Brainspotting vs. EMDR: What are the Differences?


Psychotherapy, in general, can do wonders for victims of trauma. There are several different types of therapies that professionals use to treat conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but also depression, or anxiety that may or may not be linked with trauma. Two of such therapies are Brainspotting and EMDR. 

While there are several similarities between the two, there are critical differences as well. In this article, we’ll elaborate on both these therapies while discussing the differences between them. That should help you gauge whether this therapy can work for your particular condition. 

What is Brainspotting?

Brainspotting, sometimes abbreviated as BSP, is a kind of psychotherapy developed by Dr. David Grand in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. He initially devised this therapy to address the trauma of the survivors, but today, its applications are not limited to PTSD or trauma

The main theme of brainspotting is getting into the deeper spots of the brain. To do that, the therapist employs the eye movement technique. As the client moves their eyes, they can focus on certain parts of the brain and go deeper into that particular spot, theoretically. 

By accessing the part of the brain where the trauma lingers, the client may be able to remember it, process it, and, eventually, heal from it. 

BSP targes the body’s limbic system. The therapist first helps focus on particular spots of the brain through eye movement and identifies the source of trauma in the brain through physical reflexes. 

The therapy focuses on the hypothalamus, hippocampus, and amygdala of the brain, each of which plays a different role psychologically. It’s in these spots of the brain that the unprocessed trauma lies in, which the therapist helps identify and work on with the client. 

There are typically five steps of BSP:

  • Locating/traversing brain spots
  • Focus on a particular brain spot
  • Processing the trauma
  • Releasing the trauma
  • Healing

What is EMDR?

EMDR (Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) is a therapy that uses eye movement or other bilateral stimulation to reprocess trauma and help the client function better. Developed by Francine Shapiro in the 80s, it’s a well-documented and researched therapy used by therapists around the world to treat PTSD, among other mental health issues. 

EMDR consists of eight specific stages or phases that can take up to 12 sessions. Each session may last for an hour to an hour and a half. The idea behind this therapy which Shapiro championed, is that when the person is distracted with an external stimulus, they are likely to feel less emotional stress revisiting their trauma. This essentially helps them remember, process, and stabilize the memories of the trauma. 

A more technical explanation of EMDR is that it utilizes both sides of the brain to work on the trauma, so it can be stored in a more stable part of the brain. That way, even with the triggers around the client, they are able to cope with their feelings and see the trauma in a new light. 

Similar to BSP, it was developed to treat trauma. However, now it’s used for a number of mental problems, including depression, anxiety, dissociation, addictions, grief, phobias, and even chronic pain

Similarities Between Brainspotting and EMDR

Before we talk about the differences between the two therapies, let’s consider the many similarities that also exist:

  • External Stimulation: Both BSP and EMDR rely on external stimulation, although it differs a little bit. These therapies use these external stimuli for the purpose of reprocessing trauma. 
  • Resourcing and Grounding: Resourcing refers to instilling mechanisms and actions that can help a person deal with reactions, emotional or physical, as a result of traumatic memories. Grounding is similar to resourcing, but it focuses on activities that help reconnect with Earth. Both BSP and EMDR use resourcing and grounding techniques. 
  • Processing Thoughts, Emotions, and Physical Movements: Therapists conducting BSP or EMDR focus on the client’s thoughts, emotions, as well as physical reactions to revisiting trauma and also help the client do the same. 

Brainspotting vs. EMDR: Key Differences

Here are the most notable difference between EMDR and Brainspotting:

Different Kind of Eye Movements

While both these therapies may use eye movements, the kind of eye movement is different. Brainspotting usually uses single eye position, whereas EMDR involves rapid eye movement from right to left or up and down. 

You may think that this is not a major difference, but it shows that these therapies utilize different approaches to identifying and consequently processing trauma. BSP focuses on a specific spot of the brain at a time, while EMDR tries to utilize the whole brain.

Similarly, the other stimuli used in therapies also differ in their purpose. 

Different Devices for Stimulation

Since the external stimuli vary for BSP and EMDR, so do the devices and tools therapists use during these purposes. For instance, to guide eye movement, during EMDR, a therapist may use a light bar with the light moving right to left and vice versa. On the other hand, during BSP, a therapist may use a laser pointer to focus eyes at a certain point. 

Similarly, for EMDR, there are tappers that aren’t used in BPS. Both therapies do use headphones for bilateral sounds, though. 

EMDR Lasts Longer

EMDR as a therapy lasts longer than brainspotting. The latter is considered short-term, with as few as four sessions. EMDR, on the other hand, requires at least eight sessions. 

EMDR is Older and More Rigid in its Protocol

Brainspotting was developed in 2003 and has had enough time to become common. However, EMDR is even older, and over time, its protocol has become more specific and rigid. Although therapists do have some room for flexibility in their delivery, for the most part, it has to be carried out the way it’s defined in the official guidebook. 

BSP also has a set protocol, but many therapists note that there’s more flexibility. They can change things a little based on the client’s needs. Now, this can be advantageous or disadvantageous, case by case. 

Brainspotting vs. EMDR: Which One is Better? 

Research evidence supports both brainspotting therapy and EMDR for the treatment of many mental issues, especially PTSD. However, there hasn’t been extensive research comparing the two therapies directly

Brainspotting, being quicker, has the potential to deliver faster results than EMDR. On the other hand, EMDR may have longer-lasting results despite its duration. 

Also, as mentioned earlier, BSP offers more flexibility, which may make it ideal for clients who aren’t responding well to EMDR or other therapies for trauma. 

Many therapists consider BSP as an alternative to EMDR, with EMDR being the primary choice. 

If you’re dealing with PTSD or other mental conditions associated with trauma, discuss with your therapists both therapies. Your therapist will be able to guide you better based on your symptoms and any previous experience with therapy. 

Both these therapies can be conducted in-person and online, which means accessibility is not an issue. 

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