Sensorimotor psychotherapy (SP) is a key method that we use in our practice. It’s one of the most current and effective approaches in therapy; and, in our experience, it’s nearly magical in how it helps people to heal and change.
SP has its roots in the Hakomi method, another body-centered therapy approach. It was developed by Pat Ogden, who went on to found the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute. With a background in dance and body work, she was fascinated with her observation that movement such as yoga, in combination with therapy helped people heal more than talk therapy alone. SP is a mind-body psychotherapy approach that integrates findings from neuroscience, trauma and attachment theories, and somatic (body-based) psychology.
Using this holistic approach helps you to make changes so that you can think, feel, and move differently through your life.
Mind-Body Integration in Therapy
SP works with thoughts, emotions, and the body together, based on the premise that all of these aspects of experience are interconnected and it is valuable to include them all into the therapy process. By doing so, healing and growth are integrated in a deeper and more cohesive way.
Mindfulness is at the heart of SP. In this method, mindfulness is used to help you pay attention to specific aspects of your experience with curiosity and self-compassion. Becoming more aware of your habits and responses as they happen increases self-awareness and creates an opening for you to try something new. Mindfulness supports you in making change in ways that feel safe and doable.
Working with the body in therapy can be very subtle, such as increasing body awareness, paying attention to your breathing or connecting to a sense of feeling strong and grounded. It can also be more active. You may practice a new way of moving, such as changing posture or being able to walk away from something. It is about using the wisdom of your body as a compass, and it’s about finding new ways to move through your world that feel effective and good.
Working with Trauma
SP is incredibly effective for resolving trauma. Experiences of trauma take place in the body and need to be healed in the body. There are aspects of trauma that you simply cannot reach by talking about experiences, and sometimes talking about the stories of trauma can actually reinforce it.
Trauma experiences become “stuck” or “frozen” in the body. When this is true, you can feel locked into the past even if you don’t consciously realize it. SP works with the body to increase a sense of safety, calm, and empowerment along with the ability to take effective action.
SP helps you to begin to really know and feel that past experiences are over so that you can feel good about being alive, being who you are, and look forward to the future without looking over your shoulder.
Working with Attachment and Relational Issues
SP is also specialized for working with attachment issues. Attachment refers to the ways that our early interactions with others, beginning with our primary caregivers, shape our relational patterns and become the template for how we view ourselves, others, and the world in general. Many of the beliefs and rules we develop are subconscious, but they influence our responses and choices.
In SP, therapists help clients to see how these patterns and beliefs are held in the body and have emotions and thoughts that go along with them. The goal of SP is not to understand this intellectually, but to change your felt sense of it so that you can transform your connections to yourself and others.
A Therapy Example
Imagine that as a child, your family held the value that you should never ask for things for yourself. You probably developed the belief that if you ask for something you’re doing the wrong thing. This will likely lead to having a hard time asking for things later in life, even when it would be reasonable. Your family didn’t mean to limit you in this way; it was just a part of your family culture.
In therapy, you might be working on your struggle with asking for a raise or asking for help from your partner with parenting or telling someone what you want for your birthday. You could certainly explore how to have more confidence in order to do that. But that underlying belief that it’s not okay can keep getting in the way.
It might be more effective for you to work on how this belief is held in your body, how it affects your emotional experience, and what thoughts arise from it and begin to work on shifting to a new belief that changes your experience of asking for something.
If you imagine asking for that raise and you feel very small or maybe you pull back a little bit, we might use that information to help you pay attention to your overall feelings about the idea of asking. We might have you try sitting or moving with a posture that is taller or more open, which might help you discover that you feel more confidence. Then it becomes easier to change that message, so that you know it is okay to ask for something, and you can do it more easily in your life.
Important Guiding Principles
Sensorimotor Psychotherapy values a core set of principles that provide guidance for therapists and a foundation for collaborative and transformative therapy.
- Organicity recognizes that humans operate as organic systems, that an organic system has a wisdom of it’s own and that we all have an innate drive to seek wholeness and wellbeing.
- Unity upholds the premise that we are living organic systems; wholes composed of parts and interconnected – as individuals, as social communities, and in larger systems.
- Mind Body Spirit Holism honors the ways the mind and body together reflect our beliefs about the world, how we organize our experiences, and express ourselves.
- Non-Violence appreciates and honors the function of the signs and signals of our organic systems, does not view symptoms as negative, and promotes the use of safe, non-judgmental and gentle exploration.
- Mindfulness/Presence values cultivating present moment awareness for both therapist and client while nurturing a quality of presence that allows for connection and resonance while working collaboratively with clients.
- Relational Alchemy recognizes that something magical happens when we are connected with others, that authentic relationships create an opportunity for healing, and that navigating the challenges inherent in relationships can be a path for growth.
Sensorimotor Psychotherapy honors all aspects of us including our thoughts, feeling, and body. Working with these interconnected layers creates opportunity for healing and growth that go beyond talking and create the possibility for profound transformation.
SP works well with other integrative approaches to therapy and provides a framework for exploration of issues using intelligent, respectful, playful, and creative perspectives. Therapists who use SP often draw on other methods including Somatic Experiencing, EMDR, Internal Family Systems (IFS), and other body-centered, creative and innovative approaches.