EMDR and Brainspotting: similarities and differences in processing trauma

Although there are exceptions, EMDR and Brainspotting are both tools of therapy, typically used after the you, as the client, and I, as the therapist, have built a relationship with unconditional rapport, and have come to an agreement that one of these tools would be beneficial in our work together.

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), has been around since the 1970s, and has become fairly popular amongst therapists in the last two decades. In a typical EMDR session, the therapist follows a scripted protocol to process a difficult memory, while using bilateral movement (alternate eye movements, audio or tactile).  A memory can be processed during one session, or can be revisited throughout several sessions, until the emotional reaction subsides.

David Grand discovered Brainspotting in 2003, mainly through exploration of Somatic Experiencing and EMDR. David Grand believes the way a person gazes and certain points in their vision can stimulate the emotional memory stored in the body. During a typical Brainspotting session, the client and therapist decide on a ‘target’ which can be a difficult memory, a future event which causes emotions, a certain emotion or physical sensation which is often unexplained by the situation. The two then find one still point in the vision field (“brainspot”), where the client then gazes the entire time, while allowing the brain and the body to bring up whatever is necessary: memories, thoughts, sensations, etc.

Both modalities focus on utilizing the brain (central nervous system) in order to process through stored memories of trauma, and rewire the brain, leading to some significant breakthroughs in therapy. Both can utilize the vision field, although EMDR has progressed to use other types of bilateral movement, such as tapping or audio.  Both access the information stored in the amygdala, which is not accessed through verbal processing. Both therapies tend to be cathartic and fairly exhausting, leading to clients needing a slow pace rest of a day, or possibly even a nap.

A main difference between EMDR and Brainspotting is that Brainspotting is more flexible, without a written script. This puts the client in the lead position, allowing the therapist to follow the client’s natural direction, without needing to stick to a protocol. Clients often process memories at a much faster rate than in EMDR, and often describe their internal experience as “watching a movie on fast forward”. Brainspotting utilizes client’s own descriptions of their experience throughout the processing to decide which direction to follow, and the ‘disturbance’ of a memory can often go from a 10 to a 1 within a short amount of time. In this sense, and from my personal experience, Brainspotting tends to work at a significantly faster pace than EMDR. Also from my experience, clients tend to be able to process through difficult memories at a high intensity, then self soothe and calm the body in an impressively quick manner, as opposed to EMDR, which can have lasting disturbance for the rest of the day. Since the entire process of Brainspotting is similar to focused mindfulness or meditation, clients tend to naturally learn how to become more aware of their own body sensations, as well as their innate ability to self soothe their body by utilizing their breath and visualizations.

The decision of which modality will work best is made by the client and therapist; my personal preference is a slight combination of the two, which involves the brainspotting modality, while also utilizing bilateral stimulation. Through brainspotting, I have seen clients have significant breakthroughs in processing traumas of childhood, professional and performance anxiety, traumas of adulthood such as accidents, infidelity and divorce, as well as addictions, grief and emotional dysregulation.