Therapy—it’s not the same old 50 minutes of chatting in the psychologist’s office anymore. In the past decade, there’s been a quiet revolution in how people seek help with their issues—and we’re not just talking about how everyone’s doing Zoom sessions. Brainspotting Therapy (BST) is one form of somatic therapy (i.e., body-focused therapy) that’s emerging as a way to treat trauma. Practitioners tout it as a more direct and efficient alternative to talking therapy. New tool or quackery 2023? We interviewed a therapist practitioner, a brainspotting client and looked at the scientific literature—and we tried a mini-session ourselves. Here’s what we discovered.
What Is Brainspotting—and Why Therapists and Clients Say It Makes for Faster, More Intense Breakthroughs
Meet the Expert
Jennifer Brady, licensed psychotherapist, has been in private practice since 1994 and currently practices in Westlake Village, California. She has been trained in brainspotting by David Grand, PhD., the inventor of brainspotting, and has completed phase levels 1,2,3,4 and masters level, She is currently a consultant in training others in the method.
What Is Brainspotting?
Brainspotting (BSP) is a therapeutic method used to unlock deep-seated traumatic experiences that cause distress. In a brainspotting session, a therapist holds up an object at various positions in the client’s field of vision to determine where feelings of agitation occur. When an activated eye position is located, the client is encouraged to keep their eyes in that position while they discuss any feelings or memories that spring to mind, to “help to access unprocessed trauma in the subcortical brain” according to online training directory brainspotting.com. “Mainly in talking, we are in the frontal cortex, thinking about this or that,” says Brady “In brainspotting, the back of the eye goes into the mid-brain where regulation and processing occurs, so it goes so much deeper and you feel better quicker.”
Why Are We Just Hearing About It Now?
Developed in 2003 by New York-based therapist David Grand, the practice has been gaining steam with global trainings led by Grand, resulting in more than 13,000 therapists in more than 52 countries. Grand innovated the method after he observed that clients he was leading in EMDR sessions—that stands for eye movement desensitizing and reprocessing, a somatic therapy that’s been used by therapists since the late ‘80s—would experience especially heightened emotions when their eyes recurringly hovered around a certain position. It might be eyes looking toward the upper right, straight ahead, downward—the point is, the eye would be pointed to a place that corresponded with a certain subcortical brain region, where Grand deduced the memories of a traumatic event are stored. Grand observed that keeping eyes still in this activated position would allow clients to access strong emotions about traumatic memories, and after experiencing these strong emotions, be able to recall the events less destructively.
What Qualifies as Trauma?
Originally, trauma and the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder were reserved for obviously extreme and harrowing events, like those that combat veterans endure. However, the definition has been expanded to include individual life stressors as well as contemporary shared crises. For example, in a post-pandemic world, many of us were trapped inside our four walls, feeling unsafe.
What Happens in a BSP Session?
“A therapist starts by saying, what do you want to work on, and it can be something as small as ‘My husband hung up the phone so upset’ or larger, such as childhood trauma,” Brady says. “We use headphones with bilateral sounds, with a pointer or without the pointer. I’ll ask you, ‘Where do you feel that?’ and you might say “My heart is pounding’ and [I’ll ask] how strong is it, from zero to ten, and with the pointer we say how are you feeling in each area, notice your brain and body, just breathe into that.” In the sample session I did over Zoom with Brady, I was stunned at how, as she held a pointer in each of nine quadrants of my field of vision, some areas flooded my head with blood flow and a warm feeling, while in others my chest constricted with tension. Afterward, I felt an energized feeling unlike my usual stressed-out dullness.
What Does It Feel Like?
One woman we spoke to sought out brainspotting to treat the repeated panic attacks she experienced after a stroke led to partial blindness two years ago. “I had been in therapy for 20 years and had dealt with all my family of origin issues,” Ellen said, “but now I needed help with spiraling panic, like each time my 6-year-old got a fever I was convinced she would die of meningitis.” Ellen said her San Diego-based practitioner asked her to remember the position of her eyes at the moment when she lost her vision. “She moved the ball to that position and asked me to remember the feeling when I was driving and the curtain of darkness descended,” Ellen says. “I was sobbing, the feelings were terror and sadness that I could leave my child. There was snot running down my face, and a couple times she had to remind me I was safe and to keep going.” After the session, Ellen says “the body exhaustion made me tired like if I’d run a marathon then taken the SAT.” In the months since, her panic attacks have not returned.
Are There Any Scientific Literature or Studies About It?
While a peer-reviewed 2022 study of 40 participants found that BSP and EMDR both resulted in beneficial results after a single 40-minute session, there is still a paucity of literature evaluating the effectiveness of this therapeutic tool. However, there are scattered reports of useful treatments of survivors of mass shootings, including the 2015 Bataclan attack in Paris and the 2012 tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. More information on the practice of and theories behind the method can be found in Brainspotting: The Revolutionary New Therapy for Rapid and Effective Change by David Grand, Ph.D., the creator of the practice. Interestingly, Grand has co-authored a book with Alan Goldberg called This is Your Brain on Sports: Beating Blocks, Slumps and Performance Anxiety for Good!, which details using brainspotting tech to overcome unexplainable performance setbacks.
How Do You Find a Brainspotting Therapist?
Brady says that most practitioners are licensed therapists, although she knows of reiki practitioners and other alternative healers who have been trained in the method. She recommends checking to see that any professional has a certification from brainspotting’s training body through the organization’s directory.
Dana Dickey is a PureWow Senior Editor, and during more than a decade in digital media, she has scoped out and tested top products and services across the lifestyle space. Suitcases to sex toys, she's got an opinion on what's best. Dana is based in Los Angeles; her work has also appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, Vogue and The New York Times. Check her out on Instagram and LinkedIn.