Breakthrough with brainspotting: Neurobiological tool to help people identify and release trauma

Ayesha Singh

How does that make you feel?’ is typically how a session of psychotherapy begins. While ‘feeling the feelings’ is the cornerstone of emotional healing, the body may need a different assessment to recoup. Brainspotting, a neurobiological tool that uses spots in a person’s visual field to help them identify and release trauma, is now drawing the attention of mental health practitioners worldwide to treat several conditions.

Freeze, release
When 21-year-old calligrapher Rahul Sinha sought therapy to work through post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of sibling abuse by his elder brother, who teased, bullied and belittled him while growing up, the ‘trauma shock’ or a state of inner freeze he experienced was enormous. Delhi-based Sinha tried various modalities to address this emotional stressor, but brainspotting was a breakthrough. 

As a first step, the therapist asked him to talk about his abuse in detail, while requesting him to tune into the sensations of his body and identify where he felt uncomfortable, heavy or nervous; it was the chest region for him. Next, using focused attention on the physical feelings attached to the issue and visual bilateral stimulation (rhythmic left-right movement of the eye), the brain spot—where the eyes naturally come to a resting position—was determined. It’s at this point in the visual field of a person where the memories of an emotionally charged past are stored and activated from time to time by strong neural connections in the brain. He was asked to immerse himself fully into the spot, thus, activating the distressing memories. As Sinha recalled his past, the therapist helped him process the emotions he had pushed in a corner, and release it from his nervous system. “For the first time in months, there was 
a feeling of lightness in the body. The emotional heaviness began lifting and I felt less threatened by my past,” he says.

Deep-dive into the body
Developed by psychotherapist David Grand in 2003, brainspotting is believed to expedite healing by down-regulating the amygdala—the seat of emotions—in the brain. Contrary to the eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing approach, where the eyes continuously move to process trauma, in brainspotting, the eye is focused on a single point. “The body is proficient at keeping track of all the emotions an individual experiences in their lifetime, which, in turn, manifest in somatic flashbacks as the person grows older. To understand the psychology of trauma, one has to deep-dive into the body and that’s where body-based modalities like brainspotting come in,” says Dr Shaunak Ajinkya, consultant psychiatrist, Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital, Mumbai.  

 Some believe the technique works faster than traditional talk therapy. That’s because, in psychotherapy, the emphasis is on the neocortex part of the brain, which is responsible for higher brain functions such as thinking, while brainspotting is aimed at the subcortex, which is in charge of primitive functions such as emotion processing. “In brainspotting, we try to locate the area in the subcortical part of the brain, which is home for unprocessed trauma,” says Ajinkya.

Once this spot is identified, the therapist, guided by reflective prompts of their clients such as an eye twitch, furrowing of the brow, rapid blinks, yawns, coughs, deep swallow, head movements or restless feet, facilitates the release of trauma through a series of instructions that include revisiting, experiencing, expressing and letting the trauma out. “Most therapists will also do what’s called resource activation or triggering positive memories from your mental bank to overwrite traumatic ones,” says Dr Rituparna Ghosh, clinical psychologist, Apollo Hospitals, Navi Mumbai.

Help thyself
The good news is that brainspotting can be done by anybody, anytime and doesn’t require any tool or equipment. When done at home, however, it is best undertaken for rest, relaxation or to enhance an overall sense of well-being, not trauma work. “Using the approach to address insomnia, phobias, anxiety, depression or other mental health conditions can be risky as they involve painful memories that can be difficult to navigate. Additionally, brainspotting is an effective supplementary tool to traditional therapy, and not a replacement for it,” says Ghosh, sharing the following steps to initiate the 
process at home:

● Find a comfortable place where you can stretch your legs out and sit back.
● Set an alarm with a soft ringtone for 10 minutes.
● Begin with a relaxation practice such as deep breathing, face tapping, progressive muscle relaxation or listening to binaural beats.
● Close your eyes and take your attention to the top of your head and scan your body for tightness; loosen it with deep breaths.
● Next, find a place within your body that feels most centred and imagine 
taking energy from this place to undertake the rest of the practice.
● Open your eyes and move them left to right, up and down, until you find a spot where your gaze naturally pauses.
● Peer into this spot as your vision blurs and you zone out. Notice the emotions that show up. Do not articulate them. Breathe through it all with full acceptance. If there is a specific part of the body that feels stiff or restricted, look at it through your mind’s eye and consciously broaden your stance.
● When the alarm goes off, close your eyes and stretch every part of the body, especially the one that 
felt tensed. Drink some water and leave that space.

Brainspotting is still relatively new and while it’s believed to be incredibly beneficial in mitigating trauma patterns, anxiety and other conditions, the biggest challenge remains finding a therapist trained in this modality. But once you’ve found a practitioner, you can hit the healing spot.


Brainspotting can take anywhere between one to five sessions to show results

It may conjure intense emotions that can be re-traumatising, therefore, undertaking it under the guidance of a licenced practitioner is important

Fully disclose existing medical issues to your therapist

Experiencing headaches, nausea, muscle cramps or tiredness after a session is not uncommon. Stay hydrated and get plenty of rest  

The technique can help with

Generalised anxiety
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
Sleep issues
Chronic pain
Substance abuse

“Most therapists will also do what’s called resource activation or triggering positive memories from your mental bank to overwrite traumatic ones.” 
Dr Rituparna Ghosh, Clinical psychologist

“In brainspotting, we try to locate the area in the subcortical part of the brain, which is home for unprocessed trauma.” 
Dr Shaunak Ajinkya, Consultant psychiatrist