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What is Brainspotting and How Does It Work?

Female therapist writing on notebook listening to female client sitting on couch

Mind-body therapies like brainspotting are popular with mental health professionals and their clients, and research supports their value and effectiveness. Even people familiar with mind-body therapies may be yet to learn about this therapeutic approach. You may wonder, “What is brainspotting?”

What is Brainspotting?

Brainspotting is an effective holistic approach to treatment for trauma and other disorders. The method is sometimes compared to Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). There are some similarities, but brainspotting is a more recently developed technique.

The deep emotions caused by trauma can be challenging to resolve. When people don’t treat trauma, it can result in various mental health concerns. People can develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety disorders, and other complex forms of mental distress.

Brainspotting works to reprocess negative experiences (trauma) that are stored in the memory. It helps reduce even extreme symptoms of trauma. 

Psychotherapist Dr. David Grand created brainspotting, also known as BSP, early in the 21st century. Grand designed BSP specifically to help treat survivors of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. 

While using EMDR brainspotting, Grand noticed his clients sometimes appeared to be “stuck” in a certain spot, which Grand would later identify as a “brain spot.” This experience inspired him to develop BSP.

Grand identified his clients’ stuck reactions as “frozen maladaptive homeostasis.” Human bodies naturally seek stability, but a “frozen” state is unhelpful to healing. Brainspotting attempts to help people move past their stuck places, so they can process and release their trauma. 

Today, professionals use the technique to treat symptoms of PTSD and other forms of trauma as well as other mental health concerns. Brainspotting focuses on the mind-body connection. It may complement other holistic therapies.

How Does Brainspotting Work?

Simply put, brainspotting relies on the idea that where you look affects how you feel. It can be true in a practical sense. Looking at a healthy garden makes you feel differently than looking at a pile of trash. But the theory behind brainspotting goes deeper. A “brain spot” is a point in the person’s field of vision that helps them process trauma by tapping into the body’s central nervous system. 

Clinicians refer to brainspotting and other mind-body therapies as “bottom-up” forms of therapy. “Top-down” techniques like traditional talk therapy begin by looking at what is going on in a person’s mind. A bottom-up approach begins by releasing stress in the body.

Brainspotting uses the idea that trauma can affect the part of the brain in charge of hearing, sleep, vision, and motor control. That part is called the midbrain. Trauma can cause the midbrain to freeze temporarily to save the body’s resources in case fight or flight becomes needed.

This alertness is helpful when real danger is present. But the body doesn’t know how to distinguish between imagined or remembered trauma and the real thing. Brainspotting can help you move out of a frozen state without spending many therapy hours talking about your experiences and past.

3 main steps to the brainspotting process:

  1. Identifying unconscious signals of emotion
  2. Processing physical and emotional symptoms
  3. Releasing through awareness and acknowledgment

Much of the process relies on the person’s ability to identify what is happening in their body. The BSP therapist’s role is to guide the person through the phases of therapy using an organized series of steps. The process includes techniques to help people move through distress.

“Brainspotting is an noninvasive method of helping people with the symptoms resulting from emotional trauma,” said Integrative Life Center’s Clinical Manager, Sheena Miller, LPC-MHSP. “We have seen brainspotting work for many clients and highly recommend this therapeutic approach.”

Conditions and Symptoms Brainspotting Can Improve

Brainspotting is still a new therapeutic technique. But it has quickly gained respect due to the fast results it can provide. 

Brainspotting works to improve symptoms of:

  • Trauma 
  • Anxiety and panic disorders
  • Stress-related illnesses
  • Anger issues
  • Depression
  • Dissociation
  • Substance use disorders
  • Physical ailments
  • Attention disorders
  • Mood disorders
  • Phobias
  • Chronic physical issues
  • Memory problems

“Brainspotting helps with various mental health concerns, including assisting people in overcoming phobias, but it’s best known for the treatment of trauma and related symptoms,” Miller said. 

Benefits of Brainspotting

For many people, the most significant benefit of brainspotting is that they don’t need to spend a lot of time sharing details about their trauma to relieve trauma-related symptoms. Talking about traumatic experiences can be an obstacle to treatment for some people. Bringing up painful memories forces them to relive difficult experiences and can re-traumatize them.

Brainspotting does ask you to recall memories and focus on the feelings they cause. But you don’t need to spend hours in therapy talking about your past or the details of painful events.

Other benefits of brainspotting include:

  • Improved emotional regulation
  • Increased self-awareness
  • Stress and anxiety relief
  • Fewer negative thoughts
  • Less anxiety and lowered feelings of distress
  • Healing from stored trauma
  • Reduced physical pain
  • Improved sleep
  • Increased energy
  • Eliminating fear
  • Long-lasting results

Brainspotting is also a cost-effective form of therapy. Traditional talk therapy can go on for many months or even years, but you can complete brainspotting sessions within weeks. Each person’s experience is different, but many people feel improvement in their symptoms after the first session.

In addition, brainspotting is a flexible technique that therapists can use to treat many issues. They can use it as a stand-alone therapy or include it as part of a more comprehensive treatment program.

Is Brainspotting Effective?

Because it’s a relatively new technique, research on the effectiveness of brainspotting is still limited. But studies show the therapy to be at least as effective as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or EMDR, which are considered quite helpful for treating various disorders. 

An increasing body of evidence shows that the body stores trauma. 

Trauma can result in physical or psychological symptoms, such as:

  • Distressing memories
  • Physical pain and ailments
  • Isolation and withdrawal
  • Reliving trauma repeatedly
  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders and panic attacks
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Memory loss and other cognitive problems
  • Lack of emotions
  • Insomnia
  • Self-destructive behaviors
  • Guilt and shame
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Self-harming behaviors

Brainspotting activates the areas in the brain where trauma is stored. It allows you to process and release painful memories. You may feel a shift in your emotions and body during and after a brainspotting session. These shifts can continue for several months after completing a course of sessions.

Is brainspotting right for you? If you have experienced intense trauma or many traumas, you may benefit from this form of therapy. It is designed to release unprocessed trauma and give quick results when compared to other types of treatment.

Core Principles of Brainspotting Sessions

The core principles of brainspotting are similar to the core principles of all types of talk therapy. The client’s needs and responses are what lead sessions, not the therapist’s assumptions or timeline. 

Brainspotting requires intuitive skills and a willingness to use simple mindfulness practices. Therapists must empower people to work through sessions at their own pace.

There is no wrong or right way to feel during or after brainspotting. It’s a highly individualized process influenced by many factors, starting with the severity of trauma symptoms. It’s crucial that you feel comfortable telling your therapist how you feel.

What Happens in a Brainspotting Session?

During your first brainspotting session, the therapist will take some time to get to know you and your reasons for seeking therapy. You might not get to the actual brainspotting technique during the first session. 

The first meeting may feel more like a session of traditional talk therapy. A good relationship is needed for the therapist to develop an effective treatment plan.

When you begin a brainspotting session, the therapist may play bilateral sound music. This music moves from one ear to the other when you listen to it with headphones. They may also lead you through a guided relaxation technique. 

Exercises like these help people feel more at ease. They prepare them to handle the difficult memories and feelings that may come up during the session.

Once you relax and are in a state of mindfulness, the therapist will ask you to briefly discuss a topic that causes you distress. For example, you might talk about the traumatic event or an upsetting experience related to the trauma. For brainspotting to work, it is necessary to focus on a specific issue you wish to resolve.  

As a mind-body therapy, brainspotting helps people become more aware of how their body responds to thoughts. While remaining focused on the traumatic memory, you will identify a place in your body that feels stressed, in pain, or uncomfortable. 

Your therapist may ask you to locate emotions hiding in your physical body and describe how they feel. You will rank these feelings on a scale from one to 10, with 10 being the most upsetting and one being neutral. This ranking will be a baseline to measure the improvement in symptoms.

Next, the therapist will help guide you to a “brain spot.” This place is where your eyes naturally focus as the physical sensations become stronger. They may use a pencil, a pointer, or their finger and have you track the object as they move it back and forth in your field of vision.

As you move your eyes, you may notice a painful memory or strong emotion arise. It’s a “brain spot.” While you focus on the spot, some reflexive actions may take place, including:

  • Yawning
  • Coughing
  • Muscle twitching
  • Facial tics
  • Pupil dilation or constriction
  • Eyelids twitching

You may not be aware of these reactions, but the BSP therapist is trained to recognize the signals. At this point, your therapist will help you access and process the feelings that arise as you focus on the uncomfortable area of the body. Paying close attention to your physical cues, the therapist may ask you to fixate your eyes on other brain spots. 

At this point, it becomes your job to allow and observe your emotions without judgment or trying to control them. Brainspotting encourages people to bring their full attention to the moment, even if it’s uncomfortable. 

You may experience distress or other uncomfortable physical sensations. Your therapist will guide and support you as you allow your feelings to process. 

At the end of the session, you can share any thoughts or feelings you became aware of during brainspotting. You will then rate your level of discomfort once again. Ideally, the rating will be lower than the initial number.

Most people receive one to three brainspotting sessions. Your therapist may recommend a follow-up session or another type of therapy to supplement the treatment. 

You may opt to continue with the same therapist and a more traditional form of therapy or wait and see how effective the brainspotting session was. Many people continue to feel improvement in their symptoms for several weeks after a session. 

What to Expect After Brainspotting

Many people experience an immediate improvement in symptoms after only one session, but some don’t. Both are expected reactions to therapy, and every person’s experience is different. 

After the session, you may experience:

  • Physical and emotional fatigue
  • Lightheadedness
  • Delayed speech or difficulty forming words clearly
  • Temporary increase in anxiety or depression
  • Feeling tearful or moody
  • Agitation or anger
  • Delayed emotional or physical improvement

What is brainspotting supposed to help with? The point of this therapy is to release trauma, but people must first uncover buried or unresolved trauma before releasing it. 

Brainspotting may leave you feeling emotionally vulnerable and physically tired. With continued sessions, uncomfortable sensations decrease. People report feeling a sense of calm and lasting release from the emotional issues that brought them to therapy in the first place.

How to Start Brainspotting Therapy

Brainspotting therapy requires specialized training. The Brainspotting Training Institute reports that there are about 13,000 brainspotting-certified therapists across the country. 

“Brainspotting is a mental health treatment. Therefore, you want to make sure that the person treating you is credentialed to do so,” Miller said. “At ILC, we have therapists who are certified in brainspotting and have experience successfully treating patients with this approach.”

Therapists must do two courses and at least 50 hours of practicing with clients. To find a properly certified therapist in this technique, browse therapists online by specialty. For your safety and to get the best results, choose only a credentialed brainspotting therapist.

Some questions to ask a potential therapist include:

  • What kind of training and credentialing do you have in brainspotting?
  • In your experience, is brainspotting an effective technique for my issues?
  • How many sessions do people receive on average?
  • What is the cost of a session?
  • Do you accept my insurance coverage?
  • What, if any, other types of therapy do you combine with brainspotting?
  • After I complete brainspotting, do you offer long-term forms of therapy I can participate in?

If your initial conversation with a therapist doesn’t feel right, don’t be discouraged. Therapists must have a good working rapport with the people they treat. It’s common for people to interview more than one professional before finding the therapist they feel comfortable with.

Brainspotting at ILC

Brainspotting can help treat anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other trauma-related issues. But it should only be done by a qualified professional like the ones at Integrative Life Center.

If you think brainspotting or other mind-body therapies could be effective in helping you improve your mental health, contact Integrative Life Center today for more information.

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