Brainspotting Overview

Brainspotting Information

By Mariya Javed-Payne

Brainspotting Consultant and Trainer

What is Trauma?

 Trauma is a stuck or frozen survival response that is trapped in the body. It can be a condition that results due to too much, too soon, too fast, or not enough. If the nervous system does not have the ability to discharge the survival energy, it can become stuck in the body and cause a variety of ailments ranging from depression, anxiety, PTSD, chronic pain, illness, dissociation, and disconnection from oneself.

Why would the nervous system not be able to discharge this stuck energy? Perhaps it wasn’t safe to. We live in a world where it’s not socially acceptable to discharge trauma- stigma, narratives around being weak, belief systems that teach us to suppress, and as a result of living in a fast-paced society focused on consumerism, avoidance, and distraction.

Perhaps we didn’t have enough support or acceptance. Being able to experience safety allows us to have a place to begin to discharge trauma, which can look like crying, shaking, tingling, twitching, yelling, breathing, or moving our bodies. This is why the presence of an attuned, caring person or therapist is crucial to emotional healing and trauma processing- to allow for the body to move the charge of the survival energy in the way that it needs to so it can return to balance. The therapist acts as a secure attachment to reconnect with that sense of safety that wasn’t present prior.

Bottom-Up vs Top Down Approaches to Therapy

Brainspotting is a somatic-based psychotherapy that uses a bottom-up approach. Whereas talk therapies utilize a top-down approach, Brainspotting accesses the somatic activation related to issues, which travel up from the peripheral nervous system (in the body) into the spine and then brain stem/midbrain. The midbrain houses the limbic system where our survival responses, traumas, emotions, memories, and motor coordination (in order to respond to threats and safety) are held. The midbrain processing of trauma is crucial as it is the site where traumas and a variety of emotional and physical conditions are held. The neocortex (frontal lobe), is the newest part of our brain and is the site of rational thought, linear processes, critical thinking, logic, sequencing, language, and judgment. The neocortex has little to do with regulating emotions while the limbic system and midbrain plays a crucial role in regulating emotions. 

Talk therapies access the more neocortical areas of the brain and language. This is often times why talk therapy can take a long time to adjust behaviors and many clients find it challenging to change how they feel or experience the world when they are struggling. Talk therapy isn’t easily able to access the part of the brain (midbrain) that actually works with shifting emotional (and thereby their corresponding physiological states). It can sometimes feel like you are trying to shove interventions down the frontal lobe to reach the subcortex (i.e.- When a person is depressed and you try to give them directions to go for a walk, eat healthy, reach out to others, etc.) It can be difficult for the client to follow through on these directions depending on the severity of the emotional dysregulation in the midbrain, even if they want to follow your recommendations. 

Ideally, the midbrain and frontal lobe are in bidirectional communication with one another, however, with trauma and other stressors, this communication can be disrupted, leading to a variety of mental health conditions and unwanted behaviors and ailments.

So How Does Brainspotting Work?

Brainspotting utilizes eye positions to locate, access, and discharge stuck material held in the brain and body. It works like this:

The eyes are the extension of the brain. When you are looking at someone’s eyes- you are essentially looking at their brain and the part of their brain that meets the world. The eyes are connected to the subcortex/midbrain (the site of trauma/emotions/survival responses/memories) via the optic nerve. The brain devotes a lot of energy to the eyes and visual scanning and input from the environment. So the brain uses the eyes to scan the world outside itself, but what Brainspotting discovered was that the brain also uses the eyes to connect and find information inside itself and the body!

Have you ever been lost in thought and noticed you were staring into space, often gazing at a particular spot? This phenomenon is the brain holding an eye position to orient/locate/process information (regarding whatever you were thinking or feeling about) inside itself. It is this orienting reflex that Brainspotting harnesses. The spot you were gazing at is the access point for a Brainspot- which are the neural networks holding the information you are thinking/experiencing in that given moment. This allows the brain to then activate its self-scanning capacity and bring about homeostasis to dysregulated emotional states. 

More on Self-Scanning and Homeostasis

The brain is constantly scanning itself and the body 24/7. It is always seeking homeostasis or is in homeostasis. When we locate a Brainspot, we activate this self-scanning so that it can release the dysregulation (which is an experience of non-homeostasis). Another few examples of homeostasis are the brain’s regulation of respiration, heart rate, peristalsis, blood pressure, and keeping each and every cell in our body in a balanced state. In Brainspotting, we are simultaneously accessing emotional and physiological homeostasis (everything that is emotional is also a physiological in some way).

What is a Brainspot and What Happens When You Find It?

A brainspot is an eye position that correlates to a subcortical area of relevance, which can be found in the brain, and is elicited by bringing up a topic and its correlating somatic activation (how one senses what they’re thinking/feeling/experiencing in their body).

Once a brainspot has been located using a variety of techniques by a trained Brainspotting practitioner, the client is guided to keep their gaze on the brainspot/eye position, so that the brain can begin a self-scanning process. Focusing on this eye position allows the brain’s self-scanning capacity to engage in accessing the neural networks that are holding the somatic material/information that the client is wanting to work on. Once found and held, the brain can basically say “oh hey, here’s the location of this issue we have been dealing with for so long! Here’s all that stuck survival energy that we’ve dissociated from or had to avoid!” It then can engage it’s homeostatic capacity to discharge the held survival energy.

At this point in a Brainspotting session, clients will sometimes experience strong waves of emotions or somatic sensations, memories, and thoughts (sympathetic arousal related to the event/trauma) followed by parasympathetic activation which is the process of homeostasis (feelings of calm, groundedness, or relaxation). These waves of processing continue as the therapist holds space for the client in a deeply relational way and gives the client space to allow their body to unfold and unload the trauma as it needs to. 

The attunement of the therapist cannot be underestimated. This is because our attachment pathways in our brains are the most powerful neural networks we have. The therapist strives to model secure attachment- a sense of safety both relationally and neurobiologically for the client as well as uncertainty, so that the client can access their own brain’s re-organizing and self-scanning/healing capacity. 

Clients find that the processing goes deeper and that their brains travel to different memories, sensations, and points in time that may be related to the issue (even if it seems unrelated), while simultaneously experiencing waves of discharging and releasing of the material, and returning to homeostasis- a sense of well-being in the world.