Addiction A-Z

Brainspotting

Brainspotting is a relatively new form of treatment that taps into the body’s innate ability to heal in order to reduce and eliminate the impact of unresolved trauma, negative beliefs, and emotional distress.  It accomplishes this by using a unique and powerful combination of specific eye positioning and bilateral auditory stimulation.

Developed by Dr. David Grand just over a decade ago, Brainspotting is based upon the idea that what’s going on inside our brain is directly related to where we focus our eyes.  To quote Dr. Grand, “where you look affects how you feel”.  That’s the foundational premise – the motto – of this powerful known as Brainspotting.

Dr. Grand discovered that there’s a very specific and intimate relationship between our brain and our eyes.  Whenever we visually scan our surroundings for information, we’re also scanning our brain for our thoughts, ideas, and emotional responses.  We may also be scanning our brain to find where repressed memories and feelings (related to something traumatic or distressing in our past) are stored.

Many experts in the area of trauma treatment believe that when overwhelmed by something traumatic or deeply distressing, the emotional “charge” or memory from that event becomes stored or trapped in our body.  We’re often unaware that this has even occurred, but our brain is altered as a result.  It can cause problems on all levels – emotionally, mentally and physically.

Brainspotting is designed to discover, dislodge and ultimately release that trapped energy so that it no longer causes problems in our life.

Goals of Brainspotting

There are three primary goals or areas of focus in Brainspotting.  The first is desensitization – in other words, to help you no longer react (emotionally or physically) to triggers.  For example, veterans suffering from PTSD brought on by the horrors of combat often react irrationally to loud noises, particularly anything that resembles the sound of gun fire or an explosion, such as a car backfiring or a balloon popping.

The second is to identify the underlying cause of those over-reactions.  In many cases the underlying issue is a traumatic event in your past.  You may not even remember that traumatic experience because you’ve repressed it. Or, you do remember it but had never made the connection between it and your reactions and current symptoms.  For many individuals, the connection is missed because they never thought of the event as “traumatic”, even though it left a deep wound in their psyche that has never healed.

Often, the impact of unresolved trauma manifests at least in part in the form of negative or limiting beliefs about oneself, which also need to be identified.   For example, if you were physically or sexually abused, or experienced some form of abandonment early in your life, you may have come to believe that you’re worthless – undeserving of positive things such as love, respect, or success.  As you might imagine, that deeply ingrained negative self-belief would inevitably cause one or more important areas of your life – your relationships, academic performance, career, etc. – to suffer.

The third goal of Brainspotting is to essentially “re-process” ore rewire our brain with regards to the past and release the distressing or traumatic memory that’s been stuck for so long.  This release is what finally allows troubling symptoms to abate and enables you to move forward with your life, no longer hindered by the past.

How Brainspotting Works

In order to understand how Brainspotting first, it’s necessary to first understand what a “brainspot” is.  The term brainspot refers to the spot or focal point of the eyes – the eye position – that correlates with the area in the brain that holds the traumatic memory.  This is the source of the negative emotions – the place where the trauma got stuck.  You can have several brainspots.

The brainspot is used to help you process the traumatic experience.  Before this processing can occur, the brainspot must be located.  Sometimes a brainspot is located by you noticing an increase in your distress.  It may also be located by the therapist observing a reflexive response in your eyes or body, such as a twitch, a sudden change in your breathing, a yawn, or a change in your expression.  The reflexive response lets the therapist know that the brainspot has been found.

The therapist will use a pointer aimed at a specific point in space associated with your brainspot.  The therapist will have you focus on that point while simultaneously focusing on something that is causing emotional distress.  During this process you’ll also be listening to bilateral sounds.

Sometimes the therapist will use a “resource brainspot”.  Unlike the regular brainspot that correlates with painful emotions, the resource brainspot correlates with a sense of support or a feeling of groundedness, which can ease the intensity of processing if needed.

In Brainspotting, part of the therapist’s job is to “attune” to you once the brainspot has been located.  Together, you observe and process the trauma that has been trapped within you for so long.  As the trauma is released, healing immediately starts to occur deep within your unconscious. This will gradually lead to a deep sense of relief as the processing continues.

Bilateral Stimulation in Brainspotting

Brainspotting, like EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, a similar therapy used primarily to treat trauma), uses non-verbal methods to stimulate the brain to facilitate processing.  Brainspotting uses special recordings that emit bilateral sound.  Bilateral sounds mean that each ear is getting a different sound simultaneously or receiving similar sounds at alternating times.  This serves to stimulate the two sides (the left and right hemispheres) of your brain.

The most common sounds used in Brainspotting are music, nature sounds, or tones.  The sounds help facilitate treatment by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system.  They also help you feel more relaxed by calming the sympathetic nervous system (the latter enables you to respond quickly to immediate danger by getting your adrenaline flowing).

Dr. Grand has actually created a series of 6 “Biolateral CDs” (note the difference in spelling) that clinicians can use in their Brainspotting sessions.  A remastered version of these tracks is also available in MP3 format.

The beauty of Brainspotting is that it enables you to process painful traumatic memories without feeling highly aroused.  In fact, many therapy clients feel very calm and even peaceful during Brainspotting sessions.  This, combined with the fact that Brainspotting doesn’t require a detailed account of the trauma in order to work, is part of what makes it such an appealing intervention to trauma survivors

A Brief History of Brainspotting

Brainspotting is a relatively new type of therapy.  Dr. David Grand, a licensed clinical social worker, essentially stumbled upon the technique in 2003 during a therapy session with a figure skater. His discovery of the relationship between “brainspots” and unresolved trauma occurred when the skater was talking about the trouble she was having with a particular jump.  He noticed that her eyes seemed to react to a particular spot in her field of vision as she talked about this issue, so he instructed her to focus on that spot as she talked.  Doing this enabled the skater to finally process trauma that had been keeping her stuck.  As a result, the particular jump was never a problem for her again.

Since that time, Dr. Grand came to more fully understand the connection between where therapy clients focus their eyes while talking about an issue and the underlying neurological processes.  This led to the development of Brainspotting as an effective, short-term treatment for unresolved trauma and other problems for which many individuals seek therapy.  It is also now being used in non-clinical areas, including improving performance in sports and enhancing creativity in those involved in the creative arts.

In addition to his work has a therapist, Dr. Grand is also a performance coach, humanitarian, lecturer, and writer.  Some of his clients include professional athletes, well-known actors, and leaders in business. He has also helped trauma survivors from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and many veterans who have found themselves battling PTSD upon returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq.  His expertise and skills as a trauma therapist continues to be sought by many.

Since Dr. Grand’s discovery back in the early 2000s, Lisa Schwartz, M.Ed. has joined forces with him to further the development and use of Brainspotting.  Her work has led to the development of Attachment & Dissociation Brainspotting and Resource Brainspotting.

To date, several thousand therapists from all over the world have been trained and certified in Brainspotting.

Advantages of Brainspotting

There are many advantages to Brainspotting, particularly when compared to more traditional forms of treatment.  These include:

  • It’s not limited to treating PTSD and symptoms of unresolved trauma only. It’s gaining recognition as an effective treatment for a wide range of other disorders, conditions, and problems.
  • It’s a short-term treatment that often produces positive, lasting results relatively quickly.
  • It can be used as a stand-alone treatment or in combination with other forms of treatment.
  • As a treatment for trauma, Brainspotting doesn’t require trauma survivors to rehash the trauma as part of therapy. This makes it a good choice for anyone who’s been avoiding treatment because they don’t want to go over all the details of the trauma (which can re-traumatize them and may exacerbate symptoms initially) or because they’ve had treatment (that failed to resolve the issues) and can’t bear the thought of further re-traumatization.
  • It’s a cost-effective treatment due to its short-term nature.
  • The short-term nature of treatment also means that there isn’t a significant investment of time and energy required.

Benefits of Brainspotting

Individuals who are treated with Brainspotting often experience many benefits.  Following are just some of the potential benefits from this particular therapeutic approach:

  • Alleviation of anxiety and emotional distress
  • Inner peace and joy that comes from finally resolving past trauma
  • Reduction in negative and irrational beliefs
  • Improved sleep
  • Greater resilience
  • Improved coping skills and ability to handle stress
  • Improved concentration
  • Enhanced creativity
  • Improved energy levels
  • Decrease in somatic symptoms
  • Decrease in impulsive tendencies

Disorders, Problems, and Conditions That Can Benefit From Brainspotting

Brainspotting was originally developed to treat individuals with PTSD.  However, it has become increasingly recognized as an effective therapy for numerous other psychiatric disorders.  It is also being used to treat symptoms and problems that are often related to unresolved trauma and other disorders, even though the symptoms aren’t sufficient to meet the criteria for a diagnosis of a specific disorder.  Additionally, Brainspotting is being used at times to help individuals struggling with symptoms and issues that are primarily physiological, rather than psychological, in nature.

Disorders, problems, and conditions that may benefit from Brainspotting include:

  • PTSD
  • ADHD and ADD
  • Addiction
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Phobias
  • Panic attacks
  • Impulse control problems and disorders
  • Anger control issues
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Grief and loss
  • Emotional blocks
  • Stress
  • Relationship problems (including the emotional wounds of trouble relationships)
  • Negative self-esteem
  • Compulsive behaviors
  • Perceptual problems
  • Preparing for and recovery from surgery and other invasive medical treatments
  • Unresolved trauma, including trauma related to:
    • Sexual abuse
    • An accident or injury
    • War
    • Man-made or natural disasters
    • Medical treatments or interventions
    • Physical trauma
    • Emotional trauma
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Stuttering
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Chronic pain
  • Headaches
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Asthma
  • Coping with a serious illness or health issue
  • Strokes
  • Performance anxiety
  • Dyslexia
  • Procrastination (associated with trauma)
  • Poor concentration (associate with trauma)
  • Low motivation

Non-clinical Applications of Brainspotting

As you can see, Brainspotting can be an effective therapeutic intervention for a wide range of disorders and problems. However, it is also being used by some practitioners to help individuals in many non-clinical areas. These include:

  • Improving athletic or academic performance / achieving peak performance
  • Enhancing spiritual awareness and connection
  • Increasing the benefits of meditation
  • Enhancing creativity (e.g. in music, writing, acting)
  • Improving public speaking skills

Brainspotting vs EMDR

Although there are several similarities between Brainspotting and EMDR, the two therapies are also different in many ways.

EMDR, developed by Francine Shapiro back in the 1980s, has been around longer.  Because it’s an older and more established therapy, there’s a larger body of supportive empirical research and it’s more widely known and used by therapists.  However, Brainspotting is slowly growing in popularity as more therapists learn about it, become trained in it, and experience good results with their clients.  It should also be noted that prior to discovering Brainspotting, Dr. Grand was already well known for his work as both an EMDR therapist and instructor.

Similarities 

  • Both were originally developed to treat PTSD and unresolved trauma symptoms, and both have been increasingly used to treat many other symptoms, problems, and disorders as well.
  • Both have the primary goal of eliminating the distress associated with unresolved trauma and emotionally distressing memories
  • Both involve methods that enable clients to access information that’s located in a part of the brain that can’t be accessed verbally
  • Both have been shown to produce lasting, positive results in a relatively short period of time.
  • Both use bilateral stimulation to engage the brain and facilitate processing.
  • Both therapies provide the option of slowing the rate of processing if the client feels uncomfortable or overstimulated
  • Both are effective without requiring therapy clients to rehash details of past trauma.

Differences

  • The manner in which information (regarding the stored trauma) is processed in EMDR can be over-stimulating for some clients. The manner in which information is accessed and processed in Brainspotting reduces the risk of overstimulation.
  • Although both therapies utilize bilateral stimulation, Brainspotting uses bilateral sound while EMDR primarily uses back and forth eye movements, but may also use tactile stimulation, sound, or tapping.
  • Brainspotting allows the therapist flexibility in the techniques used to help promote healing. EMDR, on the other hand, requires therapists to adhere to a very specific treatment protocol.
  • Most of the processing in EMDR utilizes rapid eye movements. In Brainspotting, the client keeps his or her eyes focused on one point.
  • In EMDR, the treatment sequence includes frequent interruptions in which the client checks in with the therapist (with regards to his or her level of distress). Brainspotting is allowed to flow naturally without these periodic check-ins.

Finding a Certified Brainspotting Practitioner

In order to offer Brainspotting as a treatment option, clinicians must be certified as a Brainspotting practitioner.  If you’re interested in working with a qualified clinician, one of the best ways to locate a certified practitioner is through the Brainspotting International website.

You can also search online for “Brainspotting [your city]” in order to find the names of practitioners in your area.  As with other forms of treatment, it’s usually best to work with a clinician who has at least a few years of experience using Brainspotting, particularly if you have experienced complex trauma and / or have PTSD that hasn’t responded well to other forms of treatment.  Many mental health professionals certified in Brainspotting use it in conjunction with other forms of therapy, although it can often be an effective treatment when used by itself.

If you’re struggling with the effects of trauma or other challengers listed above, Brainspotting is definitely worth considering.  Unlike more traditional forms of therapy which often takes months, a year or two, or even several years in order to achieve the desired results – especially with complex trauma – Brainspotting can produce very positive results and alleviate troubling symptoms in a relatively short amount of time.  It may be the ticket to finally being free from the pain and challenges of past trauma and other struggles, enabling you to experience the joy you deserve.

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