by Trevor Allen, CMHC
I have been working with adolescents for 21 years, and earlier this year I had an experience that opened my eyes and fundamentally shifted the way that I do therapy with teens. I have historically been tied to therapies that focus on changing thoughts, shifting behaviors, gaining motivation by gaining awareness of choices, aligning choices with goals and values, and staring into the face of reality. Although I still consider Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Motivational Interviewing, and Reality Therapy to be effective and helpful modalities, I have gained a great respect for a therapeutic intervention called Brainspotting. Brainspotting has helped me to practice therapy from a new point of view.
Brainspotting was founded and developed by David Grand Ph.D. At the time, Grand was practicing two different types of therapy, which included eye movements (EMDR) and a physically felt and activated experience (Somatic Experiencing). He noticed that the eyes of his clients would shutter or physically shift while he was watching their eye movements. Out of his curiosity and experimentation came the phenomena of Brainspotting.
A client engages in Brainspotting by finding, with the help of the therapist, a spot in the visual field that activates the healing process. It is believed that trauma is stored in the subcortical parts of the brain, like a capsule, and where a person looks gives access to trauma that is stored in that capsule. The client might be watching the tip of a pointer or staring at a fixed object in space. A main belief of Brainspotting is, “Where you look affects how you feel.” I would add that where you look can greatly affect how you heal.
The client may watch a fixed point for an hour or more, while simultaneously listening to ‘biolateral music.’ Biolateral music is music that alternates playing in the right ear to the left ear with the intent of integrating the left and right hemispheres of the brain.
Brainspotting is a mind-body experience. Trauma can be stored in the body in the form of energy. In his book, ‘Waking the Tiger,’ Peter Levine talks about how animals that experience a frightening or near death experience will have a shaking movement where they shake out and expel the energy brought on by the unsafe experience. He speaks of trauma work as the work of expelling and working through the trauma energy that is stored in the body. While the client is doing Brainspotting, they are encouraged to be aware of the sensations in the body. Brainspotting is a bottom up approach, which means that clients are healing through bodywork, and working with the lower part of the brain. The client can then gain greater wisdom which moves them toward using the cortical, or upper, part of the brain.
An important part of the client’s process is observing and watching what is happening to them physically, emotionally, and cognitively. These three areas can each be activated at the same time, which can create a strong, moving experience. The therapist is engaged in what is called dual attunement, which refers to the therapist’s attunement to both the physical and mental/emotional experience of the client. When combined with the client’s internal experience, the witnessing of the accurately attuned therapist can create an incredibly powerful attaching, co-regulating, and healing process.
Brainspotting can also be used for treatment concerns which include anxiety, attachment disruption, and addiction. Roby Abeles Psy.D.,a psychologist based out of Australia, authored a method for Brainspotting called the Crocodile Setup which is geared toward addiction. The Crocodile Setup works on creating connections in the client’s brain between the pleasure memories of the addicted substance and the consequences of substance abuse. Generally, individuals with drug addiction can primarily remember the pleasure of using the substance, but struggle to remember the consequences. The Crocodile Setup is designed to help the client link the pleasure of drug use to the consequences of drug use, so that he or she can remember the risk if they are thinking about the substance.
I have personally felt and appreciated the physical activation of Brainspotting as an intimate and genuine emotional experience where wisdom can come from deep within. I have noticed a sense of healing in my life with issues that I have targeted, but also in areas that I did not intend to target. For example, I did not intentionally target my fear of heights, but I have noticed feeling a decreased fear of heights and a greater grounding while encountering heights after a Brainspotting experience. I have noticed an overall shift in my life and in the lives of my clients tied to Brainspotting. I believe that this intervention has the ability to provide an individual with a powerful, personal movement forward.