Brainspotting as a Trauma Treatment

by Cynthia Schwartzberg, LCSW, Atlanta, GA Southeast Brainspotting Institute,

Sara came to me for Brainspotting after years of therapy. She states: “I am a mess. I keep having a melt down. My family doesn’t know what to do with me anymore. I am thinking I need to go away but I can’t take the time to do so. I’ve been in therapy for years. I am on too much medication and I am not even sure it is working anymore. Can you help me?

She was flooded with anxiety filled with many negative beliefs and generally overwhelmed. Sara is a mother of two active in her church community and has been diagnosed with ADD. The more I have gotten to know her the more she and I realize how capable she is. She has had a very negative image of herself and has not had much support to view her self any other way. Sara is the youngest of four in her birth family and has been very attached to her analytical story of what happened to her and why she is the way she is. She wants a way out and was told Brainspotting can help her. She had some experience with EMDR that was helpful but still reported overwhelmed and anxious.

Brainspotting is a a powerful new treatment modality to help in trauma.  We are wired for survival and when we are in trauma our body and mind go into survival mode.  Sara was in a strong state of survival that she was in a sense ungrounded.  She could not connect to the here and now, she was being triggered by her past.

Brainspotting was developed by, Dr. David Grand, in 2003, who had been an innovator in the field of EMDR. He describes it as a physiological therapy with psychological consequences. I have found it to be  different from any other mind/body therapy  I experienced both as a client and as a therapist. And that is what Sara began reporting. For her the strong container of both myself as the therapist and the invitation to go into her own body felt sense made it possible for her to feel more present as she processed things she had not thought of or witnessed about herself before. This is referred to in Brainspotting as the dual attunement. (Dual Attunement is more accurately the relational and neurobiological attunement simultaneously): One part being within the patient themselves, and the other being between the therapist and the patient.

Dr. Robert Scaer speaks of the importance of attunement in his book 8 Keys to Brain Body Balance stating, “The attunement activates the mirror neurons between the cingulate and the OFC(Orbital Frontal Cortex), creates an empathic environment and inhibits the amygdala. This sacred face-to-face empathic attunement, is a critical environment for trauma therapy to work, just as it is in maternal-infant bonding. .. and this state of presence is essential for healing.”

In the beginning of a session Sara kept speaking about her Dad; how he was and how that made her act and behave, a certain way. The focus was geared away from the details of all the times this happened and more on the felt sense she was experiencing as she spoke. Sticking to the details seemed to cause her to feel disconnected. Inquiring more on what specifically she was referring to, helped her ground herself in what she was speaking of. It also helped her slow down her thoughts, which helped her focus on what specifically disturbed her.

In Brainspotting this is referred to as frame and focus. Before looking for the eye position it is important to clarify what specifically is being addressed. The inner observer is identifying the issue to focus on which creates some distance from it.

For example Sara speaking of her anxiety became for her more specific that she was angry with her father. Having the brain scanning the body creates an awareness of body sensations and connection to the body and having the eyes focus on a pointer (a tool used to help mark and hold the spot) all sets a more contained grounding approach.

Brainspotting is a grounding process, which I believe is critical to trauma work. In trauma our survival mechanism “kicks in” and we respond with the flight-fight-freeze- Excess adrenaline and cortisol is released and our ability to process implicit memory (anything the sensory systems of our body detected during the event.) into explicit memory (declarative memory – autobiographical story) is thwarted.

After the trauma, if the mind and body’s protective response doesn’t normalize and the restorative process remains thwarted, the effects of trauma become fixated/traumatized. “Even though the event is over and we survived it, the entire external and internal world remains a reservoir of somatic cues for what is perceived as an imminent traumatic event.” Scaer Pg 101. The key to healing trauma is in our physiology, and developing some grounding for the person to regain homeostasis.

Once the frame was focused Sara was able to find the body felt sense connected to her anger and then an eye position that corresponded to her anger.


I invite you to think about something that gives you a great deal of pleasure, think about that issue notice what you feel in your body. Where do you feel most grounded, calm, and connected.  Bring your attention to that part of your body.  Now look ahead, on a scale of 0 to 10 how grounded do you feel. 10 being the most grounded. Shift your focus to the right, and on a scale of 0 to 10 how grounded do you feel? And, now to the left. Take a few moments to keep your eyes focused on the spot that feels most grounded and see what you notice as you thing about the issue.  Notice what happens.  Hopefully you were able to get a body sense of something connected to a location in your visual field and sense a little of how the process works.

The focused attention on the brainspot and the continuous inquiry into her body felt sense helped Sara feel contained enough for her to experience feelings, she had never gotten to before in therapy.

During the work she had some moments of reporting a floaty feeling. I suggested she return to her body resource spot, which was part of the set up process.

Central to the Resource Model is the “body resource”. The use of the body resource in BSP is derived from Dr. Grand’s discussions with Peter Levine, developer of the Somatic Experiencing (SE) model (Levine. 1997). Levine challenged EMDR as too activating, particularly in its focus on body activation. Levine taught Dr. Grand, as is done in SE trainings, to guide the clients to where they felt calmer and more grounded in their bodies. Much like what we just did. Levine’s “pendulation” model entails spending more time and attention in the body resource (“healing vortex”) and much less time on the outer edges of the body activation (“trauma vortex”). The shift to the resource model appeared to yield a less abreactive and more tolerable processing for fragile, highly traumatized, dissociative clients. In BSP, Dr. Grand observed that the containment of the fixed gaze on the Brainspot was not always containing enough for these same clients who were so easily overwhelmed.

By incorporating this body resource while on a Brainspot, he observed that many clients were able to better tolerate the emotional upheaval and body activation and process more effectively which was what happened during Sara’s process. 

Reporting feeling floaty was one clue to use the resource spot. It was a clear indication she did not feel grounded enough. I also listen for signs such as too sleepy or not connected. At another point she was not able to calm down enough even on the resource spot.

At this point I asked her about her relationship to God and introduced the attachment to God as another spot to focus on.  This seemed to help her feel more grounded . Her body began to have a lot of reflex movement. I called her attention to it by saying, “I notice your foot is tapping.” The process soon led to her physically releasing a lot of movements and in a sense shaking off the frozen trauma state. She felt surprised, relieved and calm. I believe Sara had felt grounded enough through the process for this to occur.

By continuing the work with Sara, she has been able to slow up her emotional responses, bring reason into her actions and think more clearly. The other day she shared an incident where someone who has been an authority bully figure to her asked her to do something unethical. In the past she would have been frightened and compliant. This time she was able to slow down, think things out, speak, with others and plan her response in a way that kept her acting in an ethical model. She was very pleased with herself and was able to gain self-respect from her actions. She also realized how much she has grown and shifted out of her fear response. The Brainspotting has helped her recondition traumatic conditioned responses.


Cynthia Schwartzberg, LCSW, Brainspotting Trainer, President of the Southeast Brainspotting Institute, and Certified Brainspotting Therapist practices in Atlanta, GA.  She has spoken at the International Society of Trauma and Dissociative Studies,and in Vienna on Brainspotting and Grounding.  Prior to working with Brainspotting she was an international teaching for the Institute of Core Energetics  teaching on the mind/body connection and one topic specifically was  Grounding.  This article is developed from her talk on Grounding in Brainspotting at the First Brainspotting International Conference in Brazil, March 2016.

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The Rocky Mountain Brainspotting Institute (RMBI) is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that was created to promote and advance the use of Brainspotting, a brain-body treatment approach.

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