Have you tried talk therapy, but still struggle with the same unresolved concerns? Ideally, therapy will help resolve your mental health symptoms, give you skills for managing life’s challenges and leave you feeling hopeful. However, people often feel stuck in therapy and need something more. If this has been the case for you, you may benefit from another therapeutic approach that incorporates the brain and body. Brainspotting is a neurophysiological (psychology of the nervous system) treatment tool that works by identifying, processing and releasing sources of emotional pain, physical pain and trauma. Brainspotting is a focused and powerful tool that goes beyond traditional talk therapy by accessing deeper, subcortical parts of the brain and body. These parts of the brain are responsible for emotions, learning, impulse control and motor control. This is also the part of the brain where trauma is stored. I was trained in Brainspotting in 2021 and have been excited and passionate to tell others about its powerful effects!
Trauma is an emotional and/or physical response to an event or series of events that are distressing and disrupts one’s ability to cope. David Grand discovered Brainspotting in 2003 while using Natural Flow EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy) while working with a teenage ice skater who had physical and emotional trauma. EMDR uses eye movements or other bilateral stimulation to process memories and disturbing feelings to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories. Natural Flow EMDR was a gentler approach to EMDR that David Grand adapted with techniques from other trauma-informed therapies. While EMDR uses eye moments to recall and process trauma, Grand discovered that when a client looked at a specific point in visual space, it created an emotional or physical reaction within the client and allowed them to process it on a deeper level. This focused eye position is known as a “Brainspot.” Therapists can help clients access Brainspots by paying close attention to the client’s reflexes as they move a pointer across the client’s field of vision and watching for subtle blinks, swallows or flinches as the client follows the pointer with their gaze. A therapist may also find a Brainspot by noticing where in the room the client tends to look when they talk about a specific topic.
During a Brainspotting session, the client is guided to be “mindfully aware” of body sensations or emotions that arise. An “activation” Brainspot makes the body sensation or emotion stronger or more activated. This can sometimes feel uncomfortable, but with the support of the therapist and the brain’s amazing capacity to heal, the uncomfortable feelings will hopefully resolve or lessen. On the other hand, some Brainspots that make the body sensations or emotions less strong or more comfortable are called “resource spots.” Resource spots can make it easier to address challenging memories, emotions or body sensations. For many who have experienced significant trauma, it can feel very unsafe, uncomfortable and even terrifying to be with their sensations, emotions or recall memories. It is important to know that when you are Brainspotting, you are in complete control of your experience. The therapist is there to support you as they follow your lead.
Brainspotting therapy does not replace the importance of the therapeutic relationship. No therapeutic approach can replace the client-therapist relationship known as the “therapeutic alliance”. Brainspotting is a tool that can support the healing relationship. An essential part of Brainspotting that supports the therapeutic alliance is “dual attunement.” Dual attunement is when the therapist is “in tune” with the therapeutic relationship with the client and the client’s brain-body experience.
When David Grand is asked who Brainspotting is for, his response is “Everyone!” What I love most about Brainspotting is its creativity and adaptability to any client of any age, race, gender or culture. While Brainspotting was initially used to treat trauma, it can also help with stress, anxiety, ADHD, performance anxiety, chronic pain, addictions, unhealthy habits and so much more! When I use Brainspotting with children, we often tell stories, play with stuffed animals, paint, draw and play games. For example, a child may choose to paint a picture of an emotion they do not like and we use the painting to find a Brainspot. I am often amazed by how empowered children feel after Brainspotting. They often develop solutions and new perspectives to their challenges.
Now you might be thinking, yeah this sounds good in theory, but really HOW does it work? Fear and pain we experience during traumatic events, often becomes stuck in our bodies and the subcortical parts of the brain, especially when we are not able to “flee or fight” back during the danger. Brainspotting is based on the discovery that, where you look affects how you feel. Research on Brainspotting hypothesizes that a Brainspot can provide direct access to the autonomic and limbic systems within the body’s central nervous system (Brainspotting.com). The brain is complex, so how and why this happens is not completely understood, but new insight into the neuroscience behind it is constantly being discovered.
What sold me on Brainspotting was my personal experience with it. As part of Brainspotting training for clinicians, you have several opportunities to personally receive Brainspotting. I was amazed when I noticed that one Brainspot made me feel like my skin was crawling and another Brainspot brought calmness to my body. Both of those Brainspots (the skin-crawling one and the calm one) would have been okay places to work from! It is up to the client where to start. Additionally, Brainspotting is not only used to find relief from uncomfortable symptoms but is also used to expand on your strengths and resiliency as an individual.
Brainspotting is one of many therapies that can help access deeper parts of the brain and work with the nervous system to find relief of symptoms. I believe it is important for people receiving therapy or looking for therapy to know about the different options available. It is also important to know and understand the possible side effects to therapies, which I did not expand on in this explanation of Brainspotting. There are many means to find recovery and healing and Brainspotting is one that I have found to have an incredible impact.
Jenny Birkholz, MSW, LGSW, LADC
Individual and Family Therapist
Lakes Center for Youth & Families