Bilateral stimulation is a key element of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. We already know that EMDR is highly effective in treating post-traumatic stress disorder. Whether done in-person or online, this therapy can help people dealing with trauma get their life back to normal. Some even decide to have it self-administered.
Bilateral stimulation plays an important role in this therapy, and there are several options for this. However, the use and goal are pretty much the same regardless of the bilateral stimulation device used.
Before we talk about these devices, you should first understand what this part of therapy entails.
What is Bilateral Stimulation?
The literal definition of bilateral stimulation (BLS) is the stimulation of both sides. In therapy, these sides refer to the side of the brain. BLS helps stimulate both sides of the brain in order to use the whole brain when working on revisiting trauma events.
Bilateral stimulation happens from left to right and vice versa using stimuli in a rhythmic fashion. These stimuli can be auditory, visual, or tactile.
Auditory stimuli typically involve hearing alternate sounds in each ear. Visual stimuli involve watching something move from left to right and right to left, or even vertically up and down.
Tactile stimuli involve tapping on each side of the body, usually on the shoulders or legs.
The therapist usually opts for the bilateral stimuli and may use more than one. However, most therapists use visual stimuli, often conducting it manually by moving their finger from side to side while the client watches it. This is where the name eye movement comes from in EMDR.
To understand the use of BLS, it’s important to understand what EMDR is, how it works, and what it aims to achieve.
In short, EMDR is a therapy for the trauma that uses external stimuli to distract the trauma victim while they talk about it. This helps lower the emotional stress that comes with remembering such events. More importantly, with the help of bilateral stimulation, it helps push those traumatic memories into a more efficient part of the brain.
This can only be achieved when both parts of the brain or the whole brain is involved.
Two theories dictate and validate the use of this process in EMDR therapy. These are working memory theory and interhemispheric communication theory.
Bilateral Stimulation Options
So how exactly do therapists use bilateral stimulations during EMDR therapy sessions? Well, that, first and foremost, depends on the type of BLS. Then, the therapist may choose to do it manually (if possible) or with the help of a bilateral stimulation device.
EMDR has come a long way and is still evolving in terms of delivery. So today, there are many options and technologies for EMDR bilateral stimulation, including convenient devices.
Manual Bilateral Stimulation
At the beginning of EMDR, there weren’t many devices used, as the BLS was more manual. Therapists relied on the eye movements of the client for this part of the therapy. They would move their finger from side to side or up and down, whole the client followed the movement with their eyes.
To this day, some therapists use manual bilateral stimulation. While it doesn’t have any impact on the effectiveness, there have been concerns about fatigue, especially when doing it for a long time. The therapist can get tired moving their finger.
Then there’s the tactile stimulation, where physical tapping is involved. While there are tapping devices now (more on that ahead), physical tapping can also work. Either the client can tap themselves, or the therapist can tap their palms alternatively (right and left).
For ethical reasons, most therapists avoid any physical contact with their clients, which is why physical tapping by therapists is rarely used these days. On the other hand, clients tapping themselves has limitations as they might not do it correctly.
Bilateral Stimulation Devices
If you’re going with auditory BLS, of course, headphones are a must. In fact, this kind of stimuli cannot be delivered manually and must be delivered through audio BLS software and headphones.
Similarly, there are software and physical devices like a light bar with a moving light that is used for visual bilateral stimulation. These devices may even be controlled remotely, those that come with software or app.
For tactile bilateral stimuli, tappers are used. These are small devices with two paddles that the client will hold in their hands. The devices deliver the taps on palms electronically, eliminating the need for physical touch by the therapist.
There are many such tools available online. Here are some of the popular options:
Nowadays, EMDR BLS devices come in kits, which may include devices for all three types of bilateral stimulations.
The EMDR kit by the company with the same name EMDRKit contains a light tube, pulsators, headphones, and a charger. These kits are available in both wired (classic) and wireless variants. These devices can be controlled with the help of an app on a tablet or mobile.
Neurotek is another company that produces BLS devices, including a light bar and a hybrid device called Standard Tac that works for both auditory and tactile stimulation with the help of headphones and pulsators, respectively.
Remote EMDR Tools
As online therapy has become increasingly popular, there are tools that therapists and their clients can use remotely for the bilateral stimulation part during EMDR therapy. This kind of software provides convenience to the therapist and client both and makes it possible to do this therapy even online.
Bilateral Base provides an EMDR toolkit that comprises software a therapist can use remotely through any device, including mobile devices. However, since this is a virtual BLS tool, it only works for auditory and visual stimulation.
While such tool kits are very useful for remote online therapy, these can still be used during in-person therapy. Even when face-to-face, this can make the process easier and allow the therapist to control the bilateral movements of the stimuli.
Virtual EMDR with Devices
In most cases, your therapist will cover the bilateral stimulation part unless you’re doing online therapy and may need to purchase a device. However, there’s another solution as well that is allowing even more people to overcome trauma with the help of EMDR. Virtual EMDR therapy uses virtual guides and tools to guide a person through the process.
The Virtual EMDR Healing tool is designed to make EMDR self-administration possible and convenient. While all the guides are available online, the virtual tool also comes with an EMDR kit that the person can use to carry out bilateral stimulation on their own, in the comfort of their home.
The toolkit works in a similar fashion as the other EMDR kit options on the market. The only difference is that you’ll be running the tools yourself.
EMDR therapy is not possible without bilateral stimulation, as its success hinges on the inclusion of this activity. While it’s possible to do bilateral stimulation manually, BLS devices make the process more refined and controlled. This is why many EMDR therapists prefer using devices or online tools for this essential part of the therapy.
Thanks to virtual tools and EMDR devices, it’s also possible to do online EMDR therapy or self-administer EMDR, including BLS.