Sensorimotor Psychotherapy: Background, Benefits, and Effectiveness
THC Editorial Team January 21, 2022
- What Is Sensorimotor Psychotherapy?
- History/Background of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy
- How Does Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Work?
- What Conditions Are Commonly Treated with Sensorimotor Psychotherapy?
- The Potential Benefits of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy
- The Effectiveness of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy
- Summary/Key Takeaways
Sensorimotor psychotherapy is a type of somatic therapy in which practitioners treat clients’ physical symptoms resulting from the trauma they have experienced. This type of psychotherapy views the person’s physical experiences as a way to access unresolved trauma, bring greater self-awareness, and achieve improvements in mental health.
What Is Sensorimotor Psychotherapy?
Sensorimotor psychotherapy is a body-centered therapeutic approach that focuses on identifying and treating the physical symptoms people experience as a result of unresolved trauma. Therapists who practice sensorimotor psychotherapy believe that people who have unresolved traumatic experiences often store them within their bodies, causing somatic symptoms like strained patterns of tension, movement, posture, and breath to develop.1
Some sensorimotor therapists find talk therapy to be limited because language may not allow a person to express the motivations behind certain actions.1 They believe that because human behavior is dictated by the right hemisphere of the brain—which is responsible for implicit emotional and bodily processing—language, stored in the left hemisphere,2 is inadequate in addressing behaviors.1 Sensorimotor psychotherapists treat clients by helping them interpret and attend to their body language.1 This form of therapy can be used to treat children, teens, adults, couples, and families.
History/Background of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy
During the early 1970s, Dr. Pat Ogden worked as a yoga instructor and technician at a psychiatric hospital. She found that clients frequently expressed disconnection from their bodies; they could not link their physical sensations and behaviors to their psychological predicaments. She also noticed that the standard therapeutic approaches used triggered many clients to relive their past traumatic experiences before processing the memories.3
Ogden realized that mental health and bodily experiences were connected. She started developing sensorimotor psychotherapy by combining some somatic therapy and psychotherapy techniques. Together with Ron Kurtz, the founder of Hakomi therapy, Ogden co-founded the Hakomi Institute in 1981. Later that year, she founded the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute, which continues training therapists in this approach today.3
How Does Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Work?
Sensorimotor psychotherapy practitioners address their clients’ emotional, mental, and physical symptoms to help them gain relief from trauma-related physical sensations.1 People have innate fight-or-flight reactions when they face situations that they perceive as dangerous. These biological reactions cause people to flee or fight in the face of danger to maximize their chances of survival. In some cases, however, people instead experience an impulse to freeze.4 Those who freeze in the face of danger often feel shame or guilt. A common example of this occurs in victims of domestic violence who do not flee or fight when facing abuse. People who do not engage in their innate fight-or-flight responses to trauma can then develop physical and psychological symptoms, including tics and shaking.1
During a sensorimotor psychotherapy session, the therapist will help the client work through the traumatic event in a clinical setting. The therapist will encourage the client to allow themself to engage in the natural defensive reaction to the trauma so that they can experience a sense of closure.5 The client does not have to recall the specific details of the traumatic incident to receive benefits.
While the client verbally communicates their experiences and emotions, they subconsciously communicate nonverbal signals in their movements, gestures, and posture. It is the therapist’s role to track these signals in order to adjust the session to stimulate engagement and ensure the client’s safety. This process is known as encoding, or displaying nonverbal signals, and decoding, or interpreting another’s nonverbal signals. Though the client and therapist are communicating on a verbal level, the therapist keeps the language simple, as it is the right-brain nonverbal cues that shape the sessions and the therapist-client relationship, not the left-brain linguistic element.1
Sensorimotor psychotherapy sessions vary widely and are based on the individual needs of the client and their capacity to process trauma. That said, they typically follow a similar, loose pattern.5
First, the therapist helps the client feel comfortable and safe. It is important for the setting to be established as a safe environment so that the client has the security to focus on their physical sensations and impulses. The therapist encourages the client to become more mindful of their gestures, breathing, and body positioning and focus on how their body responds to different emotions, thoughts, and memories.1
When a therapy client’s arousal is dysregulated due to trauma and fear, as it often is at the start of therapy, it can cause their thoughts to circle and their emotions to escalate. In therapy, a client having too much or too little emotion has been indicated to not be as helpful in achieving successful outcomes as having a moderate amount of arousal.6 In therapy, after establishing safety, the therapist helps the client regulate their level of emotional arousal. When the client reaches a moderate level of arousal, the therapist asks them to focus on and describe their physical movements and sensations while setting aside their feelings and thoughts. The therapist must maintain the client’s optimal arousal to delve into the traumatic material to be processed while ensuring that it does not overwhelm them and cause dissociation.5
The therapist may even simulate the physicality of the traumatic event with a similar, safe physical sensation to allow the client to complete the natural defensive reaction they were unable to experience at the time of the trauma. For example, a therapist may consensually hold a pillow against a victim of sexual assault. The client may first experience the sensations of the trauma, like nausea, but eventually find themselves able to act out to defend themselves. Encouraging the client to perform these exercises can help them resolve their traumatic memories and overcome the fear that they cause. Having acted out the physical defense, the client is usually more empathetic toward the version of themselves who suffered the abuse or trauma and can see how their freeze reaction was a type of defense.5
What Conditions Are Commonly Treated with Sensorimotor Psychotherapy?
Sensorimotor psychotherapy can treat several different psychological conditions and is especially effective for treating adults who have experienced early-life trauma. Some conditions that might be treated with sensorimotor psychotherapy include:
The Potential Benefits of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy
There are several potential benefits offered by sensorimotor psychotherapy. Many people report having greater control over their emotional responses to triggers.1 Undergoing this type of therapy might also help increase clients’ self-awareness about how trauma affects their bodies and allow them to pay more attention to the physical sensations and thoughts that arise without feeling overwhelmed by past events.5
Because sensorimotor psychotherapy focuses on the specific issues an individual client experiences, the responses to this approach vary. Some of the potential benefits that people may receive from sensorimotor psychotherapy include:
- reduced severity of PTSD symptoms5
- reduced pain5
- better interpersonal relationships5
- lessened anxiety symptoms1
- fewer intrusive images, sounds, smells, and bodily sensations5
- improved intimacy1
- reduced feelings of helplessness5
- improved ability to regulate emotions5
- greater self-awareness1
- improved ability to set boundaries5
- increased resilience7
The Effectiveness of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy
Sensorimotor psychotherapy has demonstrated effectiveness in treating adults who have experienced childhood trauma. Researchers from a trauma therapy program at the Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, Canada, recruited 10 women who had experienced childhood trauma for a 2012 pilot study. They evaluated the women before, during, and after treatment using various surveys, including the Somatic Dissociation Questionnaire and the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire–Short Form. The women attended 20 weekly group therapy sessions during which they received sensorimotor psychotherapy treatment. The researchers found that the women experienced significant improvements in their bodily awareness and ability to be soothed, in addition to reduced dissociation.8
In 2020, a randomized, controlled study also conducted by researchers from the Women’s College Hospital examined sensorimotor therapy’s efficacy for complex trauma survivors. A total of 32 women who had experienced complex childhood trauma were randomly assigned to either a sensorimotor therapy group or a control group. Those who received 20 sessions of sensorimotor psychotherapy showed improvements in their anxiety symptoms, bodily awareness, and ability to be soothed by themselves and others.9
A 2008 study conducted by a consultant psychiatrist from the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom evaluated the use of body-oriented psychotherapy to treat a variety of mental health issues, including PTSD, anorexia nervosa, and chronic schizophrenia. The study found that this approach may help to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression and improve interpersonal relationships for people with schizophrenia.10
Sensorimotor psychotherapy offers a healthy and helpful way to deal with unresolved trauma and achieve greater self-awareness. However, even though this therapeutic approach has been available since the 1970s, insufficient research has limited its use in mainstream therapeutic practice.9 People who want to undergo sensorimotor psychotherapy should look for therapists who have been trained in this psychotherapeutic model; the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute’s directory is a helpful tool.