How sensorimotor psychotherapy can benefit you

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams
Updated January 4, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (SP) is a therapeutic approach that can be used to help those who have experienced trauma. This approach is generally viewed as a form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). It often involves a combination of talk therapy, mindfulness, and somatic exercises to release trauma that may be trapped in the body. You may be able to find a sensorimotor therapist online or in your local area.

What is sensorimotor therapy?
Sensorimotor therapy is often considered a fairly new branch of psychotherapy, but its methodology tends to be a mix of Western-based psychology and principles drawn from Eastern philosophy.
The results of various studies in neuroscience research have also been taken into consideration in the continued development of sensorimotor therapy.

Unlike other modalities of therapy, sensorimotor psychotherapy is a type of body psychotherapy, meaning that it is generally a talk therapy that is concerned with bodily functions and how a person perceives their body on the inside. It is rooted in somatic psychology and usually seeks to assist trauma patients by helping them to pay close attention to how their body, mind, and behavior can be interrelated. Its aim is typically to remove the debilitating effects of traumatic memories by turning them into sources of strength for the patient. Clients may integrate talk therapy and somatic exercises of the desired movement that they could not perform during the traumatic event. They may also be asked to perform exercises that focus on certain breathing patterns. This can help them release the trauma trapped inside their body so they can move forward with life.

To do this, sensorimotor psychotherapy often focuses on the experience of the body as it relates to trauma. It is generally based on the belief that unresolved trauma may be trapped in the body. The role of the therapist in sensorimotor therapy is usually to provide a safe environment for the person to heal through somatic interventions and re-experiencing the physical sensations and unfulfilled responses of traumatic events.

Physical symptoms of trauma

The following may be examples of physical symptoms related to traumatic experiences, some of which may activate the autonomic arousal system:

  • Low energy - You may not feel motivated to do anything.
  • Sleep disturbances - This can be 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.
  • Somatic symptoms, like headaches and muscle pain
  • Freeze, flight, fight – This can be the most common physical symptom of trauma. With “freeze,” it may feel like you can't move, as you may be unsure how to handle a situation. With “flight,” you may want to run away from the situation to reach safety. With “fight,” you may resort to using aggression against the situation you are facing. 

The history of sensorimotor psychotherapy

As the pioneer of sensorimotor psychotherapy (SP), Dr. Pat Ogden noticed the mind-body connection while working as a yoga instructor at a psychiatric hospital in the 1970s. 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 therapy techniques.

Before spearheading the development of SP, Dr. Pat Ogden was a student of Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, an expert in the field of trauma and its effect on the body. She was also a co-founder of the Hakomi Institute, which generally focuses on the Hakomi method of therapy developed by Ron Kurtz. Hakomi, like SP, can be a body-centered approach to psychotherapy.

Dr. Pat Ogden's Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute began offering training in the early 1980s. 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. These books can explain how bodily intelligence may be an untapped resource and can help therapists and clients alike in their journeys toward understanding complex trauma. Each of these books can explain key concepts of sensorimotor therapy and may be great resources if you wish to learn more about this integrative approach.

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

Who can benefit from sensorimotor psychotherapy?

Although sensorimotor therapy 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. Sensorimotor therapy typically seeks to treat the physical symptoms that can be direct manifestations of the traumatic episode.

Clients who aren’t aware of any trauma but have had issues with attachment can also benefit from this treatment. Attachment theory generally says that your interactions and attachment with your caregivers (also known as attachment figures) and any childhood trauma you experienced can affect your relationships in adulthood. An insecure attachment to your caregivers may result in difficulties in attaching to other adults later in life. Trauma and attachment issues are often interlinked, since insecure attachments are often caused by major issues in childhood, such as neglect or abuse*, which can be traumatic. Therefore, clients who believe they have attachment issues may also consider sensorimotor treatment.

In addition to trauma, sensorimotor therapy can be effective in the psychiatric treatment of substance use disorder, different types of abuse, depression, anxiety, anger, and relationship issues, among others.

*If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or Text "START" to 88788. You can also use the online chat.

Getty/Halfpoint Images
Learn to release trauma through sensorimotor therapy

Sensorimotor psychotherapy session basics

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

The client is generally 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 usually for the client to establish a somatic narrative, which may help them be able to discuss the trauma while becoming acutely aware of their bodily responses.

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

The approach to sensorimotor psychotherapy
The entire course of Sensorimotor Therapy can usually be broken down into three phases.

Phase one 

The therapist may first establish the setting as a place of safety, which can leave the client free to focus on their emotions and physical sensations. In the process of stabilization and symptom reduction, the therapist may observe the client to ascertain how their posture and movement show signs of lingering effects of the trauma they endured. The therapist may help the client develop an awareness of these bodily signs and how they can be linked to memories and feelings.

Phase two 

Once the client is ready to speak about the traumatic experience, the therapist can work with them to pinpoint what physical reactions may now be linked to the traumatic memory. This is usually 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 may 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 can finish this action, they may experience a sense of triumph and move past the trauma and on with their lives.

Phase three 

Re-integration may be conducted by reading the client's posture to see what light this may shed 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 may then attempt to help the client overcome these problems.

One of the ultimate goals of sensorimotor psychotherapy can be getting clients to the stage where they are able to apply the healing experience to various areas of their everyday life.

Getty/Luis Alvarez

Finding a therapist to support you

While in-person therapy may be an excellent option for many people, online therapy is often more affordable and available. It can also be more comfortable for some clients who may feel nervous about visiting a mental health professional in person. 

As this study explains, online therapy can be as effective as traditional in-office therapy, and it can be used to treat a variety of mental health conditions, including the effects of trauma.

Takeaway

Sensorimotor psychotherapy is often viewed as a type of complementary and alternative medicine that is frequently employed to help clients who are experiencing physical symptoms due to traumatic experiences. In most cases, a sensorimotor therapist will use a combination of somatic exercises and talk therapy to help clients release trauma that may be trapped in the body. It can be possible to connect with a sensorimotor therapist in person or online.

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