What is the Butterfly Hug?
The Butterfly Hug is an easy relaxation technique that can be used anywhere, at any time. It was originally created to be used with EMDR Therapy, but can be very relaxing on its own. So it is a great self-soothing tool.
How does the Butterfly Hug connect to the brain?
As many people know, the brain is divided into two hemispheres, the left brain and right brain. The left brain controls emotions and creativity. The right brain dominates areas of logic, patterns and control. The butterfly hug is a type of bilateral stimulation because it crosses the mid line of the body. The mid line is the center line of the Central Nervous System. Research has found that when your extremities cross the center line of the body, it activates that other side of the body. This causes both hemispheres to work together simultaneously.*
Why does this technique help PTSD symptoms?
If you struggle with PTSD, you have probably experienced “being triggered”. This involves having an unexpected negative reaction to some type of familiar stimuli that brings back an emotion, agitation, memory or flashback of a past traumatic event. An example of a being triggered would be experiencing fear when you see a blue jacket, if you were mugged by someone in a blue jacket. Logically you may realize that you aren’t in danger, but your body is reacting automatically because of that traumatic event.
One way to manage these triggers is to practice self-soothing skills to relax the body and calm the mind. Our mind and body are connected. We have signals that travel back and forth all the time. Our mind affects our physical responses and the state of our body affects what we think and how we feel. If we become overwhelmed, our body tenses up and our mind responds with panic and negative thinking. On the other hand, if we can relax our body, these signals travel up to the brain which leads to more relaxing thoughts and calmer emotions.
History of the Butterfly Hug
In 1998 EMDR therapists Lucina (Lucy) Artigas and Ignacio Jarero went traveled to Acapulco, Mexico to helps those struggling after Hurricane Pauline. On their first day, they encountered 200 people experiencing trauma related symptoms. Lucy Artigas created and modeled a technique that resembled butterfly wings fluttering. After using this with groups of adults and children, Lucy and Ignacio discovered that people were experiencing relief from their symptoms.*
As BLS During Resourcing
In EMDR, resourcing is one of the first things you do in therapy. During this stage of EMDR, you are identifying specific coping skills that can help you cope with moments of high stress or anxiety. Then you “instill” these resources using bilateral tapping. This is used early in the EMDR process to bring out positive emotions such as improved calmness, tranquility, or positivity. The goal is that you’ll learn to use these specific coping skills to bring you back in the “window of tolerance.”
When using the Butterfly Hug for resourcing, you’ll generally focus on something calming, empowering or that otherwise brings out a positive emotion and then briefly tap on alternating sides of your shoulder using the butterfly hug technique.
When you attend therapy, you’ll identify specific resources that you want to “tap in” during your counseling session. Generally, I help clients identify something specific they want to use as a “resources” (generally a memory or an image) and then we practice envisioning that while “tapping” with the Butterfly Hug technique during session. Then, throughout the week the client uses that same memory/image/resource and “taps it in” on their own throughout the week as needed to bring more calm/peace.
If you’re trying to use the Butterfly Hug technique as a resource or any form of BLS with resourcing on your own, I highly recommend the book “Tapping In” by Laurel Parnell.
As BLS During Desensitization/Installation
In addition, the Butterfly Hug can be used to provide bilateral stimulation during the later stages of therapy, particularly when treatment sessions are conducted virtually. Traditionally, EMDR later stages of treatment (such as desensitization and installation) has been done in person with other forms of bilateral stimulation. For example, the therapist moving their fingers back and forth, “buzzies” (handheld items that provide a buzzing sensation) or a light bar where your eyes following a light from side to side. During the pandemic, I began having clients use bilateral tapping with the Butterfly technique during virtual counseling sessions and found that this form of BLS achieved a similar effect. We have other forms of BLS we can use during later stages of remote therapy such as the client tapping alternating knees, looking between corners of a room or following a light on a computer screen. However, over the lats couple of years I’ve found that a majority of my clients seem to prefer using the Butterfly Hug technique for their BLS throughout our EMDR work.
As a Self Care Technique in Times of Stress
I recently attended a fantastic conference where much of the focus was on acute stress. Several great speakers spoke about helping first responders, helpers and just humans experiencing stress have tools to cope and heal.
One of my favorite speakers spoke about how to use the Butterfly Hug for acute stress as a self care technique at home. Below is a video. I highly recommend trying this at home after a stressful day.
Please note at the end of the video Dr. Jarero does say that if your SUDS are going up or not coming down, please contact a mental health professional. If you work with a therapist already, make sure to mention you’re using this in your next session and talk through how you’re responding. We’d love to help you make use of this great technique.
How to do the Butterfly Hug
First you want to find a comfortable, quiet location and sit up tall with your back straight.
Close or lower your eyes and start with some deep, purposeful breathing. Try breathing from your diaphragm if possible.
Notice any emotions or distress that may come up and just continue to breathe through it.
Cross your hands and place them on your chest so each middle finger rests right below the opposite collarbone. Fan your fingers, resting them on your chest and your thumbs will pointed towards your chin.
You can interlock your thumbs so it looks like a butterfly’s body and the hands are its wings.
Now, you are going to alternate tapping your hands on your chest, slowly and rhythmically (left, right, left, right, etc.) for at least 8 rounds. Don’t forget your deep breathing while you’re fluttering your butterfly wings.
Stop and check your level of distress. If your distress has not increased try a couple more sets of 8. Stop after each set to check your level of distress, continuing if you are starting to feel less distress or more relaxed.
The Butterfly Hug is Just One Tool in Your Toolbox
If you find the Butterfly Hug of value when you are feeling ungrounded or experiencing a negative emotion, it can be an important part of your emotional regulation toolkit. Many people “mix and match” coping techniques and tools to come up with their own unique way of managing unhelpful emotions effectively. You may find the butterfly hug used alongside an affirmation, belly breathing, grounding rocks (link to grounding rocks blog) and progressive muscle relaxation at night all fit together for your personal “emotion regulation toolbox.” It’s a matter of trying different coping strategies at different times to see what works the best for you when.