How Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Can Benefit You

By Nicole Beasley

Updated January 29, 2019

Reviewer Chante’ Gamby, LCSW

If you have experienced trauma, there are different types of therapeutic approaches that may work for you. One of them is Sensorimotor Psychotherapy or SP, a form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Many people who have trauma histories have found that sensorimotor therapeutic techniques help.

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What Is SP?

Sensorimotor Psychotherapy is still a fairly new branch of psychotherapy but its methodology is a mix of Western-based psychology and principles drawn from Eastern philosophy. The results of various studies in neuroscience have also been taken into consideration in the continued development of SP.

SP is a type of body psychotherapy, that is, it is a talk therapy which is concerned with our bodily functions and how a person perceives their body on the inside. It is rooted in somatic psychology and seeks to assist trauma patients by helping them to pay close attention to how their body, mind, and behavior are interrelated. Its aim is to remove the debilitating effects of traumatic memories by turning them into sources of strength for the patient.

To do this, SP focuses on the experience of the body as it relates to trauma. It is based on the belief that unresolved trauma may get trapped in the body. The role of the therapist is to provide a safe environment for the person to heal through re-experiencing the physical sensations of the traumatic event.

Physical Symptoms of Resolved Trauma Which Can Be Treated with SP

  • Low energy - You may not feel motivated to do anything.
  • Sleep disturbances - This is connected to low-energy, as those with a trauma history may find it difficult to sleep.
  • Poor eating habits - Again, this can be connected to low energy, which tends to affect those who don't eat well.
  • Freeze, flight, fight - The most common symptom. With the freeze, it feels like you can't move, as you are unsure how to handle a situation. With flight, you want to run away from the situation and make it safer. With the fight, you resort to using aggression against whatever situation you are facing. Our ancestors relied on these techniques to survive.

History of SP

As the pioneer of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Dr. Pat Ogden began to notice the mind-body connection while working as a yoga instructor at a psychiatric hospital in the 1970's. She noticed that patients did not seem to see a relationship between their mental health issues and physical sensations. Additionally, she saw that some forms of therapy appeared to trigger past events. Seeking a comprehensive approach, she combined psychotherapy and somatic techniques.

Before spearheading the development of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Dr. Ogden was a co-founder of the Hakomi Institute which focuses on the Hakomi method of therapy developed by Ron Kurtz. Hakomi, like SP, is a body-centered approach to psychotherapy.

Dr. Ogden's Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute began offering training in the early 1980's. In 2006, the first book on SP, titled Trauma and the Body: A Sensorimotor Approach to Psychotherapy, was published. A second book, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy: Interventions for Trauma and Attachment became available in 2015.

Dr. Ogden and her colleagues are currently in the process of developing SP techniques which can be used with children and teens, as well as in family and group settings.

Who Can Benefit from Sensorimotor Psychotherapy?

Although SP is essentially a form of talk therapy, there may be times when the words of a purely cognitive and emotional approach prove to be insufficient to help a patient heal from the effects of the trauma they have experienced. SP seeks to treat the bodily symptoms which are direct manifestations of the traumatic episode.

In addition to trauma, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy has been effective in the treatment of substance dependency, different types of abuse, depression, anxiety, anger and relationship issues, among others.

The Basics of an SP Session

Therapy sessions vary and depend on factors such as the client's ability to process traumatic memories and the therapist's training. Initially, the therapist ensures the client is stable and feels safe before addressing the traumatic history.

The client is asked to relate what they recall about the traumatic event and in particular what was happening inside their body at the time - shaking, gasping, chills, etc. In addressing the painful memories in such a detailed way, the goal is for the client to be able to discuss the trauma while becoming acutely aware of the bodily responses.

The client then begins to work towards resolving the trauma, developing a greater sense of control over how they respond to "triggers." At some point, the client is guided in performing the type of response they wanted to make but could not in that traumatic moment.

A Detailed Look at How The SP Approach Is Carried Out

The entire course of SP therapy can be broken down into three phases:

Phase One - The therapist first establishes the setting as a place of safety which leaves the client free to focus on their emotions and physical sensations. In a process of stabilization and symptom reduction, the therapist observes the client so as to ascertain how their posture and movement shows signs of lingering effects of the trauma they endured. The therapist helps the client to develop an awareness of these bodily signs and how they are linked to memories and emotions.

Phase Two - Once the client is ready to speak about the traumatic experience, the therapist works with them to pinpoint what physical reactions are now linked to the traumatic memory. This is done in a specific fashion, such as determining the exact location of anger or fear in the client's body. During this phase the therapist will also try to determine the defensive response the client wanted to perform in reaction to the trauma but was not able to, perhaps due to being frozen with fright. Once the client is able to finally complete this action, they experience a sense of triumph and begin to be able to move past the trauma and move on with their lives.

Phase Three - Re-integration is conducted by again reading the client's posture to see what light this sheds on how they are coping in their daily lives. For instance, issues such as low self-esteem may have resulted from the traumatic experience and these can be detected by observing the client's posture. The therapist then attempts to help the client overcome these problems.

One of the ultimate goals of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy is getting clients to the stage where they are able to apply the healing experience into various areas of their everyday life.

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Does SP Work?

Body-oriented psychotherapies such as Sensorimotor Psychotherapy have been found to be effective with different populations and settings. People who are able to focus on bodily sensations in a mindful way are most likely to benefit from Sensorimotor Psychotherapy.

Finding A Good Therapist

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When it comes to finding a therapist, you will want one who is both qualified and licensed. As with any other service you are looking to make use of, take the time to read through reviews (if these are available) so you can see what other people are saying about their experience.

There are many therapeutic resources that can help you to live the happy, healthy, productive life you were meant to live. Whether you are most comfortable speaking with someone in person or online, there's a therapist solution for you.


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