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What is Sensorimotor Psychotherapy?

Sensorimotor is a gentle, body-centered therapy that can help relieve the devastating effects of trauma, abuse and emotional pain. It's a way of listening to sensations within the body and becoming more aware. It teaches us how to use the body as the door to awareness, so that frozen feelings and buried memories can come to the surface. That heightened awareness allows us to release ourselves from the old patterns that keep us stuck and prevent us from living life fully.

Although traumatic experiences from our past are often trapped so deep within the body that we do not consciously know they are there, they still impact our lives everyday by robbing us of joy and happiness. Sensorimotor is a tool that helps us communicate with ourselves by engaging both the body and the mind. Think of it as a way to open up the gate to painful experiences stuck in the body so that we can release the trauma and melt the numbness away.

As a body-focused therapy that is as gentle as it is powerful, sensorimotor therapy is especially effective for those who have experienced abuse, trauma and emotional pain.

While talk therapy may help us understand some of the emotions surrounding traumatic experiences, it can only take us so far. It is only by re-living the physical sensations of trauma that we can begin to heal ourselves. As one of the founders of body-mind psychology put it: "Your mind may avoid certain emotions and memories, but the body remembers it all."

How Sensorimotor works

Sensorimotor works with the body, mind and emotions, to teach you ways to manage the physical sensations of trauma in a way that is gentle, rather than jarring. To get a better understanding of how sensorimotor therapy works, you need look no further than the way your body reacts when something frightening happens. The innate reaction is to run away as fast as possible. This fright-flight-freeze response takes over as a matter of survival. It works very effectively at times, for example when we're called upon to do whatever we must to survive. The trouble is, these responses to trauma can get stuck in our nervous system resulting in traumatic stress. When this happens feelings such as helplessness, isolation and anxiety can develop.

Sensorimotor therapy uses various therapeutic tools to clear trauma from the past and integrate it into your life.

  1. The first step is to create a safe place for you to become more self aware.

  2. Once that sense of safety is established, you learn how to observe physical sensations, movements and impulses. You also learn to stay in the moment, slow life down a bit and really observe the smallest of sensations. This can mean paying more attention to how you breathe, noticing the gestures you use or the way you sit in a chair. You also may watch for those thoughts and emotions that occur and how your body experiences emotions.

    You may answers questions that help you better understand what your body is saying to you. Where do you feel that fear? In your throat, perhaps, or maybe your gut. Do you run you hands through your hair? Tap your foot? Or breathe harder when certain emotions are relived? All those movements are clues for you to unravel, with the goal of better understanding the body's language. Your observations move you closer to your goal of reintegrating all aspects of the traumatic memory.

  3. Finally, in this last step you learn to recognize the feeling of calmness and experience a sense of completion when the traumatic experience is over. You overcome fears and gain a sense of power over the past. For someone who has been emotionally or physically abused as a child, finally being able to raise an arm in defense is a way of moving on and integrating the helplessness of the past with a new sense of safety.

How Sensorimotor began

This therapy draws on the ancient beliefs of Buddhism and Taoism. For example, it teaches mindfulness, a staple of Buddhism that has long been used to teach us how to calm ourselves and listen to our bodies. While its roots are firmly attached to another time in the world's history, its approach is very much a part of the modern times.

It was developed in the 1970s by Pat Ogden PhD, a therapist and body worker who maintained a private practice in each area without any overlap. Based on her personal work and her observations of clients, Ogden began questioning why the two disciplines could not be blended into a more effective tool for healing. Sensorimotor therapy emerged out of her efforts to blend the two disciplines.

How Sensorimotor can help you

Sensorimotor therapy was developed to treat trauma issues that often leave people feeling helpless in their adult lives. Over the past 30 years, sensorimotor therapy has been used to help many people translate the body's language.

Because it is so gentle, Sensorimotor therapy is especially well-suited for survivors of childhood trauma. But its benefits extend to others, including:

  • Those that have experienced physical, sexual and psychological abuse and neglect.
  • Those with attachment and development issues.
  • Those with addictions.
  • Those who hope to avoid repeating abusive patterns in their relationships.
  • Those with a history of depression.
  • Those who want to become more aware and loving.
  • Those who want to use their bodies as a resource to respond to life authentically rather than hiding or repressing feelings.

Why you need a therapist trained in sensorimotor therapy

Therapists who are trained in sensorimotor therapy have spent 100 or more hours learning effective and accessible interventions to help clients deal with their fragmented sense of self. Therapists learn a variety of skills to guide clients on their journey. These skills that can be integrated into their clinical practice and used with cognitive-behavioral, EMDR and other treatments.

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