How to Use “Butterfly Hugs” to Get Through a Workday

The psychotherapy technique will help you calm down in minutes

A man sitting on a mountain with the clouds behind him.
It's nice to feel like you have control of your brain and body once in a while. Butterfly hugs can help.
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Our go-to recommendation for finding a moment’s pause during the workday is to go for a walk. We’ve been beating that drum for years now and don’t intend on stopping any time soon. Walking gives your brain a break, boosts blood flow, elongates the spine and ups your “stand hours.” It doesn’t really matter what you do with that walk because it’s going to make any day better. (Unless you go commit a crime. Don’t do that.)

In the interest of open-mindedness, though, here’s a bit of workday self-care that doesn’t require leaving your desk at all. It’s called the “butterfly hug,” and it’s a body-calming trick that hails from the world of psychotherapy.

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What Is a “Butterfly Hug”?

A “butterfly hug” is a therapeutic self-soothing technique used in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, which was developed by Francine Shapiro in the 1980s. EDMR is used to treat anxiety and trauma, and one of its calling cards is a technique called “bilateral stimulation,” by which you work to engage either hemisphere of the brain and mitigate the effects of stress.

A butterfly hug is one example of bilateral stimulation. Here’s how to do it:

  • Cross your arms: Place your arms across your chest so that your hands reach your shoulders, forming a “butterfly” with your arms and hands.
  • Alternate taps: Gently tap each shoulder in an alternating rhythm. As you tap, consider closing your eyes and focusing on your breath or a soothing memory.
  • Just breathe: Breathe deeply and focus on the sensation of the taps. The rhythm should be soothing and grounding.

Why Does It Work?

While bilateral stimulation hasn’t been rigorously tested in studies, it recruits a number of processes we know are helpful for (a) fostering focus and calm in the moment or (b) processing difficult memories over time. It’s mindful, it involves breath and it encourages a well-earned break from whatever you’re doing.

Others things we like about it: self-embrace is really lovely. We should all do it more. Also, butterfly hugs are accessible and (obviously) free. And finally, they’re modifiable — if you’re self-conscious about doing them at work, try hugging yourself down around your midsection and tapping your elbows. Or sit there and breathe for a bit while tapping your knees.

It’s not magic — it’s just a rare chance to tap into the body’s autonomic system and take back a little bit of control, especially on those days where you feel like you have anything but.

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