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When someone experiences an upsetting or traumatic event, they often try to push away the memories of the event. However, the more someone pushes away these memories, the more distress they typically experience. The memories can be images, thoughts or feelings related to the event, and people may feel the distress cognitively, emotionally or physiologically. Brainspotting therapy is a treatment model that can help people to process the traumatic memories and release the distress.
What Is Brainspotting Therapy?
Brainspotting therapy is a type of treatment used to help people process and work through distress related to trauma and upsetting emotions. Brainspotting uses the mind-body connection to help people process the upsetting memories, emotions and sensations associated with a specific experience. Through the guidance of the therapist, they can work to release the distress associated with the event.
David Grand, Ph.D., first developed the concept of brainspotting in 2003 while he was treating people with eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. He recognized that the direction people look can directly impact how they feel. He observed that when people would think about an upsetting memory, their eyes would look at a certain spot in their visual field (the brainspot). From there, he developed the brainspotting model. Today, many clinicians have gone through the training needed to provide this form of therapy.
Therapists have also used brainspotting to help treat:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Chronic pain
Brainspotting vs. EMDR
As brainspotting was developed during the course of using EMDR for trauma treatment, it has created a cause for comparison. Brainspotting and EMDR both use the eyes as an element for treatment, and they also share other similarities. Both treatments:
- Help people process their memories related to traumatic or distressing events
- Incorporate concepts of mindfulness and attuning to experiences in the present moment as part of processing
- Have been shown to effectively treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as well as distress related to upsetting events.
- Help ease discomfort and get “unstuck” from distressing memories
- Have fewer sessions than some other treatment models
While both treatments are based on a similar foundation, they do have some important differences.
- Target the memory
- Use specific steps in each session as part of a treatment protocol
- Involve more talking with the therapist during a session
- Focus more on the memories
- Target the brainspot
- Have specific treatment protocol
- Involve less talking
- Focus more on the body’s sensations
How Does Brainspotting Therapy Work?
During a brainspotting session, the therapist helps guide the client to locate the brainspot. The brainspot is the specific spot in someone’s visual field that activates the brain’s response to the targeted experience. When the person’s eyes move to this location, they feel more distressed. The body and brain associate this brainspot with the memories, thoughts and bodily sensations the person feels when recalling the event.
To find the brainspot, the therapist guides the person’s eyes using a pointer (or fingers). It can be done in two different ways:
- Outside window: The therapist observes body activation, such as eye twitches, blinking or facial expressions.
- Inside window: Discussion is held about which location causes the person to feel the most activated.
The therapist then helps the person access the brainspot by keeping their eyes in the determined position and focused on the pointer. The person works to remain mindfully focused on the sensations, thoughts and emotions experienced while recalling the memories or upsetting emotions. In brainspotting, this process is referred to as “focused mindfulness.” This process is repeated until the person no longer feels distress while accessing the memory.
Brainspotting therapy helps to stimulate the brain’s natural healing process, and using bilateral sounds can further assist in this process. Most people wear headphones during a session and listen to music, soothing sounds or beats. The bilateral sounds work by alternately stimulating the auditory nerves on each side of the brain. This process can be calming and soothing for the brain, which can enhance the natural healing process.
A brainspotting session does not follow a rigid structure, but the sessions do typically have similar processes. A typical session would consist of:
- Recollecting the distressing event or memory
- Identifying where the discomfort is felt the most in the body
- Ranking the level of distress
- Locating the brainspot
- Focused mindfulness of the sensations, thoughts and emotions that are activated
- Assessing for any changes in distress levels and repeating the process until the distress is minimized
- Discussing the experience and how it felt
What To Expect After Brainspotting
Processing and releasing trauma in a brainspotting session is difficult work. After a brainspotting session, people have reported feeling:
- Physically and emotionally tired
- Mild tingling or burning sensations
- Emergence of deeper thoughts or feelings
- Sense of “letting go”
The conclusion of the session should include discussions on how someone feels after the session. It is important to remain open and communicative with the therapist about your response to the session.
Benefits of Brainspotting
- Resolving traumatic memories
- Detaching from traumatic memories
- Decrease in painful emotions
- Feeling physically relaxed when thinking about the distressing memory
- Decreased emotional pain associated with the distressing memories
- Decreased negative thoughts
- Improved sleep
- Improved energy
Side Effects and Risks of Brainspotting
Brainspotting is a relatively new form of treatment, and there are limited research studies available at this time. Currently, no adverse results, side effects or risks have been reported. However, people can experience more intense memories, emotions and sensations following a session. This situation does commonly occur with many forms of treatment for trauma and should be discussed with the therapist.
Is Brainspotting Evidence-Based?
Evidence-based therapies incorporate the most significant available research and clinical experience to treat a variety of mental health conditions. Brainspotting is currently not an evidence-based therapy according to standards set by the American Psychological Association or the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Brainspotting is a newer model of treatment; researchers are learning more about it, and therapists are gaining relevant clinical experience. More research is still needed to further evaluate the effectiveness and validity of brainspotting, as well as how it works and how it affects the brain.
If you’d like help with your mental health, the Nobu app offers a variety of options that can provide support and assistance. You can access free mental health support services, including mindfulness training, journaling prompts, goal setting and more. For an additional fee, you can also connect with a mental health professional to help address trauma and other issues through online therapy sessions. The Nobu app is available for download on the Apple Store and Google Play Store.
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