Try ‘Brainspotting’ To Stop a Panic Attack in Its Tracks

Photo: Getty Images/Science Photo Library
When a panic attack is happening, all you’re thinking about is likely how exactly to stop it. Breathing exercises and other methods to pull focus away from your panic can help. One such method draws on brainspotting, therapy method that utilizes your eye position and its connection to your brain to regulate emotions and physical responses.

What is brainspotting?

Brainspotting is a technique rooted in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy that psychologist David Grand, PhD, pioneered to treat trauma.

The theory behind brainspotting is that the body experiences trauma and holds onto it. Brainspotting uses the mind-body connection to help regulate the midbrain, also known as the mesencephalon, a small but critical part of the brainstem that plays a key role in sensory processing, motor control, and various functions related to vision, hearing, and alertness. When your body is experiencing a traumatic event, your fight or flight mode gets activated, so a practice like brainspotting can help regulate your nervous system.

"The eyes are the only part of our brain that's seeing the outside world, and there's a lot of connection between what we see with our eyes and what we're feeling in our nervous system."—trauma therapist Lauren Auer, LCPC

The eyes are the window for brainspotting because of the emotion and connection they have to the brain. “EMDR is using that full-brain activation to really 'turn on' parts of the brain that experience the trauma, and brainspotting is more specific because it's really more like pinpointing the areas of the brain where [the trauma is] being stored," says trauma therapist Lauren Auer, LCPC, who is trained in EMDR and certified in brainspotting. "The eyes are the only part of our brain that's seeing the outside world, and there's a lot of connection between what we see with our eyes and what we're feeling in our nervous system."

Compared to other modalities of therapy, brainspotting hasn’t been researched as much, but one study published in 2017 in the Mediterranean Journal of Clinical Psychology found it to be an “effective alternative therapeutic approach” for participants who had experienced trauma and/or PTSD. The other modalities studied, EMDR and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), all showed participants' symptoms coming back after the six month check-in—brainspotting didn't.

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How to use brainspotting to stop a panic attack

Auer recently posted a viral Instagram Reel laying out how brainspotting works:

  1. Focus your gaze on an object in front of you. (This could be a stationary object, or something you hold in your hand like the highlighter Auer holds in the video.)
  2. Shift your gaze beyond that point.
  3. Move your focus back to the object.
  4. Continue to repeat alternating your gaze from near to far.

What you’re essentially doing here is using your eye position to draw your mind away from whatever thoughts are causing you to panic, so you can focus on something else to bring about a feeling and state of calm. “It’s really regulating your nervous system to slow down your heart rate, and what you’re doing is activating your oculocardiac reflex,” Auer says. “This calms down your vagus nerve [which is connected to stress relief] and regulates your breathing.” You don't need to have perfect vision to do this, either; she says what matters here is the position of your eye, not the information you're taking in through sight.

Brainspotting is beneficial for more than stopping panic attacks. You can also use this practice when you’re simply feeling overstimulated or overwhelmed as a way to shift focus. Plus, doing so can help mitigate eye strain caused from staring at a screen all day. Auer says her clients have also used this technique as a general soothing mechanism to prevent panic episodes from happening.

For best results, she recommends practicing brainspotting before you’re in crisis so you can call on it easily when you need it most.

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