By now, you have most likely learned about and understand what it means when people use the phrase “fight or flight” to describe how our bodies use animal defenses to keep us safe from danger. Yet people still can’t always quite integrate that information into real behavioral change.
Integrating the “Fight or Flight” Response with Sensorimotor Psychotherapy
A few key elements that occur during a sensorimotor psychotherapy session can help people integrate knowledge of their animal defenses with the experience of knowing in their bodies. These two key elements are: experiencing the noticeable shift out of flight or fight mode and doing this in connection.
Sometimes my clients and I spend the whole session just breathing. Sometimes we spend the whole session focusing on the sensations the client is experiencing in their body as they process cognitive information. We follow the micro-movements of these sensations, letting the body lead rather than the mind. This is always when I see my clients truly slow down enough to listen to their real needs and longings. It’s not in the reflecting on the events of the week or analyzing why they behaved the way they did. It is about dropping down several layers into the depth of their experience and the knowledge of their body.
Addressing Fight or Flight on a Physical Level
It is in this deeper place of experience and knowing in the body that we shift from being in an animal defensive strategy to being in a calm and present state. According to sensorimotor psychotherapy, you cannot think your way out of an animal defense because the part of your brain that controls your animal defenses (the subcortical brain) is not involved in the part of your brain that controls thoughts (the prefrontal cortex). Because of this, you must use the body to move out of these animal defense states. Understanding animal defenses from a cognitive perspective is often not enough to help you out of an animal defense. You must experience the change on a bodily level.
Somatic psychotherapists teach clients a range of body interventions to help them come out of an animal defense, including breathwork, resources in the body, grounding techniques, and exercises for releasing pent up energy.
Understanding animal defenses from a cognitive perspective is often not enough to help you out of an animal defense. You must experience the change on a bodily level.
3 Ways Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Soothes Your Defenses
1. It reminds you to look for safe people.
To truly learn how to get out of an animal defense such as fight or flight, you must experience and practice doing so—better yet, practice with another person. In fact, one of our most effective animal defenses is the social engagement system. The social engagement system, according to Stephen Porges, encourages us to come out of a fight or flight mode just by sensing there are people in our presence we feel safe with.
“When we are frightened, we are dependent on neural circuits that evolved to provide adaptive defensive behaviors before we are aware of what is happening. When, on the other hand, neuroception tells us that an environment is safe and that the people in this environment are trustworthy, our mechanisms of defense are disabled. We can then behave in ways that encourage social engagement and positive attachment.” —Stephen Porges
You likely can relate to the experience of feelings less triggered and likely to react when you are around safe friends and family. And when you can experience the depth of your fear in the presence of a safe person such as a therapist, you can also unlock the shackles of shame. Trauma and shame come hand in hand. The stigma of struggling to control your thoughts, body, and actions can be paralyzing and isolating.
2. It helps address and work through shame.
Brené Brown explains that shame exacerbates the painful experiences we go through by making us believe we are not worthy of love because we are struggling.
“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. Shame keeps worthiness away by convincing us that owning our stories will lead to people thinking less of us. Shame is all about fear. We’re afraid that people won’t like us if they know the truth about who we are, where we come from, what we believe, how much we’re struggling…” —Brené Brown
Working with a therapist and having a witness as they process trauma may help free clients of the extra level of shame that can further inhibit healing.
3. It models healthy support through the therapeutic relationship.
Another reparative aspect of working with a therapist to unpack trauma is knowing that another human believes you can manage your system. Reflecting on this confidence often helps children learn to manage their system during stressful or painful experiences. A parent that models punishment or dysregulation in moments of pain versus a parent that models learning through mistakes and regulation of the system will produce two very different outcomes of regulation in their children.
It is important to experience being vulnerable in your fear. This process helps reinforce that you will be accepted at your messiest, that you can manage your nervous system response, and that someone believes in your power to manage your system. Somatic psychotherapists hold the space for clients to have these reparative experiences in the body and in their relationships.
- Brown, B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden.
- Ogden, P., Minton, K., and Pain, C. (2006). Trauma and the body: A sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
- Porges, S. (2011). The polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, self-regulation. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
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