Brainspotting is an advanced brain-body intervention that helps individuals identify, process and release trauma, pain, emotional stress and a range of other psychological and somatic issues. A primary advantage of Brainspotting is that it reaches parts of the brain that are not generally accessed through traditional approaches. It is a relational and neurobiological approach to healing at the deepest level.
In the age of holistic health, brain-body approaches are increasingly sought after for treating simple and complex issues. Brainspotting is a newer brain-body treatment that is showing a lot of promise in its ability to provide relief for trauma, anxiety, depression and daily stressors. It has roots in Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) and similarly supports the reprocessing of negative experiences and retrains emotional reactions.
Brainspotting is proposed to activate the body’s self-scanning ability to identify, process and release imbalances and residue emotional stress. It is based on the premise that ‘where you look affects how you feel’ and proposes that eye positions correlate with important neural, unconscious, internal, and emotional experiences. As an individual maintains an eye position while focusing on a stressful experience, they connect to a spot in the brain (brainspot) that gives them access to releasing and processing the challenging experience. A brainspot is not just one spot in the brain but rather a network of activation in the brain that leads to a reflexive, somatic reaction in the body. The focused eye position further allows the brain to stop scanning the room and instead internally self-scan to identify and maintain its presence on the deeper unresolved issue.
The therapy itself follows a strategy to locate client’s brainspot while working with a dual attunement frame. Dual attunement is the mindful, compassionate presence of the therapist to both the client and their neurobiology. When a brainspot is activated, reflexive movements are able to be observed by the therapist that provide valuable access to healing. These movements come from deep regions of the brain, outside of a client’s conscious, cognitive and verbal awareness.This makes the therapists sensory acuity and attunement to the client’s finite reflexive changes, critical to the efficacy of Brainspotting.
Brainspotting can be used as a primary mode of therapy as well as an adjunct in the therapy toolkit. For individuals who feel like they have plateaued in their healing or those who are not finding relief in more traditional approaches, Brainspotting offers new possibilities for breakthrough and healing.
History of Brainspotting
Brainspotting was discovered by Dr. David Grand in 2003. Grand developed the Natural Flow EMDR based on his work with EMDR, somatic experiencing, relational and insight oriented therapy. Brainspotting is an evolution of his original work that he actually discovered by accident. While Grand was conducting an EMDR session with a professional athlete focusing on an area she had been previously stuck, she held an eye position instead of moving back and forth as is common in EMDR. The maintenance of her eye position helped her go deeper than she had before and revealed new information to be processed. Following this she had a breakthrough in her mindset and her performance.
Brainspotting combines body oriented approaches, the power of the therapeutic relationship and psycho-neurobiological processing. According to Grand, “Brainspotting works with the deep brain and the body through its direct access to the autonomic and limbic systems. Brainspotting is accordingly a physiological approach with psychological consequences.”
Trauma Lives in the Experience (not the event)
When trauma occurs, it overwhelms the system and we are not able to process everything that happened. The primitive brain takes over and if we are unable to fight or flee to escape the situation, we shut down in order to survive. Once here, our nervous system makes it difficult to get out. We lose track of the details making it challenging to recall what happened at a later time. The traumatic experiences get stored at a sensory, visceral, and often nonverbal level in our implicit memory. According to trauma expert and neuroscientist Robert Scaer, aspects of the trauma become stuck or frozen in time contained in an implicit memory capsule in the brain waiting for a safer time to be processed and dealt with. When in implicit memory we have a built in protective mechanism that keeps these memories outside of our conscious awareness to minimize the overwhelming interference in our lives. This is similar to trying to hold a beach ball underwater. It puts a lot of stress on the mind body system, is exhausting and inevitably is not sustainable. Consequently, nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, depression, irritability, phobias, panic attacks, isolation and other uncomfortable issues tend to arise. These symptoms are not easily associated with the original trauma and thus it can be confusing as to where they are coming from. Adding to this confusion is the fact that the outside world is generally obsessed with what happened and recalling the details of the events, but this is not where trauma lives. It lives in the response not the event, in the sensory experience not verbalized cognitions. This is another reason why people feel ashamed, isolated, confused and even crazy following trauma. Equally it is why talking about it won’t make it go away.
In order to better understand how the regulatory and healing processes work in relation to trauma, it is helpful to realize how trauma is processed and stored. There is increasing evidence that residue of trauma is stored in the body and alter the brain, having a negative impact on mood, immunity, sleep, lifestyle habits and memory. As long as the memories or experiences are suspended in implicit memory they cannot be fully let go. The brainspot is the eye position that connects to the capsule containing the traumatic experience and bringing into explicit awareness where it can be processed and healed. As the brainspot is sustained with focused mindful attention, the information in the capsule is released and the body and mind move towards greater equilibrium. As implicit memories are brought up into explicit awareness they can be dealt with and moved into a part of the brain that allows us to move forward in our lives.
Goal of Counseling – Dysregulation to Regulation
A primary goal of counseling is to support clients to move from dysregulation to regulation, from imbalance to homeostasis. When mapping regulation in the brain and body, it appears the process of Brainspotting directly accesses the parts of the brain associated with regulation including the agranular isocortex (ventromedial, orbitofrontal and anterior prefrontal cortex) and the limbic cortex or allocortex. To this end, Brainspotting accesses the subcortical regions of the brain, the right brain, limbic system and brain stem (midbrain) in the process of regulation and healing. It allows for processing down in the reflexive core of the brain stem and spine reaching into the deepest subcortical regions of the brain. In doing so it combines physiological sensory activation with emotional processing. It reaches deep down where the heart of trauma is stored in the unconscious. It is not necessarily focused on thoughts, thinking or analyzing as all of this inhibits flow of deep limbic, brain stem experiences and are not involved in regulation.
Another way it helps move from dysregulation to regulations is through the mindful presence of the therapist. Research shows that the safe, caring support of another moves us into the part of our brain-body connection for healing. Brainspotting’s dual attunement frame activates regulation by supporting clients to reconsolidate traumatic energy and memory and move into greater homeostasis. It is through the safety and compassionate presence of the therapist that implicit memory becomes activated and can be moved into explicit memory.
It is further theorized that through the use of the pointer, traveling down the optic nerves, client’s access the visual layer of the superior colliculi in the midbrain. The pointer becomes a resource anchor that provides a sense of stabilization and safety and allows the brain to stop scanning the room. As part of our survival instinct, our brain is constantly scanning our environment and making adjustments accordingly to ensure our safety and equilibrium. The pointer along with the presence of the therapist refocus this self-scanning tendency from external to internal. From here the client can use the massive power of their quadrillion brain cells to self-scan, identify and heal unresolved imbalances.
Why Talking About It Is Not Regulation
Conversely cognitive based approaches activate the part of the brain associated with higher order thinking called the neocortex or granular isocortex which is not associated with regulation. Question asking, processing and analyzing are part of the executive processing systems of the neocortex. Although these functions have their place in therapy, Brainspotting is concerned with information found in the midbrain and nervous system. This is where trauma, stress, habits, repetitive patterns, sensory experiences are stored. The midbrain in fact drives the frontal lobes or the neocortex and is at the root of why we do what we do and our overall health. Like a tree, unresolved trauma stresses the roots and dramatically impacts the health of the trunk, branches and leaves. If you pull all the leaves off or chop the branches down, it will not stop the tree from growing back from its trauma infused roots especially given the right circumstances that allow the tree to grow. It is thus vital to access the roots of the tree in order to stop its growth.
The midbrain is the seat of changing any habits, patterns and traumatic experiences. This is especially important given 80% of the information coming into the brain is sensory or rooted in our five senses and void of language, cognition and verbalized experience. Only 20% is based on what is already stored in our brain and able to be processed with our thoughts and cognitions. This is one reason why cognitive approaches are limiting and why mind-body or brain-body based approaches are vital to healing. Cognitive approaches do not allow us to access the majority of what is happening in the brain and how we store our experience.
Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Approach
Many traditional therapies work from a top-down model where thoughts are used to change feelings, behaviors and experiences. This model relies on the upper part of the brain (neocortex) which is also the newest part in our evolution, to manage and alter the inner and more primitive parts of the brain. As a result, the success of a top-down approach is contingent upon a client’s ability to analyze, narrate and verbally process their thoughts and feelings. Brainspotting follows the bottom-up model where the inner brain sends information and experiences up through the limbic system for release and into the neocortex for processing. Given that stressful and traumatic experiences are stored through our sensory, nonverbal experience a bottom up model is essential in the healing process. Brainspotting engages our innate drive to release sensory, residue or unresolved experiences and opens us up to new insights, equilibrium, regulation and improved overall health. As more information comes up and out, more room is created for new insights and expansion. Brainspotting has a reputation for offering swift and often rapid relief to longstanding challenges.
Dual Attunement is a primary tenant of Brainspotting in that the attunement of the therapist activates brain pathways associated with safety, support and connection. Brainspotting focuses on the attunement of the therapist to the client as well as to the client’s neurobiology. Thus, it is a combined relational and neurobiological connection happening at the same time. This supports a sense of trust that allows the nervous system to feel seen and come on board with information to process. Attunement acts as a gateway to the deep centers of the brain giving them permission to safely release pent up residue energy. Attunement is the most stabilizing to brain pathways. The Brainspotting model is therefore in alignment with what is also known as mindful witnessing and interpersonal neurobiology as coined by Daniel Seigel neuroscientist and author of Mindsight. The compassionate presence of the therapist is a necessary ingredient for accessing implicit memories. This process is a goal of most therapeutic approaches given it is crucial to letting go, moving on and dealing with any issues.
Attunement & Polyvagal Theory
According to Matthew Lieberman author of the book, Social, our need for connection is even said to be more important than our need for food and shelter. This notion echoes early studies in psychology showing that social isolation and neglect cause significant mental and physical decompensation and risk mortality. Polyvagal Theory, based on the work of neuroscientist Steven Porges, demonstrates that as evolved mammals our ability to engage socially shifts our physiology and allows for processing of traumatic energy and memories. Social connection activates the healing power of our vagus nerve to repair from the residue of trauma especially as related to the fight, flight, freeze, collapse or appease nervous system responses. The understanding that trauma happens inside of a relationship causing a break in attachment and trust, means healing involves reviving the attachment pathway. The power of attunement and compassionate presence are at the heart of Polyvagal Theory and interpersonal neurobiology. Brainspottings’ success hinges upon the client experiencing the safe, mindful attention of the practitioner.
According to Robert Scaer, author of The Trauma Spectrum, “Brainspotting is based on the profound attunement of the therapist with the patient, finding a somatic cue and extinguishing it by downregulating the amygdala [a brain structure responsible for noticing threat and holding memories of threats].”
The Brainspotting Process
- The therapist assists the client to bring their neurobiology online through connecting to the issue while the person is aware of the activated somatic experience.
- Next, they identify the brainspot associated with this issue and the therapist applies 100% laser focus on the individual attuning to any sensory changes.
- Most importantly, the therapist gets out of the way and lets the quadrillions of brain cells, the nervous system and deep centers of the client’s brain bring about homeostasis.
Clients report having deeper profound releases with Brainspotting as compared to other brain-based and traditional therapies. The brain is re-stabilizing, resourcing and rebooting itself during Brainspotting and the processing often continues to occur after the session has ended. A doorway has been opened and information will continue to come up and out for releasing and healing. Given much of this information is sensory and nonverbal, it is common to not be able to put into words all that has happened. What often occurs are new insights emerge, internal shifts happen and the issue feels neutralized. This may happen over the course of the session or in the hours, days, weeks or even years that follow. There are over 10,000 practitioners trained in Brainspotting worldwide and the numbers are growing every year. Further research is needed to explore, understand and validate the effectiveness of Brainspotting application.
How Can Brainspotting Help
Brainspotting is being used in a wide range of settings and issues both personally and professionally.
- PTSD and trauma
- Athletic and professional performance
- Public speaking
- Self-sabotage and unhealthy patterns
- Anxiety and depression
- Insomnia and sleep issues
- Habit change
- ADHD, ADD
- Substance abuse and addictions
- Chronic pain
- Anger and emotional regulation
- Health issues
- History of emotional, physical or sexual abuse
- Phobias and fears
- Low self esteem
Hilary Stokes Ph.D. and Kim Ward Ph.D. have been a team for 20 years, specializing in mind, body, spirit psychology. They are the authors of the bestselling books The Happy Map: Your roadmap to the habit of happiness and Manifesting Mindset: The 6-step formula for attracting your goals and dreams and founders of Authenticity Associates Coaching and Counseling. They are passionate about combining the best of holistic and traditional approaches to health and happiness.