Sensorimotor Psychotherapy™ is a body-centered approach that aims to treat the somatic symptoms of unresolved trauma. While traditional talk therapies utilize the words of a person as the entry point for treatment, this type of therapy depends on the bodily experiences of the individual as a gateway to awareness and improved mental health.
Proponents of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy™ hold that traumatic experiences may become trapped deep within the body, with those who are affected sometimes completely unaware of the existence of unresolved trauma. Traditional talk therapies may fail to unearth these unconscious issues.
Therapists trained in sensorimotor therapy techniques can help an individual begin to heal by helping that person re-experience, in a safe environment, the physical sensations associated with a traumatic event.
Pat Ogden—the major pioneer of sensorimotor psychotherapy—first became fascinated with the relationship between a person's body and mind while serving as a technician and yoga instructor at a psychiatric hospital in the 1970s. She noted that people seeking treatment often seemed to disconnect their mental health issues from their physical sensations and patterns. Dr. Ogden perceived that many people in therapy tended to relive past painful experiences, making these observations even before posttraumatic stress (PTSD) was listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Having analyzed the therapeutic techniques available at the time, Dr. Ogden recognized that many types of treatment only served as triggers that led individuals to re-experience traumatic events.
Having discerned the link between mental health and the body, Dr. Ogden took the first steps toward the development of sensorimotor psychotherapy by combining techniques from psychotherapy and somatic therapy. This decision was influenced by Ogden’s desire to develop a comprehensive approach to remedy the apparent disconnect between mind and body during the healing process.
After collaborating with Ron Kurtz—the original developer of the Hakomi method—for many years, co-founding the Hakomi Institute, Dr. Ogden founded her own training organization in 1981. Today, that organization is known as the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute.
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Other major contributors to the development of sensorimotor psychotherapy include Clare Pain, Janina Fisher, Ruth Lanius, Allan Shore, Bessel van der Kolk, Onno van der Hart, and Ellert Nijenhuis. At present, Dr. Ogden and her colleagues are developing sensorimotor psychotherapeutic techniques to be used by children, teens, families, and couples.
The sensorimotor approach utilizes a person’s physical, mental, and emotional states in order to gently manage and relieve the physical sensations associated with trauma. During traumatic situations, the body may react in specific ways (fight, freeze, or flight) in order to maximize the likelihood of survival. However some of these health-promoting responses may not have been completed or even attempted during a past traumatic event (for example, a victim of domestic abuse may have decided not to fight back). These unfulfilled responses may become stuck in the affected person’s nervous system, possibly leading to physical mannerisms (such slouching, shaking, or nervous tics) or feelings of anxiety, depression, helplessness, and isolation.
Sensorimotor psychotherapy helps the individual in therapy re-experience the traumatic event in a safe environment and carry out any previously unfulfilled actions in order to achieve a feeling of completion and closure. Details of the trauma do not necessarily need to be recalled for the treatment to be effective.
The progression of a therapy session may vary, depending on the needs and trauma-processing capacity of a person seeking treatment as well as the therapist’s skill and level of training. For the most part, there are three major steps toward promoting better health:ther
- Step 1: Establish a place of safety. This is considered to be important as it can allow an affected individual to become better able to focus on movements, impulses, and physical sensations in a setting where it is possible to feel protected. Personal awareness of body positions, gestures, and even breathing patterns is increased. This environment helps to highlight the body’s response to specific memories, thoughts, and emotions.
- Step 2: If the person in therapy is ready to speak about the trauma experienced, the therapist may ask the individual to recall the time period leading up to the incident and to take special note of any emotional changes and bodily responses currently being experienced. For example, if the individual reports anger, the therapist may ask where in the body that anger is felt. “Is it felt between your eyes, in the throat, or in the chest, perhaps? Do you feel your breathing rate increasing?” As understanding of the body’s language increases, the therapist may be able to assist the individual in the process of reintegrating these sensations into a vivid recollection of the traumatic event.
- Step 3: The individual is helped to complete any desired movement or action that may have been truncated in the past. For a person who experienced domestic violence this may involve raising an arm in defense, for a victim of childhood sexual abuse it may involve finally saying the word “NO.” These exercises can help the person in therapy savor a feeling of triumph as it becomes possible to move past these traumatic memories and set aside fears. The individual in therapy will ideally experiences the calmness and lightness associated with overcoming trauma.
Through sensorimotor therapy, people are often able to develop a greater sense of control over their responses to trauma-related triggers, become more aware of the ways that trauma can affect mind and body, learn to differentiate between past and present, and develop the ability to pay attention to personal thoughts and somatic experiences without being overwhelmed by a traumatic event.
Due to its gentle but powerful approach, sensorimotor psychotherapy is often an effective form of treatment for adults who have survived childhood trauma. The therapist will repeatedly ask permission before conducting each experiment or therapeutic technique.
The effectiveness of the approach is supported by neuroscience research. The approach may be beneficial to those who have experienced:
- Substance dependency
- Various forms of abuse
- Anger and other emotional issues
- Relationship issues
- Development issues.
During sensorimotor psychotherapy sessions, people in treatment are encouraged to yield to the somatic experience and allow themselves to be guided along a journey of self-discovery with their own body as the vehicle. By using somatic interventions and strategies, sensorimotor psychotherapy creates a dynamic and effective body therapy that allows people in therapy to draw strength from their own inner resources.
Many people who have experienced difficulty recovering from traumatic situations have found that sensorimotor psychotherapy techniques provide relief. As the emotional and cognitive processing centers are indirectly accessed through this form of therapy, those who did not see improvement after directly accessing these centers (perhaps due to the cognitive and emotional challenges of processing and speaking about severe trauma) may obtain benefit from sensorimotor psychotherapy. The somatic experience allows a person in therapy to treat the source of the trauma, which can result in improved cognitive and emotional function.
Typically, for sensorimotor psychotherapy to be effective, the person in treatment must be able to develop body awareness and mindfulness. As people may often become overwhelmed when re-experiencing past trauma, a therapist generally must proceed cautiously when deciding which methods will be most effective for treatment.
People who have a phobia of body or inner awareness may first need to experience some form of desensitization in order to benefit from this therapeutic approach.
- Elaine, M. (2013). Analysis of the real world application of sensorimotor psychotherapy for the treatment of complex trauma. Master of Social Work Clinical Research Papers. Paper 172. Retrieved from http://sophia.stkate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1173&context=msw_papers
- Felber, M. (n.d.). What is sensorimotor psychotherapy? Retrieved from http://www.marriagecpr.com/sensorimotor-therapy.html
- Fisher, J. (2011). Sensorimotor approaches to trauma treatment. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 17(3), 171-177. Retrieved from http://apt.rcpsych.org/content/17/3/171
- Fisher, J., Ogden, P., & Pain, C. (2006). A sensorimotor approach to the treatment of trauma and dissociation. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 29(1), 263-279. Retrieved from http://70-40-200-36.bluehost.com/documents/P.Ogden_ClinArticle.pdf
- Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute. (n.d.). History of sensorimotor psychotherapy. Retrieved from https://www.sensorimotorpsychotherapy.org/about.html