Sensorimotor Psychotherapy is a body-centered form of psychotherapy that focuses on alleviating the negative impact of trauma and emotional pain. It was developed back in the 1970s by Pat Ogden, PhD. Dr. Ogden is one of the pioneers in the field of somatic psychology, and the founder and Education Director of the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute in Broomfield, Colorado.
Sensorimotor Psychotherapy is particularly effective for individuals living with PTSD, emotional reactivity disorders, or dissociative symptoms and disorders who’ve found little success with more traditional forms of psychotherapy. Although Sensorimotor has a strong talk therapy component, it directly targets the deep, physiological aspect of psychological trauma that is frequently overlooked in psychotherapeutic approaches that focus primarily on cognition and emotion.
This approach to treatment is based on the premise that painful emotions and unresolved trauma are stored – and trapped – deep within our body. In addition to manifesting in emotional and behavioral problems, they also manifest in somatic symptoms as well. Individuals who’ve experienced trauma early in life, as well as those who’ve experienced severe trauma (e.g. rape, combat, or a life-threatening experience) as an adolescent or adult, are particularly vulnerable to both hyperarousal (e.g. heightened anxiety or the “fight-or-flight” response) and hypoarousal (e.g. depression, emotional numbness, lack of energy). Additionally, many people aren’t aware of the connection between bodily sensations (e.g. knots in the stomach, sweaty palms, frequent muscle tension) and unresolved trauma. Much of this lurks at the unconscious level.
Sensorimotor Psychotherapy utilizes a combination of mindfulness techniques that help you listen carefully to your body’s messages and gentle experiments (e.g. moving your body in a different way, breathing more slowly) to help bring these buried, unconscious issues into your conscious awareness. This enables you to explore and resolve them, which facilitates healing at the deepest level.
Sensorimotor Psychotherapy blends elements of ancient Eastern philosophy, attachment theory, neuroscience, cognitive approaches, and elements of Ron Kurtz’ Hakomi Method (another body-centered form of psychotherapy).
Who Can Benefit
Sensorimotor Psychotherapy can benefit a wide range of individuals, including those with:
- A history of sexual, emotional, or physical trauma or neglect
- An addiction to alcohol or drugs
- Difficulties related to attachment issues
- Somatic issues
- Major depression, particularly those with chronic depression, recurrent episodes, or depression that hasn’t responded to other treatments
- A desire to live life more authentically by being more mindful of what their body is telling them
- A desire to enhance their self-awareness
How it Works
Sensorimotor Psychotherapy works by helping you pay attention to what your body’s telling you. With the use of mindfulness and gentle techniques, it enables you to become aware of painful emotions and memories – often associated with past trauma – that have been trapped in your body for some time. Once these have been brought into your conscious awareness, talk therapy methods are used to help you explore and understand them. The process facilitates healing at a deep level, freeing you from the negative impact past trauma has been having on your life.
Sensorimotor Psychotherapy sessions can vary significantly from one person to the next. The therapist will tailor therapy to your specific needs, taking into consideration your ability to process traumatic material as it comes up.
Mindfulness, which has ancient roots in Buddhism, plays a very important role in Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. Your therapist will encourage you to get into a state of mindfulness by instructing you to focus on any physical sensations, changes, or movements you’re experiencing throughout the session. These include things such as a tightening of the muscles (e.g. clenching your jaw), tightness in the chest or throat (e.g. feeling as if you want to say something but the words are stuck), butterflies or tightness in your stomach, changes in your posture, changes in breathing or heartrate, gestures, and eye movements (e.g. looking down or avoiding eye contact at certain moments). All of these things, no matter how slight or subtle, is your body’s way of giving you valuable information – even if you never gave them much thought before. Mindfulness is an enhanced state of self-awareness that involves paying close attention to what you’re feeling, thinking, and doing in the moment.
Three Phases of Therapy
Sensorimotor Psychotherapy is divided into three phases:
- Stabilization, symptom reduction, and developing resources
- Addressing traumatic memories
- Mastering somatic integration
Phase one: Stabilization, symptom reduction, and developing resources – During this first phase of development the therapist will identify and assess your survival resources and creative resources, and also determine if any somatic abilities or resources are missing. The therapist will use interventions to help you develop new resources to stabilize you as you address traumatic memories in phase two. The memories of past trauma are often frequently triggered by other events in your life, eliciting an emotional and / or physiological reaction similar to the one you experienced in the original trauma.
The therapist will help you use your current resources (including those you’ve developed in this initial phase of therapy therapy) to modulate this arousal. Modulation involves mindfully shifting from a negative state to a positive state. For example, this could be done by remembering a time when you felt strong and in control. This will enable you to calm yourself at will, which will help you in phase two of treatment as you focus on processing traumatic memories.
Phase two: Addressing traumatic memories – This phase of treatment focuses on addressing and the traumatic memories that arise as you become more in touch with what you’re experiencing in your body. One of the goals of this phase is to help you reach a point where you can discuss past trauma without the painful emotions and troubling physiological responses. This involves developing a “felt sense” that you’re no longer in danger – that the traumatic event is in the past, not the present.
The therapist will also help you become increasingly in tune with your physiological responses by having you explore what occurs when addressing these memories. You’ll continue to learn how to use your resources to modulate any arousal you experience, such as slowing down your breathing. Your therapist will also help you identify any responses that were truncated or cut short at the time of the trauma, and then complete those responses in a positive, empowering way.
The phase helps clients begin successfully integrating traumatic material. This process helps lower the risk of retraumatization
Phase three: Somatic integration – The third phase of therapy focuses on assessing and addressing any distorted beliefs associated with the trauma that are still holding you back. For example, it’s very common for adults who were abused as children to have the belief that they’re worthless or unlovable. These cognitive distortions will continue to manifest in your body as well as emotional, relational, and / or behavioral problems. This phase of therapy also involves making sure that you are able to successfully separate physiological response from the painful memories, and know how to change those responses in a positive and effective way.
The final goal of this last phase of treatment is to learn to successfully integrate these positive, new healing experiences and beliefs into your current relationships and everyday life. Just as the old traumatic memories and painful emotions had gotten stuck and stored in your body, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy will help you store or “anchor” these healing experiences at a deep, somatic level.
Disorders and Issues that can benefit from Sensorimotor Psychotherapy
Sensorimotor Psychotherapy can be used in the treatment and healing of many different disorders and issues that plague therapy clients. Although it can be used as a stand-alone treatment, it’s often used in combination with other forms of psychotherapy. Therapists who use EMDR (eye movement desensitization reprocessing) to treat PTSD and trauma-related issues can readily integrate Sensorimotor Psychotherapy into their practice to enhance treatment effectiveness. It also works well with both psychodynamic and cognitive behavioral forms of psychotherapy.
Disorders and issues that can benefit from this body-centered treatment approach include, but aren’t limited to:
- PTSD and unresolved trauma
- Depression / mood disorders
- Anxiety disorders
- Substance use disorders (as part of an overall addiction treatment program)
- Relationship problems
- Anger management issues
- Grief and loss
- Self-limiting beliefs
- Dissociative disorders
- Attachment and developmental issues that stem from early childhood
- Other disorders often associated with a history of trauma
- Low energy
- Body image problems
- Sleep disturbances
- Difficulty feeling relaxed
- Problems experiencing pleasure
- Frequent or chronic muscle tension
Benefits of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy
Individuals who work with a skilled therapist often experience a multitude of benefits from this body-centered treatment approach. Sensorimotor Psychotherapy can help you:
- Modulate your emotional and physiological arousal
- Look at things more clearly and objectively
- Be less reactive to stress and challenges
- Be more proactive in all areas of your life
- Have healthier, more satisfying relationship
- Increase your self-awareness
- Be much more mindful
- Have a much greater awareness and understanding of the connection between your body and your mind
- Experience more inner peace
- Let go of old, distorted beliefs
- Handle life’s challenges more effectively
- Feel more centered or grounded
- Alleviate chronic pain and other somatic symptoms
- Be more spontaneous
- Experience more joy
- Make positive, conscious decisions rather than be controlled by your unconscious mind
- Let go of past trauma once and for al
Finding a Qualified Sensorimotor Psychotherapist
If you’re interested in this form of psychotherapy, it’s recommended that you work with a therapist who’s received the 100+ hours of training (in addition to their other professional training and licensure) in this particular treatment. The best place to find a therapist is to use the therapist search function on the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute website.
Residents of the U.S. can search for a therapist by state, followed by level of training. The highest level is that of Certified Advanced Practitioner. Other levels of training include Level I, Level II, and Level III graduates, with Level III graduates having the highest level of training second only to certified practitioners.
Sensorimotor Psychotherapy can be an excellent alternative or addition to more traditional forms of psychotherapy. Many individuals with a history of unresolved trauma have found body-centered therapies like Sensorimotor Psychotherapy to be life-changing.