Have you ever noticed yourself looking in a certain direction when processing information? Or when sad? Or ashamed? Dr. David Grand, the creator of brainspotting, coined the phrase “where you look affects how you feel.” Through understanding the brain-body connection, brainspotting aims to help uncover, process, and release buried traumas, sources of physical and/or emotional pain, and much more. By utilizing the visual field, it is theorized that experiences and symptoms, normally inaccessible through the conscious mind, become accessible, allowing for deep core healing.
Brainspotting (BSP) is a relatively new treatment first discovered by Dr. David Grand in 2003 while working as an EMDR therapist. Grand was helping a professional figure skater who had come into therapy to figure out why she couldn’t land a triple loop no matter how much she trained. As he was executing the EMDR movements, which consist of moving the eyes back and forth, she was instructed to visualize executing the triple loop. Her eyes changed and froze on a particular spot. Grand realized that something important was happening inside of her brain and continued to hold her eyes at that spot for ten more minutes. In that time, she unveiled and quickly resolved many traumas that had never come up in other sessions or had been previously deemed as treated. The next day, Grand received a call that she successfully landed her triple loop multiple times.
He continued to test this approach on other clients, and they reported back on the new insights they had gained through this treatment. He shared his technique with other therapists, who also reported positive results using this technique with their clients. At this point, Grand realized he was onto something big.
It was quickly realized that certain eye positions, which are different for every individual, can access unconscious contents (e.g., thoughts, feelings, triggers, memories) buried within the mind. Thus, Grand developed a treatment that doesn’t require analyzing, defining, or explaining.
The development of BSP was heavily influenced by other types of therapy based on the powerful connection between the brain and body:
EMDR | Meditation | Mindfulness | Somatic Experiencing
Primarily, the goal of BSP is to access deeply stored and unprocessed trauma so that it can be resolved. BSP utilizes the brain’s natural self-healing capabilities by targeting the neurophysiological origins of various emotional/body pains, dissociation, and more. It is important to remember that traumas can develop in many ways from many situations, and symptoms can vary in severity. Any time a person feels overwhelmed, helpless, or stressed, it might be a trauma response. Within BSP, creating a container for an individual to feel safe and secure in accessing and processing traumas is an integral part. This treatment is not all about identifying these “brain spots,” but it is also hugely dependent on the clinical therapeutic relationship.
While this is still a relatively new treatment, the theory is that brainspotting taps into the body’s natural self-scanning cycle. Here is an analogy: the body locates and “zones in” on bodily injuries when they occur to adapt and send resources; the brain does this as well. It is constantly scanning to make sure everything is operating in homeostasis. However, it is theorized that sometimes traumatic memories are buried deep in the psyche outside of conscious awareness, and there is a blockage within this self-scanning cycle. The brain and body will adapt to this blockage and settle into a homeostasis that may be maladaptive to proper healing. During BSP, this blockage is identified through eye movements and reflexive signals (eye dilation or constriction, brow furrowing, facial tics, etc.), so the brain can now attend to it properly. This is sometimes referred to as a body-oriented approach since the brain and body are the main targets. This type of approach differs from other talk therapies in which the trauma itself is the main target.
It is theorized that brainspotting bypasses the cognitive thinking part of your brain, reaching down to the core, and works heavily on the unconscious parts through utilizing the autonomic and limbic systems. The autonomic nervous system works mainly behind the scenes to regulate heart rate, breathing, sexual arousal, pupillary response, etc. The limbic system is responsible for memory, behavior, motivation, regulating hormones, and interpreting emotions. Thus, BSP may access the brain-body connection by utilizing these two systems together.
BSP was first developed for individuals suffering from trauma. David Grand has worked with 9/11 survivors, Hurricane Katrina survivors, and mass shooting survivors, to name a few. Throughout the development of BSP, it was quickly realized that BSP could be used to treat various conditions (e.g., injury recovery, creativity enhancement, sports performance, fatigue syndromes, anger problems, anxiety, chronic illness management, stuttering, asthma, dissociation, and more). People of all backgrounds can potentially benefit from this treatment.
BSP is a flexible approach that is entirely dependent on the reactions given by the client; however, there is a general flow to how the sessions will go.
As with most types of therapy and healing, the first step is identifying an objective. This objective can be anything ranging from writer’s block to a pinpointed physical or emotional trauma. As with the figure skater example given above, you will be instructed to focus on the objective intently identified and rate various descriptors (e.g., stressful, overwhelming). You do not necessarily have to talk about it verbally.
Your therapist will then use a pointer to guide your eyes back and forth while you focus, which can be done with one eye or two.
From here, there are two techniques: Inside Window and Outside Window.
Inside Window: When using the Inside Window technique, the client determines which point in their visual field physical and emotional reactions are felt the most (i.e., the “brainspot”). Additionally, clients are encouraged to describe their subjective experiences with comments like “you just passed it,” “go back to the left,” “I’m feeling very stressed right here.”
Outside WIndow: When using the Outside Window technique, the therapist identifies the brainspot by attuning to and observing any reflexive signals or comments the client makes. These reflexive signals usually are outside of the client’s conscious awareness.
With both techniques, the therapist will then proceed to go along the vertical axis, trying to pinpoint the brainspot.
Through holding one’s gaze in the identified brainspot, unconscious contents (e.g., thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories) are brought into conscious awareness, either verbally or internally. These associations are then processed so that more profound healing can occur within the brain. Turning back to the bodily injury analogy, if you have tension somewhere, it takes about 30 seconds of pressure for the body to realize the target that needs to be released and release it. It is theorized the brain works in similar ways. However, instead of physical pressure, it is mental pressure, and this signal can be triggered through the eyes.
BSP can be, inversely, used for severely wounded, anxious, and/or dissociative clients. In such cases, the resource model is utilized. Instead of locating brainspots that can trigger uncomfortable feelings and distress, the goal is to identify spots that bring about calmness.
As with EMDR, brainspotting is most effective when paired with Biolateral Sound. Biolateral sound is the alternating of noises in the left and right ears in order to activate both hemispheres. The premise is that this induces a meditative, hypnotic state conducive to allowing conscious and unconscious processes to freely flow (it is worth noting only a few studies are researching this). If an individual is highly sensitive or dissociative, biolateral sound can be added later when the individual feels more comfortable and grounded.
Many times, after an individual has reached a distress rating of 0 surrounding an issue, another breakthrough can occur, leading to multidimensional healing.
by Robyn Michele Jones, MA, CMT, RCST®
by Dominique Clothiaux, RCST®
Brainspotting Therapy: About a Bataclan Victim
Mindfulness and malleability are considered two integral parts of BSP. This study investigates the efficacy and underlying mechanisms (i.e., how and why it works) of BSP by examining these two indicators’ effects (i.e., mindfulness and malleability). Next, a victim of the attack in 2015 on the Bataclan in Paris is analyzed after undergoing BSP treatment. The results show a positive correlation between BSP and trauma healing.
Effective Treatments for Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Three therapeutic techniques were analyzed in this study for the treatment of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and Brainspotting (BSP). The results showed significant positive results in all three therapies. Although results supported CBT as the most effective therapy for GAD, BSP and EMDR were also found to be effective.
BSP can be an intense form of therapy. You will be asked to think and talk about traumatic experiences and stressors, so it may feel as though your brain is working overtime to access things that are usually outside of conscious awareness. Therefore, it’s a good idea to make sure the rest of your schedule for the day is cleared, if possible. As with running a marathon or studying for an exam, it is important to practice self-care before and after each session. Here are some self-care tips:
Highly individualized responses toward treatment are common in BSP. Reports include increased self-awareness (e.g., somatic tension, insightfulness), clearing of mental blockages, decreased feelings of distress when faced with a previously stressful situation, or complete resolution of an issue; however, some people report little change. If there are changes, they are often seen after one or two 60-90 minute sessions; however, some people require multiple sessions to feel any changes.
Following your session, your brain and body will continue to process the trauma. You may experience a sense of mourning as the trauma is released and ebbs and flows throughout your brain/body. You may even feel angry for having held onto these thoughts and patterns for so long. However, since the goal of brainspotting is to bring up unprocessed trauma and allow it to be recognized and worked through, it is important that you are ready, willing, and able to sit with the uncomfortable feelings. It is also important to remember that you are in control of each session. If feeling too overwhelmed or uncomfortable, you are free to stop at any point.
Your therapist should be a licensed mental healthcare practitioner with training specifically in BSP. A BSP practitioner will have a certificate awarded by Brainspotting Trainings, Inc. If you need help finding a certified brainspotting therapist in your area, brainspotting.com and Psychology Today are helpful tools.
For this treatment to work properly, it is important that you feel comfortable and secure with your therapist. Therefore, the clinical relationship with your therapist is a vital part of this technique. It might be helpful to schedule an introductory phone call with the clinician before your first in-person appointment.
While BSP has been groundbreaking for many people, it is still a relatively new technique. As a result, there is not yet much research to support how and why it works.
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Cowart, R., n.d. What to Expect. [online] Paige Roberts Performance Neuroscience. Available at: <https://robertsneurotraining.com/brainspotting-what-to-expect/#:~:text=Following%20the%20Brainspotting%2DNeurophysiology%20session,the%20thoughts%20which%20came%20up> [Accessed 27 January 2021].