butterfly hug/tapping

  • rhythmic dancing

  • tapping feet or hands to music

  • rhythmic flow movement, such as alternating lateral lunges

  • rocking back and forth

What others can you think of?

While we may not understand exactly how or why bilateral stimulation works, you’ve probably already had the experience of its benefits. I incorporate it frequently into my client work.

Bilateral stimulation can:

  • help us to feel more relaxed in our bodies

  • let us think about other things (instead of being stuck or preoccupied)

  • “distance” us from the problem (so we don’t feel like we’re directly IN it).

  • allows us to feel less direct worry or anxiety about the issue

What’s your experience with bilateral stimulation– have you found it to be something you do naturally? How has it helped you?

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