Where you look can affect how you feel. That’s the premise behind a relatively new form of treatment for trauma.
Brainspotting, created in 2003, is big in Boulder. In fact, Boulder is a Brainspotting hub. It’s home to the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Brainspotting Institute, the main Brainspotting center for teachers who travel the world to teach the modality.
“It’s widely practiced in Boulder,” says therapist Wendy Conquest, who was certified in 2014. “If you go to other places in the country and say ‘Brainspotting,’ most people wonder what you are talking about, but here, there’s a high probability of people knowing about it.”
But in case you don’t, Robert Scaer, neurologist and author of “The Trauma Spectrum,” describes it as a way to return the parasympathetic nervous system to homeostasis. The therapist tunes in to the patient, finds a “somatic cue” and then extinguishes it “by down-regulating the amygdala.”
Let’s paint a picture.
If you were to peek in on a Brainspotting session, you might see a therapist holding a pointer, slowly guiding the patient’s eyes across the field of vision, which corresponds to a particular traumatic event. When a certain point seems to bring up that stressful memory or evoke an uncomfortable or painful physical response, the therapist encourages the client to focus on that spot. This can be done with one or both eyes. The client is then asked to listen to bilateral sounds which promote the trauma reprocessing. (More on that later.)
Brainspotting claims certain eye positions relate to certain emotions or traumatic memories. Stimulating a Brainspot is said to tap into a person’s natural ability to self-heal, essentially moving the memory from the limbic brain into the cerebral cortex, where it can be processed, rather than sit stuck.
Everyone is looking somewhere when a trauma occurs and the brain and body remember this, Conquest says. She gives this example: Where do you think the Brainspot would be for someone who was rear-ended in a car accident? It would be right where the rear-view mirror is, so up and to the right. That is most likely where they were looking when the accident happened.
Another example Conquest gives has roots in survival.
“We are hardwired to take in information all the time. If you hear a rustle in the bushes on the savannah and a lion leaps out, that imprints on the brain. The next time that person hears a rustling their whole body will go on hyper alert,” she says. “If they were mauled by that lion, they will remember even more details of that event, like the way the wind was blowing or the smell in the air.”
Not all Brainspots are that obvious, though. Sometimes the person’s eyes go right to a certain spot when they recall a traumatic experience. Other times, it takes more work to pinpoint.
Brainspotting aims to encourage the brain to undo that imprint.
But it’s more than just looking at a point.
A major component in the work is “bilateral stimulation,” or stimulating the left then right (and alternating) sides of the brain over and over, says Conquest. You can do that with special music called bilateral sounds.
(Back to Boulder: a popular composer of bilateral sounds, Bodhi Tree Bilateral, is based in Louisville. The music shifts from ear to ear, which is said to help you access the deeper parts of your brain, thereby reducing stress, increasing neural plasticity and learning, improving body awareness and physical performance, improving relaxation and creativity and more.)
The details of the Brainspotting methodology have evolved over the years, and there are different approaches, Conquest says, but the results are the same: “The brain naturally takes the client where they need to go to heal,” she says.
The job of the therapist is not to guide the healing but rather to hold the space, Conquest says. She holds the pointer on the specific spot and asks the client to focus on it, if they can. (In some cases, the work can be done with eyes closed and just the bilateral sounds playing, or just by looking at the spot with no sounds.) She says she then checks in and tracks their responses, while watching their body’s response. “Where do you feel it? What emotion do you feel? What do you feel now?”
Conquest says, “From the clinician’s standpoint, I don’t know where their brain’s going to take them, but the brain has an amazing way of healing itself. And it does.”
If you’ve never heard of Brainspotting before, it might sound surprising (or even unlikely), but a lot of research backs it up. For example, one study published in the Journal for Psychotraumatology, Psychotherapy Science and Psychological Medicine found within three sessions, patients’ PTSD symptoms and related issues were “significantly reduced.” Therapists reported the majority of clients benefitted “significantly,” the study found.
Today, more than 13,000 therapists have been trained in Brainspotting, and it’s easy to find experts in Boulder; search members on the Rocky Mountain Brainspotting Institute’s website, subscribe to the newsletter or check the Psychology Today listings, for starters. The nonprofit helps provide education and trauma treatment for people who can’t afford it. Many people have received 10 free Brainspotting sessions funded by the institute.
Boulder therapist Pie Frey first brought Brainspotting founder David Grand to Colorado to teach in 2006 after she trained with him in New York City. He told her in order to bring him back to Colorado again, she would need a group of at least 40 therapists (no easy task with a newer therapy technique). In 2007, she pulled together 60 participants. That’s where Boulder’s Brainspotting community began.
That’s when psychologist Melanie Young learned Brainspotting.
“At this point, Colorado probably has the most Brainspotting therapists in any state in the US,” says Young, who is a Brainspotting trainer and consultant.
The Brainspotting Institute will also offer the first Brainspotting training in Colorado Springs in January, and Denver is the location for the second international conference in July, expected to draw hundreds of therapists from around the world.
Therapist Conquest was also a key player in a documentary on trauma called “The Light.”
“The Light” explores how the body stores trauma and how somatic therapies can help people build pathways that release that trauma. It follows two stories (of “Juan” and “Hayden”) and digs into the science behind trauma—how it can seem to “freeze” a person in time, and how therapists can “unfreeze” the mind so the person can move on.
“… As a society, the way we deal with trauma and those suffering from it should be looked at in a different light,” explains filmmaker Bradley Mason.
The film has not yet been released.
“The Light” focuses on EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), but the inventor of Brainspotting, David Grand, started as an EMDR therapist; Brainspotting evolved out of EMDR.
Both Brainspotting and EMDR center around the line of vision, but Brainspotting focuses the gaze on one fixed point, whereas EMDR uses eye movements (the original protocol had clients rapidly moving their eyes side to side to create the bilateral effect). EMDR is older, too; it’s been around since the ‘80s and is therefore more widely known.
Conquest says when she first experienced Brainspotting herself, out of nowhere, her right wrist felt hot like it was on fire. Suddenly, she remembered being eight years old with a broken right wrist when she had to play at a piano recital.
Conquest says it’s common for people to feel heat, tingling, pain or trembling.
“This is the body completing an unresolved traumatic event,” she says.
Brainspotting tends to work differently for different people, allowing for therapists to have flexible and more personalized approaches, and therefore proponents say it can have faster and deeper results than traditional EMDR. In addition, some say Brainspotting is less stimulating and can appeal to people who think EMDR is overwhelming.
The method is most commonly used to help treat PTSD and trauma therapy, but has also been shown to help with stress, illness, anxiety, ADHD, phobias, chronic pain and chronic fatigue, substance abuse and more.