If you are reading this article you have likely heard about Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) or Brainspotting (BPS) and have an interest in learning more about these powerful therapeutic interventions.

Both EMDR and BSP, are well regarded therapeutic approaches used to heal mental health challenges, achieve goals, recover from injuries, and improve overall well-being. If both forms of therapy are so powerful, how can you know which is best for you? 

Well, let’s take a look at the history, differences, and similarities between these approaches to help you determine which is the best fit for you now. 

The Origins Of EMDR & Brainspotting

EMDR was discovered and developed by Frances Shapiro in 1987. Since its development, EMDR has been recognized as an effective treatment for PTSD, anxiety, and other mental health concerns by well-known organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and the Department of Defense. Since its creation, EMDR has grown in popularity over the years amongst the mental health community, becoming one of the more popular approaches for addressing acute and complex trauma.

BSP, a more recent type of therapy, has also gained great esteem amongst practitioners as an effective model to treat trauma, achieve goals, and improve mental health. BSP was discovered and developed in 2003 by Dr. David Grand, who, at the time, was an accomplished EMDR trainer and author. While working with trauma survivors, Dr. Grand discovered that eye positions are linked with the unconscious, emotional experiences and that by working with a particular eye position, called the brainspot, the client’s natural healing capacity could take place. Since its development, BSP has also grown as a preferred therapeutic approach for working with trauma, physical ailments, and increasing inner resilience. 

Both EMDR and BSP are powerful therapy models, worthy of exploration. Here are some reflections on the differences and similarities between these two approaches to help you discover which one is for you!


2 Differences Between Brainspotting & EMDR

#1 Therapist Involvement – Structure Vs. Flexibility


The main difference between the two approaches is how they work procedurally. In EMDR, the therapist follows a specific 8-pronged treatment protocol, which includes setting up the session, checking in during the session, and closing the session in a safe, contained way. This protocol allows the therapist to work with you more actively, checking in on your level of intensity during the session. The therapist stays attuned to you during the entire session and may be more active in providing you appropriate guidance when needed in order to support you in your experience. 

BSP, in contrast, does not follow a set protocol and is thus considered a more flexible approach. The therapist is encouraged to stay fully attuned to you, as the client, with as few interruptions as possible. The understanding, from a BSP perspective, is that your brain has an innate capacity to heal itself free of the therapist’s involvement. The therapist is encouraged to openly follow your natural process and to trust your brain and body’s innate ability to self-regulate.


#2 EMDR and Brainspotting Use Eye Stimulation Differently

While both BSP and EMDR incorporate the use of the visual field, they differ in how they use eye movement. In EMDR, the therapist uses what is known as bilateral stimulation, by guiding you to follow a pointer in sets of right to left eye motions. Bilateral stimulation is said to engage the right and left hemispheres of the brain through alternating eye movements. The objective of bilateral stimulation is to activate and integrate information from the whole brain. In addition to eye movement, EMDR incorporates bilateral stimulation through sound, bilateral music that alternates sound between left and right ears, and tapping on alternating sides of the body. 

In contrast to the right to left eye movements used in EMDR, BSP works with a single fixed gaze position, called the brainspot. The therapist works with you to identify the brainspot connected to a memory, issue, or future goal at hand. Then, the BSP therapist uses a pointer to assist you to look in the direction of the brainspot. Once the brainspot is identified, you gaze at a pointer, while processing the emotional content. Like EMDR, BSP may also make use of bilateral music in therapy sessions. 


3 Similarities Between EMDR & Brainspotting


#1 Both Work With The Limbic Part Of The Brain


The limbic system is the emotional part of the brain that acts to process sensory information, store emotional memories, process moods, manage sleep cycles, and control appetite. The amygdala, which acts as the threat warning center of the brain, is located within the limbic system. Unlike the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for reasoning and speech, the limbic system does not connect to language and it thus is not generally engaged in traditional talk therapy. 

EMDR and BSP therapies are known to work by connecting to information stored in the limbic system. They are believed to work directly with this system to process the stored emotional memories and trauma where they originated, through the use of bilateral stimulus and the brainspot. BothEMDR and BSP are believed to work by supporting your brain to connect to the root of issues and process it in a new way, beyond language. By working with connecting to the whole brain, and supporting the natural healing power of your body to take effect, EMDR and BSP can allow for significant breakthroughs in therapy.


#2 EMDR & Brainspotting Heal Traumatic Memories


The brain has trillions of connections, which it uses to scan the entire body down to a cellular level. The scanning process is how the body detects problems in the environment and internally, and then resolves these issues within the body. As we mentioned, when a traumatic event occurs, the brain, using its scanning mechanism, detects the danger in the environment and then stores this information as a threat in the limbic, emotional part of the brain. Then, when a person experiences an event that feels like the original trauma, the brain, via the amygdala, alerts the body of a threat and the body responds with symptoms, such as vigilance, tightness in the chest, difficulty breathing, negative or fearful thoughts, and depressed or anxious feelings. 

Since both EMDR and BSP work with the limbic system, the part of the brain where traumatic memories are stored, these approaches have proven to be highly effective for reprocessing trauma. They work by going to the root of the trauma to process the memory where it originated. Once the memory or disturbing event is properly processed, the brain can then turn off the danger signals, thus relieving any symptoms associated with the original threat. Both EMDR and BSP support healing a range of experiences, from a single traumatic event, like a car accident or natural disaster, to longer-term, more complex traumas. 


#3 Both Support Goal Setting & Increasing Internal Resources


BSP and EMDR are also powerful tools for strengthening inner resources and reaching goals. It’s important to ensure that the nervous system is prepared for emotional processing, especially where trauma is involved. One way the therapist can do this is by leading you in a specific EMDR or BSP process to increase a sense of safety in your body system. This process is called “resourcing.” 

For example, in EMDR the therapist may support you to increase a sense of safety in the nervous system, prior to emotional processing, by visualizing a safe place or nurturing figure while applying bilateral stimulation. Likewise, in BSP, the clinician may guide you to connect to a part of your body that feels calm or free of pain while focusing on the brainspot in order to increase a sense of calm in your nervous system. These are just a few examples of how both therapies use resourcing to support you to have a successful healing experience. 

EMDR and BSP are also effective at helping you to reach goals and prepare for future events, like an interview or competition. Just as in trauma processing, these approaches help you to move beyond the thinking brain to emotionally connect to the feeling of attaining your desired goal. Just like athletes use visualization to reach goals, such as breaking a record, EMDR or BSP can help you embody a sense of attaining a desired goal, and move towards reaching this outcome successfully.


So, Which One Is More Effective?


While there are some differences and similarities between EMDR and BSP, both are highly regarded as effective therapies for processing negative emotions, building inner resources, and reaching goals. Though EMDR was developed prior to BSP, both have been found to have positive results for a range of mental health challenges. Ultimately, with the help of a therapist, you can make the right decision for you about which approach best suits your needs.  

You can read additional information about EMDR here and Brainspotting here to learn more specific details about how they may work for you.

I encourage you to sign up for a discovery session to learn more about how we can work together using these two powerful forms of therapy.