When Talk Therapy Isn’t Enough
There is no one-size-fits all approach when it comes to therapy. What works for one person may not be effective for another.
Part of the reason why has to do with a growing understanding of how our brains store emotional experiences. Sometimes we are conscious of why we feel or behave in certain ways. For example, we know that we emotionally withdraw in relationships when a partner hurts our feelings. We are usually able to describe why this happens with a therapist, and work through it.
But what if we don’t know why we feel sad, anxious, afraid or paralyzed? In these situations, talk therapy can have limited effectiveness. How can we talk about what we don’t understand?
That’s why an increasing number of therapists are turning to body and brain-based therapies to help clients explore deep emotions. Therapies such as Brainspotting can uncover what lies in our unconscious minds. When we identify detrimental emotional reactions or behaviors, we can then acknowledge them and further process those feelings.
What is Brainspotting?
Brainspotting is a powerful, evidence-based tool used to alleviate painful emotions associated with distressing life experiences. It was developed in 2003 by social worker, psychotherapist, and performance coach David Grand based on his observations during therapy sessions.
As Grand worked with clients, he observed that certain feelings seemed connected with specific eye moments. A client might look to the left when discussing sadness about a break up. They might look down and to the right when recounting an assault. They may blink repeatedly when discussing bullying as a child.
Based on his previous work with Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), he theorized that the eyes, when focused in a certain way, helped unlock negative emotions stored in the brain. Similarly, Grand found that there were also “resource spots” where they eyes could focus to inspire positive feelings. He coined the phrase “where you look affects how you feel.”
Grand recounts his work with a professional ice skater who struggled to land a triple-toe loop, despite endless hours of practice. When he asked her to visualize herself performing the jump, he noticed her eyes fixated on a certain point. In continuing to work with that eye position, the client uncovered emotions and thoughts undermining her confidence in completing the jump. Grand and the client worked to remove these barriers so that she was able to successfully reach her goal.
Brainspotting can treat anxiety, depression, phobias, panic disorder, chronic pain, and impulse control. It is especially effective for processing trauma because it helps clients access the limbic system, where unconscious traumatic memories are stored.
What can I expect in a Brainspotting session?
In Brainspotting, you and your therapist work to identify the eye positions, or “Brainspots,” that hold distressing memories or emotions. You will focus on a pointer that your therapist moves across your visual field. The therapist may also have you listen, via headphones, to a tone that alternates between your left and right ears. This is a form of bilateral stimulation that can help calm the nervous system and decrease the fixation on painful thoughts.
Once you identify a Brainspot, the therapist will ask you to lock your eyes on that position, and allow thoughts or emotions to arise organically. During the session, there may be long periods of silence that allow for body sensations and emotions to rise into awareness.
Can Brainspotting help me?
Brainspotting has been shown to significantly decrease symptoms associated with trauma, depression, and anxiety. A community survey of those who affected by the Sandy Hook shooting indicated that Brainspotting was among the most effective approaches for addressing the emotional and psychological trauma associated with the event.
For people who find it too difficult to talk about painful emotions or past traumas, the fact that Brainspotting requires little to no talking is also particularly appealing.
Erin Ross, MS, OTR/L is an occupational therapist and contributing writer in Washington, DC. She believes in data-driven practice, clear and concise communication, and diligent inclusion of the Oxford comma.