Therapist smiling at her patient at therapy session

Differences between Brainspotting and EMDR

Posted on: December 6th, 2021 by Epidemic Developer 3

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.

The Difference Between Brainspotting and EMDR

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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