One of the most effective therapies for trauma, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), can also be self-administered. However, even if you’re doing it with a therapist, you’ll learn some techniques and exercises that can help you any time of the day.
EMDR’s main component for overcoming traumatic memories or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms is bilateral stimulation. But during therapy, you also learn exercises that can help you calm down and regain control when traumatic memories revisit, or you experience other symptoms.
As much as working with a good therapist is important, it’s equally important to invest yourself in it entirely. For this, practicing these three EMDR exercises will immensely help you, especially when you can’t contact your therapist or are administering the therapy by yourself.
Butterfly Hugh Method
As we already know, bilateral stimulation can be immensely helpful when revisiting traumatic experiences. Many things and situations in life can bring back those memories and cause distress.
If that occurs to you as a result of a trigger, you can self-administer the Butterfly Hug method. This bilateral stimulation method is popular in EMDR, focusing on tactile stimulation (tapping). While it’s part of the protocol, you can also use it as an exercise in distressing or anxious situations to calm yourself and bring yourself to the present.
The exercise is fairly simple, and after one or two tries, you’ll get the hang of it.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to this bilateral exercise:
- Cross your arms over your chest so that your middle fingers are right below the collar bone or clavicle and the rest of the fingers touch the area that joins the shoulder with the collar bone.
- Make sure to keep the arms and hands as vertical as possible and each hand touching the opposite side of your chest.
- For more convenience, lock the hands in place by locking in the thumbs at the center. (This is optional)
- Close your eyes fully or partially.
- Now, move the hands from one side to another as if you’re imitating the movements of a butterfly.
- While you move your hands, make sure to breathe in and out.
- Observe what is going through your mind, especially the negative thoughts and emotions.
- Without any reluctance, focus on not just the thoughts but the odors, sounds, feelings, and sensations.
- Pretend like the thoughts in your mind are like moving clouds, passing by slowly and vanishing from sight.
You can stop once you start to feel better, and the negative thoughts and emotions are not as bothersome. The goal of this exercise is not really to push away negative thoughts but simply lower the impact of them so you don’t feel anxious or distressed.
EMDR also heavily relies on grounding techniques. Grounding helps the person decrease the intensity of emotions, feelings, and thoughts they are experiencing at the moment. It relies on the person’s five senses to distract them from the negative thoughts and feelings.
While there are several grounding exercises, one of the easiest to perform is visual grounding to visualize or imagine a safe place. Often, negative thoughts lead to feeling unsafe. With this grounding technique, you can feel safe while also distracting yourself from those distressing thoughts.
Here’s how you can do this exercise anywhere and anytime:
- Sit down, firmly placing your feet on the ground.
- State the time and date at the moment.
- Slowly, take deep breaths in and out.
- Close your eyes partially or full, or even keep them open, whatever feels more comfortable and convenient.
- Now, think of a place that you like, and that makes you feel safe.
- Start with a visual picture of the place, what it looks like. Visualize small details about the place.
- Think of the sounds or aromas the place has.
- With your body, try feeling the physical sensations from the objects and environment of that visual picture—for example, the sand on the beach, the fast-moving wind, or a blanket over you.
- As you’re visualizing, notice, and feel any positive emotions you’re feeling like happiness, coziness, or safety.
- Think of a phrase that represents the visual image and say it to yourself.
As you visualize, the distressing thoughts and feelings will slowly fade away with the positive feelings taking place of them.
This exercise can also be combined with the Butterfly Hug.
You’d be surprised how effective something as simple as breathing can be to reduce stressful thoughts, images, and emotions.
This is because our heart and brain are connected. When distressing thoughts take over, the heartbeat can get erratic and fast. By controlling the heartbeat, the brain also stabilizes.
In fact, coherent breathing is part of the nervous system’s self-calming protocol.
For this, inhale and exhale, engaging the diaphragm instead of the chest. Breathe in through the nose and breathe out through the mouth, taking in deep breaths. Ideally, you should breathe in and out six times in a minute, i.e., each inhale and exhale set lasting 10 seconds.
Do it for a couple of minutes, and you’ll notice your heart rate as well as brain stabilizing. As a result, your brain is able to function better and tries to stow away and control negative thoughts and emotions.
Optionally, you can place your hands on your abdomen, watching and feeling the hands move up and down as the abdomen expands and contracts as you breathe.
Believe it or not, these three simple EMDR exercises can make things super easy when you’re hit with an emotional wave or stress that doesn’t let you do anything. Even if you’re not receiving EMDR therapy, you can try these exercises anywhere.
In fact, anyone can benefit from these exercises when faced with stress, anxiety, or other negative emotions.
You can also combine two exercises if you think one is not doing enough. For instance, you can combine Butterfly Hug with visualization or coherent breathing to increase its power of distraction.