There are a lot of reasons why a person may pursue therapy: maybe they want to set proper boundaries with family members or learn coping mechanisms for daily stress. Some people want to process traumatic memories or overcome addictions. Not all therapies are appropriate for all mental health conditions; fortunately, people seeking therapy have plenty of options. Brainspotting therapy is one of the newest options for patients who are looking to process traumatic memories, and many believe this is one of the safest approaches to handling trauma.
This page will offer a brief look into what brainspotting is, how it was developed, and how it may be used in a therapy session. Not all therapists are trained in this type of therapy. If you are interested in pursuing brainspotting therapy for yourself, you will have to search for therapists that understand this approach.
What Is Brainspotting Therapy?
Brainspotting therapy is an approach to therapy that encourages patients through finding “brain spots” and holding them to process traumatic memories. Brainspotting therapy may also integrate practices like bilateral stimulation. It is similar to EMDR therapy, but allows patients to process memories without “reliving” their trauma.
Who Developed Brainspotting Therapy?
Dr. David Grand developed brainspotting therapy in 2003 as he administered EMDR therapy to clients. During his sessions, he noticed that his clients would become more “activated” when looking at certain points in the room. He has administered this technique on celebrities and survivors of serious trauma.
Brainspotting is relatively new in terms of therapeutic approaches, but it has gained international acclaim. Therapists can even attend brainspotting conferences to learn more about brainspotting and new developments that are enhancing this approach.
How Does Brainspotting Therapy Work?
Before sharing information about a brainspotting therapy session, it’s important to know how the eye and brain connect. Moving our eyes in different directions can help us with memory retrieval. The research on this phenomenon has shaped many practices, including neuro-linguistic programming and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing.
Retrieving certain traumatic memories can cause a person to become “activated.” (In gen Z speak, we might call this feeling “triggered.”) Activation may look like:
- Clenched jaws or fists
- Tense shoulders or other joints
- Heavy or fast breathing
- Other physical signs of a change in the body
The positive thing about activation is that it’s a step toward processing the memories that activate us. If we are not consciously thinking about our healing, we may naturally avoid discomfort or traumatic memories. If we look to the left and feel discomfort, we may naturally look to the right. Humans are pleasure-seeking creatures. But for some traumatic memories, we must embrace them in order to process them. Once we process those traumatic memories properly, they will not have such a profound effect on us in everyday life.
With all this in mind, let’s explain how brainspotting works.
What Does a Brainspotting Therapy Session Look Like?
Therapists may not administer brainspotting therapy on their first session with a client. For the first few sessions, a therapist may gather information about the client’s life, background, and what their goals are for therapy. Before brainspotting begins, a therapist may administer other tools and strategies for coping with stress or tuning into different sensations in the body.
Once they feel equipped to begin the brainspotting therapy, the therapist will sit down with the client and observe them as they speak. The client may directly try to remember the trauma, but they do not have to. What matters is that the therapist watches the client for signs of activation.
The therapist will ask the client to follow a pointer, a stuffed animal, or the therapist’s finger with their gaze. Throughout this process, the therapist may ask questions, offer encouraging words, or just remain silent. They are watching to see if the client gets activated more by looking to the left, the right, the center, etc. Once this point is identified, the therapist will ask the client to look up, down, to the center, etc., looking for that same activation. This will give the therapist an exact point where the client feels the most activation, whether or not they are directly remembering the traumatic experience. Can you guess what it’s called? Yes, it’s the “brainspot.”
Once the brainspot is identified, the client will ask the patient to sit with the feeling and notice what is happening in their body. This may not be easy. A client may shake or start breathing rapidly or feel the need to cry. This is okay. Likely, a therapist will have worked with the client to identify and manage those reactions in a healthy way.
The activation may increase and decrease, or move throughout the body. Clients will be asked to notice these changes as they maintain their gaze. Sitting with these feelings and noticing these changes may take up the majority of the session. A client can go through many different emotions or waves while focusing on one brainspot. They may start to notice that other memories come up, including memories that they hadn’t thought about in a long time. The mind can work in mysterious ways. Brainspotting is a way that we can explore how the mind works and process some memories that may be causing pain or anxiety.
Throughout the process, the therapist may also instruct the client to tap their legs back and forth or listen to music in both ears. This bilateral stimulation can help the brain process these memories in new ways.
Can You Try Brainspotting on Yourself?
Yes! You can administer “self-spotting” to help you process emotions and memories that are stuck with you. If you have access to a therapist, however, try brainspotting with them first. You may find that brainspotting brings up traumatic or intense emotions. Work through this process with a professional first, and then try these techniques at home. There are tutorials on YouTube that show how you can “self-spot” with a pointer or your fingers.
Brainspotting vs. EMDR
Is brainspotting “better” than EMDR? It depends who you ask!
A therapist trained in brainspotting hopped on a Reddit AMA to discuss her experiences with Brainspotting. When one user asked about brainspotting vs. EMDR, here’s what she had to say:
“People that have experienced both and/or used both clinically have often said that Brainspotting is more flexible. The client is always the one leading and the therapist remains present, in the moment, holding the safe space.
Another difference is the eye movement. From my understanding, with EMDR, the eyes are always tracking, or moving back and forth. With Brainspotting, there is usually a fixed point; however, the client is in the lead and may find other eye positions throughout the session as they are processing.
The short training I did attend also showed that the tracking and bilateral stimulation was brief, then breaks to check in, then back to the tracking again. With Brainspotting, we just go with the flow and I am holding the space. If the client needs a break, we take one, but they process on what ever thought or body sensation comes up in the moment, even if it is not what we started out processing. The brain knows what it needs if we just get out of its way ☺️
The bilateral stimulation is different as well. We often use music but it is hand panned music, meaning, it goes between the speakers at unpredicted times, so it always keeps the brain engaged. Bilateral music is predictable. I believe EMDR using tappers, snapping fingers, bilateral music, the eye movement, light bars, etc.
I know several therapists that utilize both depending on the issue and some clients prefer one over the other. I hope that helps!”
Other Types of Therapy to Explore
Therapists may integrate brainspotting therapy into sessions alongside other types of therapy. Different approaches to therapy offer different tools and strategies for processing traumatic memories or coping with everyday stress. No one form of therapy is necessarily “better” than the other, but some approaches may be more suitable for patients who have CPTSD, addiction, or other mental health conditions.
On your journey to finding a therapist, you may hear terms like:
- CBT or DBT
- Talk Therapy
- Flooding Therapy
- Systematic Desensitization
Before you book an appointment with a therapist, ask them about their approach. You may find that brainspotting, or another type of therapy, works best for you!