In this blog, Clinical Therapist Addy Ho, MA, LPC discusses Brainspotting and why it’s a powerful modality for treating trauma. For more information on trauma, check out part one of Addy’s trauma-informed treatment series: Understanding Trauma and Trauma-Informed Treatment.
Have you ever seen a dog shake after meeting another aggressive dog? A deer that’s been chased trembling with fear and adrenaline? These are examples of how animals naturally respond after experiencing trauma. Flooded with hormones, the body tries to rid itself of the event and the negative memories associated with it. People should shake after trauma but are not inclined to do so because we do not know how it helps rid the body of trauma.
When we experience a traumatic event, the brain receives a vast load of overwhelming information. Unable to keep up with processing this information efficiently, the brain stores the trauma in our bodies in unexpected ways. Trauma confuses the brain and keeps it at the forefront of our minds. We might not be able to figure out the timeline of events or make sense of the fragmented memories. That is why trauma is often repetitive in nature.
Many people with unprocessed trauma might experience symptoms similar to common symptoms of depression, anxiety, difficulties concentrating, PTSD, and other mental health issues. Sometimes our bodies remember trauma by causing unexplained chronic pain in areas like our arms, shoulders, or backs. Our minds struggle to remember or recount details of the event, but our bodies remember.
As humans, when the effects of trauma overwhelm our ability to cope, we might respond by self-medicating with substances or other maladaptive behaviors, pushing away close relationships, and/or struggling to function daily. When our minds, bodies, and emotions are on the same page; however, we can process the incident fully and begin to move forward. A powerful modality I use to treat unprocessed trauma is Brainspotting.
Brainspotting is a trauma-specific modality that identifies, processes, and releases neurophysiological sources of emotional and physical pain, trauma, dissociation, and a variety of other challenging symptoms. It uses spots in a person’s visual field to address unprocessed trauma in the brain. In other words, where you look affects how you feel.
Brainspotting was created by Dr. David Grand, an EMDR therapist for over twenty years. When he discovered Brainspotting, Dr. Grand was treating a patient who was a skilled figure skater struggling to land a specific jump. She had learned this jump when her parents were getting a divorce and the trauma associated with this life event affected her ability to perform this essential move. He noticed that when she spoke of her parents’ divorce, she always looked in a certain direction. Dr. Grand used Brainspotting to help her release emotions associated with that particular gaze, and she was able to land her triple axel.
Here’s another way to think about Brainspotting. Have you ever received a massage to alleviate tight or sore muscles? Brainspotting works similarly to alleviate unprocessed trauma. A brainspot, or the visual point in space someone has a strong reaction to, is like a knot of muscle. Just as focusing on those trigger points helps release tightness, Brainspotting can help process and heal trauma stored in the brain and body.
People who undergo Brainspotting often report remembering details about a traumatic incident that they had previously forgotten; however, it is not necessary to know exactly how everything from a particular event is linked to begin processing the trauma associated with it. Brainspotting is not hypnosis and does not make someone forget what happened. It simply allows the brain, body, and emotions to process an event fully. Thus, the mind is able to move on from an event, situation, and past.
In a typical session of Brainspotting, there are several techniques that can be applied. The student identifies a particular topic, such as feeling depressed, or a specific traumatic event. After a couple of minutes of talking about the topic or event aloud, they being to feel “elevated.” I ask them where they feel this sensation in their body and to rank it from 0 to 10 on the SUD scale (subjective units of distress).
I make note of where the student is looking and what direction their eyes are gazing. Based on the Brainspotting method I use, the set-up differs each time. I use techniques to see what quadrant the elevation feels strongest, and I use a pointer to find the specific location. Once the brainspot is found, the student begins processing the event or topic from start to finish. They can process quietly and do not need to speak aloud. I might offer statements like, “I am here” or “You are doing a good job,” or I might stay quiet the entire time. One of the main questions a Brainspotting therapist must keep in mind is represented by the acronym WAIT: why am I talking? This aids as a reminder that speaking to the client and asking questions is not necessary for them to process their trauma. Put another way, the student is the head of the comet and the therapist is the tail.
Once the student is finished processing the event, I ask them to “squeeze the lemon,” meaning start from the beginning and go to the end of it one more time. At the end of the session, I ask the student to provide a rating on the SUD scale once more.
Trauma is processed deep inside the middle brain, so the student might feel the elevation in the affected body part for 24–48 hours after the session. Once the brain is finished processing the event, the student’s nervous system will come back down to a more baseline level. Brainspotting can also be paired with bi-lateral music so that a person can go deeper if needed. One of the most powerful aspects of Brainspotting is the fact that the student is the driver in their healing process, which can be redemptive for those who felt out of control in a traumatic event.
I have seen Brainspotting have transformative effects on the clients I have worked with.
One of my clients was immobilized by her fear of heights. I did Brainspotting on her, and we learned that her fear was connected to an incident that happened when she was six years old. After processing this traumatic event through Brainspotting, she is no longer scared of heights. She can ride a gondola and hike steep mountains—activities that were unimaginable to her prior to starting treatment—without becoming paralyzed with fear.
Another client went through a difficult breakup and kept reliving the events of when he found out that his girlfriend was cheating on him. He was using lots of recreational substances to avoid having to re-live that day. After Brainspotting, he shared that the incident was no longer re-playing in his mind and he could finally have closure on that topic.
One person I did Brainspotting on feared thunderstorms. Each time she heard thunder or saw lightning, she would have a panic attack. When I did Brainspotting with her, she realized it was not the storm that she was reacting to but rather a car wreck she had experienced during a storm. Her body had remembered the storm, but her brain was unable to process the accident until she began treatment.
Wilderness therapy is an ideal setting to process difficult things. Without distractions, students can reflect on their pasts and how they have affected their lives today. Additionally, wilderness is a short-term—typically 10–12 weeks in length—therapeutic setting that gives students the opportunity to effect long-lasting change. Traditionally, trauma therapy can be a time-consuming process and consecutive in nature. Brainspotting allows a student to process a specific incident and move forward, often in as little as one or two sessions. After wilderness therapy, it is often recommended to continue trauma-specific therapy to process other traumatic events if needed because trauma often is compounding in nature.
Brainspotting respects that clients are experts in their lives and trusts they have the internal strength to process trauma within their own brains. As a therapist, I provide the framework for safe reflection and processing, and the student does the work to process trauma and move forward into healing and self-discovery.
This blog is the second in a three-part series on trauma. For more information, check out parts one and three, Understanding Trauma and Trauma-Informed Treatment and Processing and Treating Trauma in Wilderness.