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Can you recall your first phone number? The sound of your first grade teacher’s voice? If not, give these questions some thought. Trudge through the recesses of your brain and try to remember.
Now, whether you came up with answers or not is not important. I want you to notice where your gaze has been fixed while you were attempting to recall that information. Many times you will find that you tend to look in a certain direction when you’re thinking about numbers, and perhaps a different direction when recalling a sound. This general concept of your gaze affecting what’s happening in your own inner experience is the foundation of Brainspotting.
In 2003, while working with a figure skater with an extensive trauma history who suddenly lost capacity to complete simple jumps, David Grand discovered the power of brainspots. Grand, an EMDR practitioner, had been utilizing that modality to process this client’s trauma for over a year. After reviewing the client’s attempts, Grand noticed a point at which her jumps went awry, observing an unusual eye-wobble at that moment. With his fingers he held the skater’s gaze and to their surprise, a host of new traumatic material emerged that had stayed buried during EMDR. The most striking thing about the process was that issues that had been “resolved” reemerged, and were deeply processed in a notable new way. Following that session (literally the next day), the figure skater had mastered the jumps and never had a problem with those again.
Grand began looking for those reflexive anomalies (e.g. the eye-wobbles) with other traumatized clients and discovered that those reflexes indicated presence of a brainspot.
In my last post I explained how our neural networks are formed around painful experiences. Brainspots refer to eye positions that activate traumatic memory or painful emotion. When these memories are left unprocessed, they become buried deep in the brain, rather than consolidated in long-term memory (i.e. a system that tells one that the experience is in the past). When these past experiences are “triggered,” the individual may experience a host of symptoms, such as emotional or sensory flashbacks that create a feeling of lack of safety in the present.
Brainspots can be thought of as capsules holding those complex neural pathways connecting traumatic experiences with the emotions, body sensations, messages about self and the world, and resulting behaviors. Through fixed eye positions, one has access to “opening” the capsule and letting the traumatic pathways discharge completely. When the capsules are “empty”, one feels relief, freedom and/or peace surrounding their past–the traumatic experiences are now stored properly.
In the intake process, I give clients a checklist of traumas one may have experienced, as well as a list of problematic symptoms and behaviors that they may want to treat. We rate the intensity of the disturbance for each trauma experienced on a scale of 1-10. From there, we select the issue that the client is feeling most “activated” by or connected to in that session. If a client is feeling under-activated, I will ask pointed questions in an attempt to bring that up. The activation process can be thought of as what lights up the “switchboard” of your brain, so that brainspots are more visible; it can be uncomfortable to feel purposefully triggered, but in actuality the more activated you are going into it, the more complete the processing tends to be by the end.
When the target has been selected and activated, we choose from a variety of “setups” to begin the process. These setups allow us to modulate the processing depending on what the client is presenting. For example, if a client is very somatically tuned in (i.e. can sense the issue in their body and where it feels the strongest), we might use a setup where the client informs the therapist of where the brainspot is. When a client struggles with this process, we will use a set up wherein the therapist watches for the reflexes a client is unconsciously displaying (e.g. rapid blinking, twitching, swallowing, sudden breaths or movements) and helps guide the client to focus there.
The client’s only job during this process is to mindfully observe any and everything that comes up, without pushing any experience away. Mindfulness refers to a particular way of paying attention by stepping back and observing without judgment or trying to control. One can accomplish this by, for example, imagining a movie screen projecting your inner experience. You are not getting caught up making sense of the story (analyzing), just simply witnessing.
In this sense it can seem like a rollercoaster ride when all of this is coming up, but if one holds on, the end of the ride can bring peace and freedom like nothing experienced before.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of brainspotting therapy (as compared to other modalities of trauma treatment such as EMDR) is that it utilizes the brain and body’s inherent internal resources to contain and cope with the emotional reactions. Other treatment approaches require several sessions of instilling external resources to make the process feel safer; in brainspotting therapy, the client is empowered to begin processing experiences more directly and efficiently, as soon as the first session if desired. There are additional setups to be used with more fragile or dissociative clients that can contain and slow the processing down. In this way, it is a dynamic and flexible modality that allows the therapist and client to work together in finding what will be most effective without becoming overwhelming. Here is a key difference between brainspotting therapy and EMDR, which is protocol-driven; the benefit of brainspotting over EMDR is that brainspotting therapy tends to yield faster and deeper results, most likely because the method is much more adaptable to each client.
Finally, there are setups to, rather than activate a client on a distressing issue, expand on a client’s potentials, and inherent strengths to reach their goals. Whereas in activated brainspotting we are “excavating” the issue, the expansion model allows us to anchor in and strengthen sparks positive potential.
Towards the end of the session I will ask again for you to rate your activation. If you are still highly activated (i.e. the trauma capsule is still discharging) we will do some grounding and containment to assist you in transitioning out of the process. A benefit of brainspotting therapy is that the brain, in knowing how to heal, will continue to safely process in the background for up to 5 days after the session.
Brainspotting is effective for individuals who have or are experiencing any of the following
All forms of trauma
If you are suffering as a result of trauma, or are dealing with any of the mental health issues I’ve just listed, you may want to consider giving brainspotting a try. I am a licensed therapist who has been trained in brainspotting therapy and would be happy to discuss treatment options. Please feel free to call or email me with any questions or to set up an appointment.