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Thursday, June 6, 2024

What is Bilateral Stimulation (BLS) in EMDR Therapy?

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy is a safe and effective therapy for processing trauma (see my article: How EMDR Therapy Works: EMDR and the Brain).

Bilateral Stimulation as Part of EMDR Therapy

EMDR has been used to treat trauma since the late 1980s when it was developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro. 

In addition to being a clinician, Dr. Shapiro was also a researcher, so she did EMDR research which demonstrated the effectiveness of EMDR to process trauma.

A key component of EMDR therapy is Bilateral Stimulation (BLS).

What is Bilateral Stimulation (BLS) in EMDR Therapy?
Let's start by defining BLS.

BLS is the use of a stimulus that activates both sides of the brain and the body which allows the processing of memories, emotions and bodily sensations which are "stuck" in the nervous system as a result of trauma.

By activating both sides of the brain and body, BLS allows more effective processing of trauma than regular talk therapy.  

Bilateral Stimulation as Part of EMDR Therapy

Clients often report feeling less distressed by traumatic memories while using BLS because BLS has an integrative function. 

In other words, instead of being "stuck," traumatic memories get integrated with other experiences so that, over time, a client's distress level decreases until these memories are no longer distressing.

In the late 1980s, when Dr. Shapiro was developing EMDR therapy, BLS only consisted of eye movements (eyes moving back and forth while following the therapist's hand).

As other EMDR therapists contributed to the development of EMDR therapy, they discovered that other types of BLS worked just as well as eye movements. 

So for instance, many EMDR therapists had clients hold a set of tappers in their hands for BLS.  The tappers buzzed back and forth from the right side to the left and back again. These therapists discovered that tappers were just as effective as using eye movements as a form of BLS.

Dr. Laurel Parnell, who developed Attachment-Focused EMDR therapy, is known for using tapping as BLS where either the therapist or the client taps alternately on their arms or knees.  

Some clients like to listen to music with headphones where the music goes from one ear to the other back and forth. 

The advantage of using BLS that doesn't involve moving the eyes back and forth is that clients can close their eyes while processing a traumatic memory so they can tune into what's happening in their body, which is an important part of EMDR therapy, a mind-body oriented therapy.

Why is BLS Used in EMDR Therapy?
EMDR research has shown that using BLS as a key component to EMDR therapy and makes it a powerful modality for processing trauma, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), other forms of anxiety and depression--to name just a few mental health issues where EMDR has been found to be highly effective.

Other Forms of BLS in Everyday Life
Aside from EMDR therapy, there are other forms of BLS in our everyday life.

Common examples of bilateral stimulation in everyday life include:
  • Walking or Running: When you walk or run, you move one leg and then the other so that walking becomes a bilateral experience.
  • Swimming: When you swim, you alternate using your arms and legs, which is a bilateral experience.
  • Biking: When you ride a bike, you alternate each leg as you pedal, which is a bilateral experience.
People often report that when they walk, run, swim or bike, they feel better.  Many people say they come up with solutions to problems even if they're not actively thinking about these problems.

People also report feeling more relaxed after engaging in one of these activities, similar to how many clients experience BLS as part of EMDR therapy.

How is BLS Related to Memory Reconsolidation?
BLS is thought to be similar to REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.  

REM is a phase of sleep where memories are reconsolidated.

Since BLS activates both sides of the brain, similar to REM, it allows for communication and integration between fragmented parts of traumatic memories which have been stored in different parts of the brain.

EMDR Processing and Memory Reconsolidation

During EMDR reprocessing of a traumatic memory, the memory is brought back into consciousness during BLS and it is restored into long term memory with less vividness and intensity.  This is how memories that are "stuck" get "unstuck."

Over time, processing traumatic memories using BLS during EMDR sessions, makes the traumatic memories less distressing. When memories are restored in long term memory with less distress, the client experiences emotional healing.

They also understand on an emotional level (not just on a cognitive level) that the trauma is from the past and they no longer feel the negative impact in the present (see my article: Reacting to the Present Based on Your Traumatic Past).

This process is not something that happens in just a few sessions, especially if the trauma is longstanding and complex.  However, EMDR therapy is usually faster and more effective than regular talk therapy.

Getting Help in EMDR Therapy
If you have been unable to resolve traumatic experiences on your own, you could benefit from working with a Trauma Therapist who does EMDR therapy.

Getting Help in EMDR Therapy

Working through unresolved trauma can help you to lead a more meaningful life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients overcome unresolved trauma using EMDR therapy and other forms of trauma therapy (see my article: What is a Trauma Therapist?).

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.