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Feeling Stuck? Brainspotting May Help

This alternative brain-body therapy focuses on unlocking pent-up feelings, memories and tension that may be stuck in your brain and body

Silohuette of person, with light aimed at their eye and brain

Stress and tension have a way of building up in our bodies. Over time, they can take a mental and physical toll on our overall health and wellness. But when it comes to deeper psychological traumas and traumatic events, we’re often left feeling like we’re stuck or spinning our wheels if we’re not able to process and heal from them.

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That’s where brainspotting comes in. As a fairly new alternative therapy, brainspotting uses spots in a person’s field of vision to unlock pent-up trauma and suppressed memories and feelings associated with traumatic events or uncomfortable situations. By focusing on these brainspots, a person may be able to reprocess these events, heal from them and move past them perhaps faster than other treatments.

Registered psychotherapist Natacha Duke, MA, RP, explains how brainspotting works, the theory behind the alternative therapy and what you can expect from a brainspotting session.

What is brainspotting?

Brainspotting is a relatively new brain-body alternative therapy that uses eye positioning to process difficult emotions and unresolved traumatic experiences. This therapy was discovered in 2003 by David Grand, PhD, while Dr. Grand was working with eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. EMDR involves side-to-side eye movements in combination with talk therapy as a way of reprocessing traumatic events and replacing negative feelings or thoughts with more positive ones.

But brainspotting is different from EMDR because there’s very little to no talk therapy involved. Instead of rapidly moving your eyes from side to side in a very structured format, with brainspotting, you’re slowly following a pointer held by your therapist to locate a specific spot in your field of vision called a brainspot.

“As the therapist moves the pointer, the therapist would ask you to notice where your physical body sensations are, where your thoughts and your emotions are becoming the hottest or the most intense for you,” explains Duke. “And then, they would move the pointer up and down from there in order to locate the brainspot, which is the area of focus that causes the most hot spots of hot emotions and hot spots of physical body feeling.”

Brainspotting is more focused on somatic feelings — what you feel physically in your body in terms of stress, tension and pain, and where in your body you feel these most intensely.

The theory is that by holding your gaze on these brainspots and bringing awareness to how you’re feeling in your body (the way you would in meditation), you’re able to release these pent-up physical manifestations of stress, tension and anxiety. At the same time, by releasing these physical symptoms, you’re able to move through and process the emotional and mental thoughts and feelings that have been building up over time.

And as you release all of these mental and physical pain points, your brain then gains the ability to reprocess these emotions, thoughts and memories like it would any other “normal” memory in a more positive way.

“When you’re locating the brainspot, it’s not just about your emotions, but also where you’re feeling things in your body that helped to locate the brainspot,” clarifies Duke. “The idea is that when you locate the brainspot, physically, emotionally and cognitively, you’re able to heal around some of those things because it’s all connected.”

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How does brainspotting therapy work?

Brainspotting works based on the theory that trauma can get “stuck” in your body and disrupt your brain’s ability to register what’s happening, process the event and heal from the trauma.

When you experience something traumatic, the details and memories of the event can get suppressed or “buried” in the back of your mind, along with all the feelings associated with that event. When this happens — especially if something traumatic from your childhood — it can resurface or become triggered during other points later in life. When you have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for example, you can re-experience or re-live some of those traumatic moments through flashbacks, feelings and memories that resurface, likely because your brain never fully processed or healed from the original traumatic event.

Although there’s limited research on exactly how brainspotting works and the extent to which it’s effective, Dr. Grand’s studies from 2013 and 2015 have suggested that brainspotting works as a brain-body therapy by “resetting” traumatic events so people can fully process them as you would any other normal experience. Then, they can heal from them and then move past them.

By activating brainspots and being mindful of what’s occurring in your body and focusing on mindfulness around the events or situations you want to work on in general, it’s believed that the therapy allows your brain to process these experiences completely rather than leaving them unfinished.

“The idea is that we store trauma in our midbrain and brainstem regions, and sometimes, these distressing memories, traumas, thoughts and feelings can kind of get stuck there,” reiterates Duke. “In using certain eye movements and gazes in EMDR and brainspotting, we’re able to basically help our bodies reprocess these traumas or distressing emotions.”

Brainspotting sessions can last anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes depending on what you need from the experience and where you are in your treatment process with your therapist.

Unlike EMDR, which is very structured and follows a series of phases, brainspotting is very fluid and consists of some general steps. Brainspotting therapy will be different for everyone, sometimes, even from one session to the next.

But in general, here are some things you might expect from a brainspotting session:

  • Information gathering. Your therapist will describe the technique and the process of brainspotting and address any questions or concerns you have. If they don’t have a previous history or relationship with you, they’ll ask you questions about what led you to make an appointment for brainspotting, as well as questions related to your medical and mental health history.
  • What to focus on. When gathering information, your therapist will likely ask you about your intentions for brainspotting and if there’s any specific focus or goal you hope to get out of the therapy. Sometimes, people come to brainspotting knowing what they want to work on, but this isn’t always the case. “A person might want to process something around their childhood or an event that happened that was very distracting to them or they may come to brainspotting for help with a conflict, anxiety or depression,” says Duke. “If you’re not sure what you want to focus on, you’re really focusing more on the feelings in your body and where you feel those feelings. Is it in your stomach? In your lower back? What do those feelings feel like? What do they remind you of? Remember, with brainspotting, there’s a focus on mindful awareness and a focus on holding space and the therapist’s attunement to your needs.”
  • The pointer. When the session begins, your therapist will use a pointer and ask you to follow it with your eyes as they slowly move it within your field of vision. As they move it, they’ll ask you to pay attention to any thoughts or feelings (physical, emotional or mental) that come up for you. When you feel them at their strongest, you can communicate that with your therapist. Your therapist will also be watching for physical signs and facial expressions that indicate a natural reflexive response to mindful awareness like eye twitches, excessive blinking, pupil dilation, brow furrowing, sniffs, swallows, coughs, foot movements and body shifting.
  • The brainspot. Once you and your therapist have identified the location of your brainspot, you’ll hold the gaze on the pointer for as long as needed. While you hold your gaze, you’re simply processing your thoughts, feelings and emotions, as well as any physical symptoms that come and go, the way you would if you were meditating. “With brainspotting, the therapist is sort of like a gentle witness to it as opposed to an active participant. You’re really not going to get a ton of questions,” notes Duke. “If a therapist hasn’t heard from you in a while, or if you start to express some physical symptoms, they might check in and make sure everything is OK or if there’s anything you want to share.”
  • Physical discomfort. In brain-body therapy, you might experience some physical symptoms associated with anxiety, stress, tension or discomfort as you allow yourself to experience these pain points and process these thoughts and emotions completely. Allow yourself to feel these things, acknowledge that they exist and sit in your awareness for as long as you feel comfortable. Some physical symptoms are expected and normal. But if you need to take a break at any point or need to stop, you can always communicate that with your therapist at any point for any reason. “When you’re anxious, you know the areas in your body where you feel it. You might feel it in your stomach. You might feel tension in your shoulders or your chest. And similar to meditation, when we’re silent, these feelings can intensify and then come down or ebb and flow,” explains Duke. “The therapist will hold space for you as you confront those difficult emotions and experiences, and they will check in with you from time to time and they will ask you if you need a moment or a break if it gets to be too much. That’s really important, especially for trauma treatment.”
  • Closing out. At the close of the session, your therapist will likely go over how you feel about your experience. They may ask if there’s anything you want to discuss in terms of what you felt during the session, what thoughts came up and how they were associated with the physical symptoms you experienced. They’ll likely also talk through the next steps of your treatment plan and what you can expect from future sessions.

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Benefits of brainspotting

In a small study from 2017, Dr. Grand found that brainspotting showed a significant reduction in PTSD symptoms after three 60-minute brainspotting sessions. A different comparative study from 2022 showed that single sessions of EMDR, body scan meditation or brainspotting all showed beneficial effects in processing distressing memories, suggesting brainspotting is as successful as other reputably brain-body therapies.

More research and clinical trials are needed, as brainspotting is still new and research is fairly limited to select studies. But so far, brainspotting seems to benefit:

That said, some people may experience discomfort during brainspotting sessions, particularly when trauma is involved. And it’s common to feel fatigued or experience brain fog after a brainspotting session because of the physical exhaustion that accompanies the release of extreme tension and emotional stress.

“Whenever you’re doing therapy, sometimes, you can feel worse before you feel better,” explains Duke. “If you’re bringing things up you’ve held in for a long time, often, that might be hard at first and that might cause some emotional side effects and physical side effects. But the idea is that you’re working with someone who’s trained and who can support you through that.”

Is brainspotting right for you?

“With these kinds of therapies, you do them because you’re often feeling stuck, you’re having trouble accessing these feelings and you’re not really making other progress in these areas,” clarifies Duke. “EMDR and brainspotting may be able to help get you unstuck.”

Talk to a healthcare provider before starting any brain-body therapy, especially if you have a diagnosed mental health condition like:

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And if you’re considering a brain-body therapy, make sure you’re prepared to tackle whatever comes up. Brainspotting can be taxing and sometimes, difficult physically, emotionally and mentally, especially if you have other things going on or left unfinished in other areas of your life.

“You want to be ready and at a point in your life where you feel you’re ready for a brain-body therapy like brainspotting because stuff is going to come up,” advises Duke.

“I wouldn’t necessarily recommend doing this when you’re in a stressful phase of your life like changing jobs or having a new baby because a lot could come up. So, you want to be emotionally available for yourself and you want to create a space to process whatever comes up while you’re having this treatment.”

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