Sensorimotor psychotherapy is specifically designed for the treatment of trauma, trauma-related disorders, and difficulties stemming from unhealthy attachment patterns in infancy and early childhood. Tailored to meet the needs of each individual client, sensorimotor psychotherapy varies in the number of sessions someone may attend. The overall goal is to address the body, thoughts, and emotions to promote total healing.
What Is Sensorimotor Psychotherapy?
Sensorimotor psychotherapy (SP) is a holistic approach to healing trauma or unhealthy attachment patterns formed in early childhood. It integrates the body and movement into traditional talk therapy to address and heal ongoing psychological and physical difficulties.1 Considered a “body-centered talking therapy,” it addresses thoughts, feelings, and somatic experiences for a deeper, more complete healing than traditional therapies may provide.2
Because they leave the body out of the practice, traditional forms of mental health therapy can overlook physical or somatic manifestations and other effects of trauma and attachment difficulties.1,4 According to the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute, research indicates that not only do trauma and attachment problems directly and significantly impact the body, their emotional symptoms are often driven by the body, too.5
In SP, the mind, body, and spirit are addressed as a whole rather than separate parts.6 The body is a source of information for clients and a target for interventions.7 Noticing and understanding how the body reacts and contributes to thoughts, emotions, and behaviors helps clients deeply and thoroughly address experiences like intrusive symptoms, numbness, motor inhibitions, avoidance, affect dysregulation, and difficulties with relationships and general daily functioning.1,2
What Is the Goal of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy?
The goals of sensorimotor psychotherapy focus on helping clients develop their own internal resources to process the trauma, transcend the prolonged flight-flight-or-freeze reaction of the autonomic nervous system, recognize and self-regulate emotions, and respond calmly and thoughtfully to their world.1,6
Four goals of SP are to help people do the following:8
- Reclaim a sense of control over their responses to the trauma and traumatic memories
- Understand the impact that their experience(s) have had on both mind and body
- Develop deeper awareness of physical symptoms and sensations and how these relate to the trauma and emotional responses
- Separate the past from the present so mind and body respond appropriately to what’s happening now rather than reacting from traumatic memories
While these are general goals of SP, each client will have their own unique goals. Sensorimotor therapy is a collaborative effort between therapist and client.1 The therapist’s role isn’t to dictate goals or heal the client, nor does a therapist believe that a client is there to be “fixed.”6 Instead, they focus on teaching necessary information and provide gentle guidance and support.
What Can Sensorimotor Therapy Help With?
Sensorimotor therapy helps heal emotions, thoughts, and the physical body. Early childhood maltreatment, including unhealthy attachment and trauma at any age interfere in the proper development and functioning of the nervous system and emotional centers in the brain. Therefore, they often lead to affect dysregulation—difficulty regulating emotions or tolerating negative emotions.2,3
Sensorimotor psychotherapy can help with a range of disorders, including:1,2,4,5,6,7
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Anxiety disorders
- Mood disorders like depression
- Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
- Substance use disorders/addictive behaviors
- Suicidal behaviors
3 Phases of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy
Sensorimotor psychotherapy is a gradual process that occurs across three phases: safety and stabilization, processing, and integration.6 Alternatively, these phases have been labeled stabilization and symptom reduction, working with traumatic memory, and re-integration.6 They aren’t rigid or time-limited; rather, therapists adjust the pace and process to meet the needs of individual clients.1
During all three phases of SP, the therapist is there to guide, support, and teach body-related skills to stabilize the autonomic nervous system and facilitate total healing. While achieving goals may require the client to leave their comfort zone, the counselor always explains the process, secures client permission, and proceeds gently.1,2,6
Here are the three phases of SP:6,9
Phase 1: Safety & Stabilization
The first phase of sensorimotor psychotherapy is about gentle exploration. With the support of the therapist, the client gains awareness of their inner experiences like thoughts, emotions, memories, images, and bodily sensations. The therapist helps them become mindfully aware of how their thoughts and emotions are interconnected with bodily symptoms and movements.
The client also begins to explore what triggers their symptoms and reactions. The therapist helps them examine their unique coping resources and develop their strengths and natural abilities to cope with triggers. The therapist also teaches the client how to respond to triggers physically, such as with specific movements and postures.
Phase 2: Processing
This phase revolves around healing chronic effects of trauma or unhealthy attachment and building confidence and a sense of empowerment. Therapist and client engage in deeper exploration of traumatic memories and their effects on mind, body, and spirit. Further, the client learns to separate past from present so they can be aware of what happened and how it has affected them without letting the effects spill into their present life.
Rather than talking about memories in full detail, the therapist and client explore them in small pieces using words, somatic sensations, and movements. During sessions in this phase, the client learns and practices empowering movements and actions that they were unable to use at the time of the trauma.
Phase 3: Integration
The sessions in the final phase are about helping the client develop a strong sense of self, pursue relationship goals, and foster life satisfaction and a sense of well-being. While building on skills learned during the first two phases, clients explore their limiting beliefs and how they impact thoughts, emotions, body, actions, and relationships.
Clients also learn to express previously uncommunicated emotions and practice movements and actions that increase positive interpersonal connections and healthy boundaries. The emphasis is on boosting positive emotions and participating in pleasant, playful activities to feel joy and contentment.
Components of Sensorimotor Therapy
Sensorimotor therapy addresses the psychological and physical effects of trauma and unhealthy attachment.7 Specific components, while tailored to the unique needs of each individual client, are used during the three phases of SP therapy to facilitate stabilization, processing, integration, and ultimately, deep healing.
In SP, Clients learn to become aware of their awareness; in other words, they learn to notice and observe both mind and body while remaining cognizant that the trauma of childhood attachment difficulties are over.2 They become aware of mental and physical reactions to traumatic memories while remaining present and distant from those memories.
Mindfulness is integral to SP to help clients realize and fully understand the impact their trauma or attachment style has had on their internal and external lives. It’s also key in helping people separate the past from the present.2 Concentrating on the body, both movements and sensations, allows the therapeutic process to happen.5
In addition to becoming aware of how physical symptoms are connected to emotions and thoughts, SP teaches people how to use their body to regulate the autonomic nervous system and emotions.7 People learn how somatic functions like posture, positioning near or away from others, muscle tension, sensations of the heart beating, and breathing affect emotions and vice versa. Finally, they use this knowledge to induce calm and recover from traumatic memories.2
Regulation of Autonomic Arousal
The autonomic nervous system is responsible for the fight-flight-or-freeze reaction and the rest-and-digest response. By integrating mind and body with awareness, mindful observation, and somatic functioning, people can learn to regulate their nervous system and remain calm despite traumatic memories and other intrusive symptoms.2
How Much Does Sensorimotor Therapy Cost?
Sensorimotor therapy does not have a uniform, set rate. Instead, each individual therapist sets their own rate. Typically, fees are determined by a practitioner’s geographic location, level of education, and experience.
In the United States in 2018, the median cost of therapy in general, without accounting for specialties such as SP, was $125 for a 45-minute session and $130 for a 60-minute session.10 Therapists who have received extra training specifically in SP may charge more. Most mental health professionals don’t publish their rates on their website or elsewhere online, but they do discuss their rates when you call their office to inquire.
Many insurance companies are increasingly covering mental health therapy, but what they cover must be evidence-based and approved as a treatment for a specific disorder. As we’ll explore below, SP does not yet have significant credible research studies indicating that it is a valid and reliable form of trauma therapy. Its development, however, was informed by research.
Because of this, sensorimotor therapy falls into a gray area, which means that some insurance companies might cover it and others might not. Check with your provider by calling the number on the back of your card or visiting their website.
How to Find a Sensorimotor Psychotherapist
Sensorimotor psychotherapy for trauma-related disorders is offered in both inpatient (hospital) and outpatient (public or private clinic) settings.2 Consider using an online directory to find a therapist who specializes in SP and practices in your area. You’ll also be able to get to know potential therapists by watching videos.
Who Can Offer Sensorimotor Psychotherapy?
To offer SP, a therapist should first have completed an advanced degree program to possess a master’s or doctorate-level degree in their field and enough supervised hours to be licensed in their state. Then, they must complete SP-specific education and training through the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute.
However, as mentioned above, the SPI doesn’t verify the credentials of people taking their courses. They provide in-depth training across multiple courses, but they don’t certify, license, or award degrees to people who have completed their classes.
Questions to Ask Before Beginning Sensorimotor Psychotherapy
Before beginning therapy, it’s crucial that you feel comfortable with the therapist and their process. Therapists are usually happy to answer questions and provide as much explanation as needed, either over the phone or during an initial consultation. Look for a therapist who is patient and compassionate and with whom you feel comfortable talking.11,12
Here are some questions to ask before beginning sensorimotor psychotherapy:
- How much experience do you have working with people who have experienced trauma? (Mention what you have experienced personally and how long you’ve been dealing with the effects.)
- How will the process work for me?
- Will I be forced to do something I don’t want to do?
- What if I am uncomfortable with any part of the treatment process?
- What types of exercises and techniques do you use?
- How quickly will I begin to feel better?
- Can I expect steady progress, or will I face setbacks?
- If I do have setbacks, how will you help me work through them?
- Will we mostly address what happened in the past, or will we also work on goals for the future?
What to Expect at Your First Appointment
Sensorimotor psychotherapy is a gradual process that moves at the client’s pace. You won’t immediately jump into recalling traumatic details at your first appointment (or at any subsequent appointment, for that matter).1 The first session begins with an emphasis on establishing a sense of safety and building a trusting relationship between you and your therapist.
You may be asked to describe what brought you to therapy and what you hope to gain from the process. Your therapist will likely ask questions and begin to gather information about you so they can shape your specific SP plan, but this will be done gently and respectfully. You’ll learn some specific information about sensorimotor therapy and what you can expect, and you may begin some initial body awareness work.
Is Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Effective?
Sensorimotor psychotherapy is informed by scientific research in the fields of physiology, psychology, sociology, and neuroscience as well as principles from another form of body therapy known as the Hakomi method.6 It draws from established forms of mental health therapy such as psychodynamic psychotherapy, gestalt therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and body psychotherapy.2
Sensorimotor psychotherapy itself is not evidence-based. There are very few studies that have specifically and methodically analyzed its effectiveness. One small study conducted in 2012 involved 10 women who had been abused in childhood. After 20 weeks of group SP, their body awareness did improve; however, the dissociative experiences they had did not change, nor did their ability to receive comfort.13
While sensorimotor therapy isn’t yet evidence-based, it is considered credible among mental health professionals. A 2015 article in BJPsych Bulletin states that SP is “endorsed by leading international experts and is neuroscientifically credible.”14 This unique form of therapy does have anecdotal evidence of its effectiveness, and it has demonstrated positive outcomes over the decades it’s been practiced.6
Risks of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy
In any approach to trauma healing, people may become overwhelmed and experience re-traumatization and flashbacks.2 However, SP therapists are gentle in their approach, monitor and support clients during sessions, and explain everything they do. They will also ask for client permission before using any technique. If the client leaves their comfort zone, it is always under the guidance and care of a trained professional.
History of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy
Sensorimotor psychotherapy was founded by Dr. Pat Ogden. When she was working in a psychiatric hospital in the 1970s, she noticed the extent to which people held traumatic experiences in their bodies and the interconnection between psychological and physical experiences.6,7 Passionate about this intimate physical and mental connection, Dr. Ogden devoted her career to helping people heal through body-centered therapy.
Dr. Ogden was a close colleague of Ron Kurtz from the 1970s until Kurtz’s death in 2011. Kurtz was a pioneer of body-oriented psychotherapy. He incorporated bodywork into psychodynamic therapy, CBT, theories of attachment and dissociation, and neuroscience and created the Hakomi method of body psychology.5 Ogden is not only certified in the Hakomi method but was also the educational director at Kurtz’s Hakomi Institute and designed the curriculum.5
Over time, as she worked with people who survived sexual abuse, Ogden’s focus became specifically centered on trauma. In 1981, she founded her own body therapy institute with Kurtz’s encouragement and support.6 Ogden’s institute was first called Hakomi Bodywork, then transitioned to Hakomi Integrative Somatics, and in 2002 was renamed the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute.6
Final Thoughts on Sensorimotor Psychotherapy
SP can reduce automatic fight-flight-or-freeze reactions and help people become unstuck from the past to live in the present moment with a sense of safety and stability.2 If other traditional forms of talk therapy haven’t worked for you in addressing the physical effects of past trauma, SP may be something to consider.