Talk Therapy, EMDR, and Brainspotting

What is Brainspotting? How does it compare to EMDR? |

What is Brainspotting? How does it compare to EMDR therapy?

by Dana Terrell, LCSW, EMDRIA-Approved Consultant,
Brainspotting Consultant, San Diego Therapist

Both of these profound therapy approaches can be included in the new class of “power therapies.” These are therapies that work in a deep, efficient manner to bring about observable healing in the brain. I do not mean just observable by brain scan by Daniel Amen, M.D., as shown on the home page of I mean observable by clients (or their loved ones), in subtle, yet definite and amazing ways. Other power therapies include Somatic Experiencing, Advanced Integrative Therapy, Emotional Freedom Technique, Energy Testing and others.

EMDR is the most researched of the power therapies, and has validation by the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the Department of Defense and the Veteran’s Administration, when it comes to treatments for Post–traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. It’s developer, Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., discovered serendipitously while she was thinking of a matter disturbing to her, her eyes spontaneously moved back and forth on a diagonal. Very quickly she could see the issue from a new perspective and found it wasn’t disturbing to her anymore.

Wondering if this was a personal quirk, she asked friends and colleagues to try it with her on a current “garden variety” concern. To her delight, it worked for them, too. She developed a research design to put it to the test on a clinical population of war combat veterans and rape and molestation victims. The result? 90% of the clients resolved one traumatic experience in one to three 90 minute sessions. This was a higher success rate than any previous therapy researched. It created quite a stir in the field. As more and more confirming studies came in, it only creates political “stirs”, in those attached to other methods.

It no longer can be considered controversial, as there are more controlled studies validating EMDR for the treatment of PTSD than any other treatment method. The previous standard-bearer in the field of psychotherapy was (and still is, to a great extent) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Controlled studies have shown both to have an 80% success rate. EMDR has been shown to accomplish that result in ½ to 1/3 the time of CBT, with far less homework (100 hours for CBT, compared to 3 hours for EMDR). EMDR had a lower drop-out rate, as well.

Another important contribution of Dr. Shapiro is her description of the brain’s “Adaptive Information Processing” capacity. She explains that EMDR works because it taps into the brain’s amazing capacity to become adaptive, positive. We are born with this capacity to heal quickly [though for years the accepted “wisdom” was that mental and emotional healing is a long, slow process]. Occasionally it gets stuck. EMDR appears to jump start the Adaptive Information Processing system. EMDR therapists have observed this seeming miracle on a daily basis. It makes my work a great joy, and my career “burnout-proof.”

David Grand, Ph.D. is a master EMDR therapist who has given international trainings in EMDR therapy to therapists, and been an EMDR Institute Facilitator for trainings given to therapists in America. He, too, made a serendipitous discovery. For him, it occurred in the midst of doing EMDR therapy. He had developed several innovations in EMDR . One was the beautiful compact discs he has created in which one of several tracks of music is alternated from left to right for a bilateral effect on the brain (an alternative, or adjunct to eye movements). He slowed down the eye movements greatly with his clients, and observed that this helped them process disturbing material more gently, yet still effectively. This gave him the opportunity to observe that at particular positions of the client’s eye, he noticed reflexive eye-blinking. Curious, he asked his client to hold her eye at that one position, to see what might happen.

Let me back up a moment to explain that David has a practice in New York City specializing in Performance Enhancement with professional /Olympic athletes, and performing artists of all kinds. This client was an Olympic-level ice skater who had improved 75% with a year of EMDR, but one obstacle remained. She still couldn’t land the triple loop, though she could land a more difficult triple jump. For 10 minutes at the end of the session, as the skater held her gaze at one point, memories poured out of her that had not surfaced during a year of EMDR therapy. These memories included abuse by her mother and a number of sports injuries she had sustained. The session was over, and she left. The next day she called Dr. Grand to exclaim, “I landed the triple loop!”

This got the attention of both of them. David Grand, as all therapists, has a desire to see clients heal as quickly, deeply and thoroughly as possible. So he applied his intelligence, curiosity, and creativity to a new direction of exploration. He has since developed Brainspotting into a number of methods that work within a deeply attuned relationship with the client. He’s given trainings around the world and is in the midst of research on Brainspotting.

I was trained in Brainspotting 2 ½ years ago and am a Brainspotting Consultant for Brainspotting therapists (as well as an EMDRIA-Approved Consultant for EMDR therapists). Some stories from my clients give their feedback.

Many clients come to me because they know of the effectiveness of EMDR and seek that for themselves. I am happy to provide and watch the healing unfold in front of me. Occasionally, I have a hunch that Brainspotting might be more useful. This especially happens on a day when a client is overwhelmed with so many issues and upsets, that it is hard for the client or me to choose one for EMDR processing. Thus, we can just focus on the sensations in the body and process with Brainspotting. The results:

A stockbroker came to me for unresolved grief about the death of his wife 7 years ago. He is doing well now, reports that he loves Brainspotting and prefers it to EMDR, which he thought was “amazing”.

A mother and daughter came to me for help with the anxiety issues they share both inside and outside of their relationship. They love doing attachment work with Brainspotting. Mom reported that she resolved a problem that was such a “given” in of her life, that she hadn’t thought to mention it to me! She had not been able to think straight and communicate when her husband got mad at her. But in the first argument that occurred after her first Brainspotting session, she never lost her ability to reason and express herself! Also, in that same week, she was preparing for the birthday of her younger daughter with such joy and enthusiasm that her older daughter brought it to her attention. It helped her realize that this was unique for her. Yet it felt so natural that she hadn’t even become conscious about it.

The daughter reported that she prefers Brainspotting because she needs to talk even less than with EMDR, and feels so much better afterward. This is a true phenomenon. Therapists with the training I have all agree that these therapies work much better than talk therapy. For teens and other people who hate to talk about their issues, these are ideal therapies.

Most people do agree that Brainspotting seems very weird initially. I rarely do any EMDR or Brainspotting with a new client on a first appointment. However, a recent client in crisis was so distraught. My thorough assessment showed he didn’t have vulnerabilities that would require a lot of preparation before doing trauma processing. Thus, I decided to do a little Brainspotting with him, very cautiously. He confided his first thought, “Oh, no. I got a nut case here!” But within a minute or two, he was so profoundly benefiting that he told me I could sell my pointer for thousands. I explained that it’s simply a $5 aid to my arm so it doesn’t get injured from hours of eye movements or Brainspotting.

He refused to consider it a mundane item, as it was helping him so deeply. He gained a great deal of calmness and direction from within, from the session. He seemed to be out of the crisis. But he made another appointment because he had gained so much from one session with a little bit of Brainspotting, he wanted to see what was possible from more work together.

Brainspotting works at the level of deep reflexes, thus much of the processing is focused on the sensations in the body, which move and change. Bodily tensions and memories are released in this process. Sometimes the client is aware of memories and thoughts. Sometimes they are not, but notice changes in their body. Either way, Brainspotting is still working to create deep releases of stored distress.

Robert Scaer, MD, the author of The Trauma Spectrum, said “Brainspotting is based on the profound attunement of the therapist with the patient, finding a somatic cue and extinguishing it by downregulating the amygdala [a brain structure responsible for noticing threat and holding memories of threats]. It isn’t just PNS (parasympathetic nervous system) activation that is facilitated, it’s homeostasis.”

Hundreds of jokes have been written about people investing in years of analysis or other forms of talk therapy, and not showing much in the “Outwardly Observable Results” department. The power therapies have grown fast in popularity, because friends and loved ones notice the positive changes and ask, “How can I get that for myself?”

As a specialist in EMDR and Brainspotting, I can surely attest that they work far better than talk therapy. These approaches integrate in the best of the standard therapies. We are aware of cognitions, and help the client to identify their negative cognitions, specifically in EMDR, or if necessary in Brainspotting. But in both approaches the client spontaneously creates their own positive cognition that I always feel is better than any I could have artificially drafted for them. And, by the time it arises, they definitely believe it. We are not trying to hook the brain and drag it to a place it’s not ready to go. We are connecting with a person’s whole being, and a healing process that naturally blossoms into an organic and natural, healthy self-concept and peaceful self-love. People with a true self-love treat others with that same love. This is a Health so natural that sometimes the person isn’t aware of it until receiving feedback from others. Once that happens, they can no longer take it for granted.

The next time you or a loved one has a disturbance, a minor or major trauma or crisis, please consider EMDR or Brainspotting. If it is a single incident concern, one to three sessions will often be sufficient. If there are some earlier traumas that your brain has filed as “related” it may take longer to process, but you will find it well worth the investment in your own organic emotional health and well-being of self.

“Such healing makes it very easy to follow the wisdom of: “…to thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, Thou canst not be false to any man.” Can you imagine a world full of people so true to themselves? After witnessing so much healing, I can” – William Shakespeare in Hamlet

©2009, Dana Terrell, LCSW, San Diego therapist