What is Sensorimotor Psychotherapy?
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.
The Development of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy
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.
Sensorimotor psychotherapy combines somatic therapies, attachment theory, cognitive applications, neuroscience, and techniques from the Hakomi method. Since its inception, the approach has garnered international acclaim. Dr. Ogden’s 2006 book on her method, Trauma and the Body: A Sensorimotor Approach to Psychotherapy, has also gained international success.
Other major contributors to the development of sensorimotor psychotherapy include Bill Bowen, Kekuni Minton, Christina Dickinson, Janina Fisher, Clare Pain, Ruth Lanius, Allan Shore, Bessel van der Kolk, Onno van der Hart, and Ellert Nijenhuis.
Progression of a Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Session:
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 survival 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 incomplete responses may become stuck in a person’s nervous system, and self system and lead to a variety of symptoms, c conditions, and ways of being.
Sensorimotor psychotherapy is a here and now, state specific psychotherapy that utilizes mindfulness, somatic awareness, and the natural impulses towards healing and survival, to help the individual in therapy renegotiate the traumatic event in a safe environment and sequence any left over arousal that is carried in the nervous system and/or complete truncated survival responses 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.
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.
Who Can Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Benefit?
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:
- Anger and other emotional issues
- Relationship Issues
- Development issues
- Substance Dependency
- Various forms of abuse
Somatic Healing and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy
During sensorimotor psychotherapy sessions, people in treatment are encouraged to become aware of, listen to, and follow their somatic experience, rather than just talk about or feel about what has happened to them. 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. Many come to this type of therapy after finding that traditional talk therapy just doesn't fully help them resolve or relieve what it is that they are struggling with. The somatic experience allows a person in therapy to treat the source of the trauma, which can result in improved cognitive and emotional function.
Limitations of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy
Typically, for sensorimotor psychotherapy to be effective, the person in treatment needs be able to develop awareness of their sensations and lear to track their nervous system response. In order to do this work, mindfulness needs to be available or developed so that their is dual consciousness and an observing self that can stay here, even while remembering and working with, what happened back then. It has also been proven that dual awareness, aka, mindfulness, is actually a required skill that is needed to recover from trauma as it brings the neocortex back online, while simultaneously integrating the limbic and reptilian responses to traumatic and/or wounding events.
- 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