What is Sensorimotor Psychotherapy
Sensorimotor Psychotherapy is an advanced technique for treating trauma and Attachment Injury. It is a body-oriented talk therapy. (‘Body-oriented’ means therapy brings a person’s attention to the body and uses information stored in the body therapeutically). This information includes body sensations and body movement. This does not necessarily mean there is touching involved in the therapy. The current wisdom among leading trauma therapists is body-oriented therapy is efficient and effective. The following article explains why.
Why the body?
Over 150 years ago, Pierre Janet, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud observed that traumatic experiences are not just remembered mentally, but they are stored in a particular way in the body. In recent years modern neuroscience has confirmed what Janet observed and we now recognize that a traumatic experience alters not just thoughts and emotions but our nervous system’s responsiveness. Trauma is this stored response to a past event.
“Trauma affects the entire human organism—body, mind, and brain. In PTSD the body continues to defend against a threat that belongs to the past.— Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score
What’s trauma exactly?
Trauma is the stored body memory of an event that overwhelmed the nervous system. Trauma symptoms then are the whole body’s ongoing response to the trauma event even though the event might have ended years ago.
If a difficult event happens, 80% of the time people simply recover with no ill effects. That’s because people have resources and adaptations to recover. Human beings are pretty resilient! This resilience might take the form of talking the event over with a friend, getting a hug from a loved one, etc.
In a subset of cases however the difficult event overwhelms the nervous system in such a way that those resources and adaptations are insufficient. In this case, the nervous system automatically responds with primitive animal defence responses. These include the urge to fight or flight, or freeze. These animal defence responses are ‘wired in’ to the nervous system of people and animals to protect against death.
Animal protective survival responses may not work in many situation that people face in life, especially early life. The result is a difficult event that the person perceived as life-threatening is held in the body and nervous system as an experience that can’t take its place in the person’s autobiographical memory as ‘just a thing that happened’. Instead it stays in the nervous systems incomplete and ready to be reactivated whenever something remotely similar is experienced. Trauma symptoms are actually this nervous system animal defence ‘trying again’ to protect the person from harm even though the harm might be far in the past.
The emotional brain initiates preprogrammed escape plans, like the fight-or-flight responses. These muscular and physiological reactions are automatic, set in motion without any thought or planning on our part, leaving our conscious, rational capacities to catch up later, often well after the threat is over. — Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score
How does Sensorimotor Psychotherapy treat Trauma and Attachment Injury?
Sensorimotor Psychotherapy is a body-oriented therapy, meaning we understand that the body has a self-healing potential that can be accessed and called upon to accomplish the resolution of the trauma symptoms. It is still talk therapy. It is not generally a hands-on therapy. Sensorimotor coaches the person to turn their attention to the sometimes subtle signals from the body – both subtle movements and sensations that the nervous system re-activates when a person thinks about or talks about the traumatic event. These subtle movements and sensations are the nervous system in the body ‘wanting’ to complete the animal defence response. These subtle movements and sensations are tracked, and then supported, rather than ignored or repressed. Importantly, this is not a process of catharsis. It is not violent. It is a process of gently integrating the observing mind in the present with the nervous system’s impulse to defend and protect from the past. This creates release and calm as the body ‘learns that the trauma or neglect experience is over and in the past. The result is often a resolution of the disturbing symptoms.
Don Russell is one of the only therapists in Manitoba who have completed Level 1 of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy plus SP training in Advanced Trauma and Dissociation. This innovative and cutting edge approach to treating trauma and attachment injury is endorsed by leading trauma therapists around the world.