April 19, 2021

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Caitlin Harper

What Is Brainspotting?

Brainspotting is a form of psychotherapy that uses the position of the eyes as well as bilateral stimulation to help the client heal from painful experiences. So how exactly does it work and who can benefit from it?

There are many experiences in our lives that have a profound impact on us, regardless of how important or traumatic they might seem to others. When we are overwhelmed by these events, our feelings can get “stuck” in the body and manifest as pain or cause us to overreact to similar triggers in the future. Therapy can help you explore the connection between the mind and the body, “unstick” those memories so they can be reprocessed, and figure out a way to feel more grounded and empowered, and one method of therapy that can help with this is Brainspotting.

“Brainspotting is a form of psychotherapy that uses the position of the eyes as well as bilateral stimulation to help the client heal from painful experiences,” said Elle Michel, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “Brainspotting focuses on the body and body sensations more than traditional talk psychotherapy.”

Who invented Brainspotting?

“Brainspotting was developed by David Grand, Ph.D., in 2003,” said Elle. “Dr. Grand had been trained in EMDR and Somatic Experiencing and used his background in those modalities to create Brainspotting.”

Dr. Grand discovered it during an EMDR session. When the patient’s eye movements wobbled and froze, Dr. Grand stopped and waited to see what would happen. The client then processed traumatic material which had not been accessible previously. He followed up this observation in other clients and discovered a similar pattern of processing.

As Dr. Grand describes on the Brainspotting website, Brainspotting is a powerful, focused treatment method that works by identifying, processing, and releasing core neurophysiological sources of emotional/body pain, trauma, dissociation, and a variety of other challenging symptoms. Brainspotting is a simultaneous form of diagnosis and treatment, enhanced with bilateral sound, which is deep, direct, and powerful, yet focused and containing.

What is the difference between Brainspotting and EMDR?

“Brainspotting was created by an EMDR practitioner, so it incorporates parts of EMDR,” said Elle. “EMDR and Brainspotting both use what's called bilateral stimulation, which is basically any form of stimulating the left and right sides of the body back and forth. EMDR often uses left to right eye movements to achieve this, and Brainspotting uses bilateral music to achieve this (bilateral music is music that, when listened to with headphones, moves the sound from the left ear to the right ear, back and forth). Brainspotting also uses the position of the eyes and focuses on the idea that where we look affects the way we feel. Brainspotting is more fluid and less regimented than EMDR and can be used for treating a wider variety of issues than EMDR.”

What happens during a Brainspotting session?

Brainspotting tries to locate relevant eye positions which correlate with neural, physiological, and emotional experiences. Essentially, a “Brainspot” is an eye position that activates a traumatic or painful memory or emotion. To find these Brainspots, the practitioner moves a pointer or their finger around the visual field of the patient while they undergo auditory alternating bilateral stimulation, which is meant to help calm the nervous system.

First, your therapist will help you recognize the topic that you wish to address in your session. They will then have you check in with your body to locate where the emotion is showing up, such as the feeling of having a pit in your stomach or tightness in your chest.

Then, the patient follows the pointer or finger with their eyes while the practitioner pays attention to the patient’s reactions, reflexes, body movements, and responses such as facial tics or eye twitches. Once the Brainspot, or the eye position that activates a traumatic memory or emotion, is found, the patient maintains their fixed visual attention on the position and mindfully observes their internal process. The therapeutic approach seems to enable access to issues deeply stored in the non-verbal, non-cognitive areas of the brain which can help patients process stored trauma and negative emotions with the help of their therapist.

Watch Brainspotting in action here.

Does Brainspotting work in remote or teletherapy?

Although Brainspotting works on the connection between the brain and the body, it doesn’t involve physical touching, and is well-suited to remote or teletherapy. It works well in an online format because your therapist will be able to have an even clearer view of your eyes and face in order to track your eye movement and response to the treatment.

Who can benefit from Brainspotting?

Brainspotting was initially developed with patients who had PTSD and trauma. Trauma can happen to anyone, and can look like a lot of different things, with varying levels of severity: trauma can come from a single incident, like witnessing a car crash or losing a loved one, or prolonged exposure to challenges like childhood abuse, war, or neighborhood violence. It can also stem from more difficult-to-define circumstances, like living in a community that is racist, sexist, or otherwise marginalizing toward one or more of your identities.

Brainspotting is now used to treat many things including anxiety, depression, substance abuse, phobias, chronic pain, and more. It can be used on its own or in addition to talk therapy.

There is a misconception that we have to have experienced a serious trauma in order to be a candidate for EMDR, Brainspotting, or other types of therapy that were developed to treat trauma, but that is not true. It’s possible for anyone to internalize negative events from the past that seem small but, with repeated events that trigger similar beliefs, sensations in the body, and emotions, the impact increases. Brainspotting and other methods can be used with people who feel stuck or blocked in work and relationships and feel that they haven’t been able to make any changes in their lives because of this blocked feeling.

“Anyone can benefit from Brainspotting!” said Elle. “It is particularly useful for helping people process through traumatic or stressful events, and for helping people release stored up emotion about any difficult experience.”

Any reason someone would want to try Brainspotting is valid and a therapist who is trained in Brainspotting will be able to assess your situation and needs and decide with you whether Brainspotting would be a good method of treatment—either way, what matters most is that you get the care you deserve.

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About the author

Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.

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