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Comparing Brainspotting vs EMDR in Psychotherapy and their Therapeutic Approaches

What is Brainspotting?

Brainspotting is an advanced mind body therapy for healing from developmental trauma, PTSD, trauma, performance anxiety, stress, depression, panic attacks and many other psychological issues. It has roots in Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) and similarly allows for the reprocessing and releasing of negative experiences. It is based on the premise that ‘where you look affects how you feel’. The strategy follows a brief set up with a few key components including awareness of an issue and correlating body sensations, focused eye position (Brainspot) and mindful attunement.

The brainspot is not just one spot in the brain but an active network. Accessing this active network is similar to opening the information capsule that contains the stored traumatic or stressful information so that it can be released and healed. Brainspotting is different from talk therapy approaches in that it gets at the heart of where trauma and stress are stored in the brain and body. This is typically in the nonverbal, nonlinear and subconscious parts of the brain that talk therapy does not access. Most clients report a profound effect with Brainspotting that continues long after the session ends. Clients also find the flexibility and adaptability of Brainspotting gives them a feeling of being back in control of events or circumstances that previously felt beyond their control.

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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.

What is EMDR

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing. It is an advanced mind body therapy for healing PTSD, trauma, anxiety, unhealthy habits and a range of psychological issues. It was developed by Francine Shapiro in 1987 for the treatment of PTSD. A key component of EMDR is bilateral stimulation which refers to the alternating stimulation of the right and left hemispheres of the brain. This is the crux of the EMDR model. Through rapid tactile, visual or auditory bilateral stimulation, it is proposed that the brain accesses and releases stored traumatic and stressful information. This type of information is not generally accessed with traditional talk therapy approaches. Talk based approaches don’t access the parts of the brain where trauma is stored. The EMDR practitioner may use tactile sensors called tappers, a light machine, their hands or headphones for bilateral stimulation.

The strategy itself follows a specific series of eight steps. As part of this process, the client focuses on a stressful or traumatic issue while experiencing bilateral stimulation. The client is guided to repeatedly reexperience the issue while being guided through the steps in the process. These steps allow the therapist and the client to track the productivity throughout the session. EMDR is an evidence-based strategy for healing PTSD, trauma and stress.

Comparing Brainspotting vs EMDR: Choose the Right Path to Healing

Brainspotting has roots in EMDR and similarly supports the reprocessing of negative experiences and retrains emotional reactions.  Both are therapeutic interventions that access deeply stored emotional, somatic, traumatic and often subconscious information. Both interventions may involve bilateral stimulation and are considered advanced brain-body based strategies. The primary differences between the two involve the procedure used and the role of the therapist. 


  1. Brainspotting has roots in EMDR.
  2. Brainspotting involves a focused eye position.
  3. Somatic awareness or felt sense of body sensations is also part of the clients noticing.
  4. Dual Attunement is a primary tenant of Brainspotting in that the attunement of the therapist activates attachment brain pathways associated with safety, support and connection
  5. During Brainspotting once the focused eye position is established, the client organically and intuitively processes through their experience without following a specific series of steps or protocols
  6. The therapist applies minimal interventions during the process to allow the clients inherent healing to occur. Many clients find this to be empowering, instinctual and flexible
  7. During the therapy session the mind and body process and release in an organic and instinctual way often allowing for multiple traumatic issues to be processed during a session.
  8. Brainspotting focuses on the neural networks associated with trauma or issue while EMDR focuses on a specific memory. This is an important difference in the two models in that a specific or detailed memory is not necessary or as important for brainspotting. Due to the nature of trauma and how the brain processes it, it is not uncommon for individuals who have experienced trauma, especially developmental trauma to not remember the details or be able to pinpoint the elements of a specific event. The area of the brain responsible for remembering details, time stamp and space knowns as the hippocampus takes a back seat to allow the area of the brain that responds to fear, the amygdala to take center stage. The amygdala records what is happening on a sensory and experiential level. This is why trauma triggers are often associated with a host of physical sensations such as hypervigilance, tension, upset stomach, heart racing, edginess startle response, etc.


  1. EMDR has been around longer and has more established research behind it.
  2. EMDR involves rapid bilateral movement of the eyes, auditory or sensory system.
  3. Somatic awareness is not a primary tenant of EMDR.
  4. EMDR follows more of a passive presence or what is often referred to as a ‘ships passing in the night’ approach from the therapist to the client. Attunement is not at the forefront of the EMDR model.
  5. EMDR follows a very specific protocol in which the therapist leads and guides the client through a series of eight repetitive steps.
  6. The therapist applies the primary interventions and is leading the client when to start and stop the rapid bilateral movements.
  7. As part of this process, the client focuses on one traumatic issue while experiencing bilateral stimulation. The client is guided by the therapist to repeatedly reexperience the issue while being lead through the steps in the process. In this way, EMDR focuses more on one issue at a time vs brainspotting that allows for the possibility of organic processing of multiple traumas in one session.
  8. The specific or detailed memory of the traumatic issue is a core aspect of EMDR.

The importance of the therapists mindful presence and the focus on following the clients lead are key distinctions of brainspotting vs. EMDR. Some clients report they find EMDR to be too structured, overly stimulating and not as adaptable and fluid as Brainspotting, while others appreciate the structure and specific steps.  As practitioners of both EMDR and Brainspotting we have found many clients have deeper and more profound releases with Brainspotting and prefer its fluidity.

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1. What are the main differences between Brainspotting and EMDR?

The main difference between Brainspotting and EMDR has to do with the steps involved in the two techniques and the role of the therapist. In Brainspotting the therapist plays a primary role in coregulation and attunement. The focused presence of the therapist in a supportive, mindful, and compassionate manner is a key component of the therapy. In EMDR the therapist is also equally compassionate, but their role is said to be more of a passive presence or like ‘ships passing in the night’.  Brainspotting focuses on a fixed eye position while EMDR uses bilateral stimulation via eye movements, touch, or sound. Other than finding the eye position there are minimal interventions or steps typically applied in Brainspotting. This is done to allow the clients instinctual and intuitive healing to occur without interference. EMDR follows a series of 8 steps that is led by the therapist and thus there is a more active and directive role in this process.

2. How does the effectiveness of Brainspotting compare to EMDR?

Both Brainspotting and EMDR are effective strategies for dealing with trauma, anxiety, depression, stuck patterns, unhealthy habits, and other mental health issues. EMDR has more extensive research supporting its efficacy while Brainspotting has not been afforded the same amount of support for research. Initial studies have shown both techniques having similar efficacy for treating the same types of issues.

3. Can both Brainspotting and EMDR be used to treat the same conditions?

Brainspotting and EMDR have shown to be effective in treating the same types of issues including trauma, depression, anxiety, OCD, addictions, unhealthy habits, performance related issues, pain, and many other mental health issues.

4. Are there any conditions that are better treated with one therapy over the other?

Although both therapies work with trauma and mental health issues in general, EMDR works with one issue at a time while Brainspotting can work with multiple issues. EMDR is better suited for single traumatic incidents, while Brainspotting can deal with multiple incidents as well as developmental trauma. Additionally, EMDR is more ideal if an individual has specific memories of details related to the single stressful event, while Brainspotting does not require details or specific memories of the event(s).

5. How do the costs of Brainspotting and EMDR therapies compare?

The cost of Brainspotting and EMDR are relatively similar in nature.

6. How does the training and certification process differ between Brainspotting and EMDR?

EMDR is taught in three phases, whereby each phase is three days in length. Supervision and consultation are required in addition to the completion of the three phases, in order for one to be considered trained in EMDR. Brainspotting is also taught in phases that occur over the course of three days. A therapist can begin using Brainspotting at the completion of one phase, however to be certified in Brainspotting one must complete two phases along with a series of hours of supervision and consultation by a certified practitioner.

7. Can Brainspotting and EMDR be used in conjunction with each other?

Brainspotting and EMDR can be used at the same time. In our practice we often work with both therapies depending on the preferences of the client and the issues being addressed.

8. What is the client experience like in Brainspotting compared to EMDR?

Clients report that they find Brainspotting to be very fluid, intuitive and allows them to access deeper issues. We have many clients who have already experienced EMDR and are looking for something to help in a different way. Some clients prefer the structure and directiveness of EMDR and find this to be very anchoring while they are processing their issues.

9. Do Brainspotting and EMDR both involve the processing of trauma in a bilateral manner?

Both techniques work with bilateral stimulation, however it is not a required part of Brainspotting. Brainspotting works with a fixed eye position and bilateral stimulation via bilateral sounds or music as an optional accompaniment. During EMDR therapy bilateral stimulation via eye movement, touch or sound is the primary form of therapy.

10. How does the evidence-based research for Brainspotting and EMDR compare?

EMDR has extensive research over decades supporting it as an evidence-based therapy. Brainspotting has had positive initial results from research studies, however it does not have the number of studies to prove it as an evidence-based practice.

11. How do the session structures compare between Brainspotting and EMDR?

EMDR follows a series of 8 specific steps in which the client is guided by the therapist to repeatedly reexperience the issue. During Brainspotting the therapist assists the client to find the brain spot (eye position) and then applies minimal interventions to allow the clients inherent healing to occur. In this way it is less directive and led by the therapist and more so a result of the clients individual healing process.

12. Can both Brainspotting and EMDR be adapted to work with children, adolescents, and groups?

Brainspotting and EMDR work well with children, adolescents, and groups.

13. How should a patient choose between Brainspotting and EMDR?

When choosing which therapy is best suited for their needs, a client might consider if they have a single incident trauma, whereby they have specific memories or details they are able to recall. If so EMDR might be a good approach to consider. If, however they have developmental trauma which includes several traumas either small ‘t’ or big ‘T’ over the course of the developing years, then Brainspotting might be a better fit. Additionally, if an individual has a sense that they prefer to be directed, guided, and follow a specific strategy then EMDR may be the way to go. On the other hand, if someone prefers to be more intuitive, fluid and less directed then Brainspotting would be more ideal.

14. Can clients switch from one therapy to the other if they find one is not working for them?

Clients can change from one therapy to the other if they would like to have a different experience. In fact, it can be highly beneficial to try both strategies to see which one feels like a fit.

15. What should a client expect in their first session of either Brainspotting or EMDR?

Generally initial sessions in both therapies include exploring the issues that are most important to address, identifying any history related to these issues and establishing grounding resources to do this type of work. Applying Brainspotting or EMDR towards resource strategies is the main approach in an initial session.

16. What are the testimonials and reviews generally like for each therapy?

Both therapies tend to receive positive reviews whereby clients feel relief from their issues, more presence in their life, a sense of renewed energy and more ability to connect with others.

17. How do clients generally feel during and after sessions of each therapy?

Clients often report feeling a sense of release, relief, presence, and grounding after a session of either Brainspotting or EMDR. It is not uncommon for some clients to feel tired or as if they need a couple of hours to integrate after the session before feeling more like they are ready to engage in their lives as usual.

About the Authors

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Hilary Stokes Phd

Dr. Hilary Stokes is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in San Diego, California. Dr. Hilary received her PhD in psychology with a specialty in transpersonal psychology from San Diego University for Integrative Studies, a master’s degree in social work from San Diego State University and a master’s degree in Sport Psychology from San Jose State University. In addition to her ….

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Kim Ward Phd

Dr. Kim Ward received her PhD in psychology with a specialty in transpersonal psychology from San Diego University for Integrative Studies. She also holds a master’s degree in transpersonal psychology from John F. Kennedy University in Orinda, California. Dr. Kim is a certified trauma-informed coach and life coach in private practice in San Diego, California. In…

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