We all experience trauma at some point in our lives. Trauma disrupts the normal functioning of the nervous system and a dysregulated nervous system does not always return to baseline when the traumatic event is over. The trauma is then essentially stored in the body and can be re-experienced, causing a range of somatic symptoms (bodily sensations) Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (SP) developed as an approach to treat these unprocessed traumas and the resulting symptoms.
SP is a body-inclusive approach. It promotes the notion that underneath the conscious verbal story of the trauma lies a somatic narrative full of information that can lead to healing. Sensorimotor psychotherapy harnesses the innate wisdom of the body by exploring and identifying the somatic impact of past traumatic experiences, as well as learning to track bodily and emotional responses when triggered.
There are 6 guiding principles to sensorimotor psychotherapy – organicity, non-violence, unity, mind-body-spirit holism, mindfulness, and relational alchemy.
Organicity refers to the internal wisdom we, as living beings, all have. This core principle of SP means the therapist is not “healing” their client. Instead, the client is encouraged to recognize the capacity they have within them to grow, change, and heal themselves. Nonetheless, SP is a collaborative process - the therapist offers support and guidance to promotes the client’s self-exploration and personal empowerment.
The work done in sensorimotor psychotherapy is not forceful. It is centered in non-violence, which means criticizing or pathologizing are never a part of the process. Symptoms are not viewed as negative, but rather signals of our internal systems. SP encompasses a spirit of non-judgment, compassion, and acceptance as a way to create a safe space conducive to change.
As humans, we are all part of a living organic system of interdependent parts. Unity recognizes that while we are all interconnected beings, we are also composed of different parts – influenced by other individuals, communities, and larger systems. Sensorimotor psychotherapy promotes exploration of the individual self, through improving self-perception, recognition, and self-advocation. Achieving a more unified and holistic sense of self allows for increased personal welfare, healthier relationships, and an overall sense of wellbeing.
SP works with emotions, thoughts, and the body together, based on the premise that they are all connected. Addressing the mind, body, and spirit holistically, rather than in isolation, can shed light on the impact each one of these parts has on the others (i.e. – how thoughts affect emotions, which then affect physical sensations and behavior). Through mind-body-spirit holism, growth and healing are integrated in a more profound and cohesive way.
Mindfulness is at the heart of SP. Mindfulness refers to the practice of turning one’s awareness to the present moment. Mindfulness is used to help a client pay attention to certain aspects of their experience with compassion and curiosity. This promotes a greater sense of awareness of patterns, responses, and habits.
Additionally, SP clinicians use mindfulness to attend to the client’s body language and breathing patterns, as a way to gain insight into how the body responds to specific thoughts, emotions, and memories. SP also uses relational mindfulness to help clients to build mirror neurons and provides a sense of safety as they explore their authentic self.
Sensorimotor psychotherapy recognizes the impact relationships (especially early childhood relationships) have on our beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world in general. Although these beliefs are often developed subconsciously, they influence our behavior and responses. Rather than recognizing this intellectually, SP supports understanding this on a bodily, felt-sense level. Through shifting the felt sense, a client can begin to transform their connections to self and others.
Through sensorimotor psychotherapy, clients can discover and change unhelpful patterns (both physical and emotional) that impede functioning. SP helps clients cultivate their strengths while providing enough challenge to inspire growth and long-lasting change.
*Zen Institute’s clinical director, Pallavi Gupta, MA, LPC, is a certified advanced practitioner of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. She was personally trained by Dr. Pat Ogden, founder of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. Pallavi has been in the mental health field for over 20 years and specializes in treating trauma with a combination of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy and EMDR.
Jenna Jarrold, MS, LAC, NCC