Butterfly symbolism is a powerful representation of life. Many cultures and the Christian religion look to this flying insect with deep reverence and use it as a symbol for life concepts…the butterfly symbolism works as a representation of resurrection, change, renewal, hope, endurance, and courage to embrace the transformation to make life better (Clifford, 2020).
Trauma, complicated grief, anxiety, and toxic stress can cause many physiological, changes. Learning the science behind the metamorphosis that occurs, is the first step to restoring balance, which is vital to prevent chronic illness. “Although restoration of homeostasis is the goal of the stress response, chronic stress leads to dysfunctional responses causing heart disease, stomach ulcers, sleep dysregulation, and psychiatric disorders” (Chu, Marwaha, Sanvictores, & Ayers, 2020). These disorders can occur over time, especially if stress remains unattended.
Particularly vulnerable are those who have not been able to reduce the “chronic stress burden” in their lives (McEwen, 2007). The brain interprets experiences as threatening or nonthreatening, determining physiological responses to each situation. “Besides the hypothalamus and brain stem, which are essential for autonomic and neuroendocrine responses to stressors, higher cognitive areas of the brain play a key role in memory, anxiety, and decision making. These brain areas are targets of stress and stress hormones, and the acute and chronic effects of stressful experiences influence how they respond. This is particularly evident over the life course, where early life experiences, combined with genetic factors, exert an important influence on adult stress responsiveness and the aging process.”
A stressful event or trigger “can activate a cascade of stress hormones that produce physiological changes” (Fisher, 1999). “Activation of the sympathetic nervous system in this manner triggers an acute stress response called the ‘fight or flight’ response. This enables a person to either fight the threat or flee the situation. The rush of adrenaline and noradrenaline secreted from the adrenal medulla causes almost all portions of the sympathetic system to discharge simultaneously as a wide-spread mass discharge effect throughout the entire body." These physiological changes result in:
Increased arterial pressure
More blood flow to active muscles, and less to organs not needed for rapid motor activity
Increase rate of blood coagulation
Increase rates of cellular metabolism throughout the body
Increased muscle strength by increasing blood glucose concentration
Increased mental activity
Some of the effects of these physiological changes results in nausea and other digestive issues, increase in heart rate, rapid breathing, chest tightness; and over time, feelings of fatigue, continued gastrointestinal distress, lower immunity, weight loss or gain, aches and pains, insomnia, and more. Because stress causes the cardiovascular system to respond with an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, a chronic activation of this leads to cardiovascular diseases. “Coronary artery disease, stroke, and hypertension occur at a greater incidence in those with stress-related psychological disorders” (Chu, Marwaha, Sanvictores, & Ayers, 2020). Diabetes and autoimmune disorders are also showing up in higher rates for those impacted by traumatic or toxic stress.
With increased knowledge and awareness, we can help each other. “Advances in neuroscience have given us a better understanding of how trauma changes brain development, self-regulation, and the capacity to stay focused and in tune with others.” (Van der Kolk, 2014). “Understanding many of the fundamental processes that underlie traumatic stress opens the door to an array of interventions that can bring the brain areas related to self-regulation, self-perception, and attention back online.”
Stress involves bidirectional communication between the brain and the body, returning to a baseline of less toxic stress, and homeostasis of the body as an important goal. Trauma researchers have found benefit in stabilizing or grounding techniques to help slow down or halt the stress response.
Mindfulness has become a helpful stabilizing agent to the stress response. “Mindfulness is generally described as intentionally focusing one’s attention on the experience occurring at the present moment in a non-judgmental or accepting way” (Baer & Krietemeyer, 2006). Rather than states of mind focused elsewhere, in a situation of trauma state, or rumination. “Mindful attention includes a stance of compassion, interest, friendliness, and open-heartedness toward the experience observed in the present moment, regardless of how pleasant or aversive it might be.”
One simple but helpful activity that can help with grounding or stabilization, is a Mindful technique similar to the tapping or eye movement methods from Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapists.
The “Butterfly Hug” is considered self-administered bilateral stimulation which uses both hemispheres of the brain. This technique originated by Lucina Artigas during her work in Acapulco Mexico in 1998 after Hurricane Pauline. Artigas and Jarero (2014) describe how to use the technique below:
The Butterfly Hug Method
Cross your arms over your chest, so that the tip of the middle finger from each hand is placed below the clavicle or the collarbone and the other fingers and hands cover the area that is located under the connection between the collarbone and the shoulder and the collarbone and sternum or breastbone. Hands and fingers must be as vertical as possible so that the fingers point toward the neck and not toward the arms.
If you wish, you can interlock your thumbs to form the butterfly’s body and the extension of your other fingers outward will form the Butterfly’s wings.
Your eyes can be closed, or partially closed, looking toward the tip of your nose. Next, you alternate the movement of your hands, like the flapping wings of a butterfly. Let your hands move freely. You can breathe slowly and deeply (abdominal breathing), while you observe what is going through your mind and body such as thoughts, images, sounds, odors, feelings, and physical sensation without changing, pushing your thoughts away, or judging. You can pretend as though what you are observing is like clouds passing by.
Like a butterfly freeing itself from its cocoon, we need to free ourselves from the constraints of trauma and toxic stress in our lives. It will take self-compassion, patience, attention, and intention.
If you find you are frozen in the cycle of traumatic stress, please reach out for professional guidance to help you on your journey to hope. Hope can strengthen dreams and inspire possibilities, and a professional can help you reach them.
Teresa Jacobson is a Doctor of Behavioral Health and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Supervisor who is providing counseling Ohio adults of all ages and life experiences via secure Telehealth visits. Teresa can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org, phone (513) 206-3026, or by visiting www.jacobsoncounseling.org
Artigas, L. and Jarero, I. (2014) The butterfly hug method for bilateral stimulation. Retrieved from
Baer, R.A. and Krietemeyer, J. (2006). Overview of mindfulness-and acceptance-based treatment
approaches. In R. A. Baer (Ed.), Mindfulness-based treatment approaches: Clinician's guide to evidence base
and applications (p. 3–27). Elsevier Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-012088519-0/50002-2
Chu, B., Marwaha, K., Sanvictores, T., and Ayers, D. (2020). Physiology, stress reaction. Retrieved from
Clifford, G.D. (2020). Butterfly symbolism & meaning (+Totem, Spirit & Omens). Retrieved from
Fisher, J. (1999). The work of stabilization in trauma treatment. Retrieved from
McEwen, B. S. (2007). Physiology and neurobiology of stress and adaptation: Central role of the brain.
Van Der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score. Penguin Books, New York, New York.