Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (SP)
Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (SP) plays a central role in how I work as a somatic therapist. Based in current understandings of trauma, attachment, and neuroscience, SP is a somatic therapy approach that in my experience, feels nearly magical in how it helps people to heal and change. In another post, I share more about why I love SP.
SP has its roots in the Hakomi method and 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 builds on the premise that our thoughts, emotions and body-based experiences are interconnected and that effective therapy uses all levels of our experience to get to know, work with, and change the beliefs, patterns, and relational templates that we have created over our lives.
In addition to sharing many Hakomi theory and principles, SP has a lot in common with Somatic Experiencing (SE), another somatic approach to healing. Both SP and SE have extensive protocol for processing and healing trauma using a body-centered or “bottom up” approach.
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 clients pay attention to specific aspects of their experience with curiosity and self-compassion. Becoming more aware of habits and responses as they happen increases self-awareness and creates an opening to try something new. Mindfulness supports us in making change in ways that feel safe and doable, and helps us to be more aware of all aspects of experience, including what is happening in the body.
Working with the body in therapy can be very subtle, such as increasing body awareness, paying attention to breathing or connecting to a sense of feeling strong and grounded. It can also be more active. Therapists may help clients practice new ways of moving, such as changing posture or being able to walk away from something. It is about using the wisdom of the body as a compass, and it’s about finding new ways to move through the 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 we 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, we can feel locked into the past even if we 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.
With trauma, SP approaches include creating and developing resources to manage symptoms, regulate the nervous system and establish a foundation for processing traumatic material and helping clients regain access to thwarted or ineffective defensive responses.
SP helps clients resolve traumatic experiences and really know and feel that past experiences are over so that they can feel good about being alive, being who they are, and look forward to the future without the past looming over them.
Working with Attachment and Relational Issues
SP has a robust approach to working somatically with attachment and developmental 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. SP recognizes that these beliefs and patterns are stored in our bodies and our movement, and uses the body as a path to access, explore and help clients make changes in how they relate to ourselves and others.
In SP, therapists help clients to see how these attachment patterns 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 clients’ felt sense and transform connections to self and others.
A Therapy Example – Changing An Attachment Belief
Imagine that as a child, Laura’s family held the value that you should never ask for things for yourself. Laura developed the belief that if she asked for something she was doing the wrong thing. This lead to her having a hard time asking for things later in life, even when it would be reasonable. Her family didn’t mean to limit her in this way; it was just a part of her family culture.
In therapy, Laura might be working on her struggle with asking for a raise or asking for help from her partner with parenting or telling someone what she wants for your birthday. As her therapist, you could certainly help her explore how to have more confidence in order to be more assertive in asking for her wants and nees. But that underlying belief that it’s not okay can keep getting in the way.
It might be more effective for you to work with Laura on how this belief is held in her body, how it affects her emotional experience, and what thoughts arise from it. Then you could begin to work on helping her shift to a new belief that it’s ok to ask for something and help her to embody this change.
You might ask Laura to imagine asking for that raise and help her notice that she feels very small or maybe she pulls back a little bit. You can use that information to help her pay attention to her overall feelings about the idea of asking. You might have her try sitting or moving with a posture that is taller or more open, which might help her discover that she feels more confidence. You might have her try “asking” non-verbally by reaching out a hand and responding positively by reaching back.
Through these explorations it can become easier for Laura to change her limiting beliefs and they way they play out in her actions, so that she knows it is okay to ask for something, and she can do it more easily in her life.
Important Guiding Principles
Underneath all of the theory and techniques in Sensorimotor Psychotherapy lie a foundational set of principles that inform therapeutic work and provide guidance.
- 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 as we work 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.
Watch a video with Pat Ogden, founder of SP, talking about the guiding principles (here).
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 innovative approaches to therapy and provides a framework for exploration of issues using intelligent, respectful, playful, and creative perspectives. Many therapists integrate SP with EMDR, IFS, SE, ACT, and many other experiential therapies.
Learn more about why I love SP (here).
Originally published on my private practice website (Movement Matters Integrative Psychotherapy). Adapted 2023.
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© 2023 Annabelle Coote
This article is intended for informational purposes only. It is not to be considered as legal, ethical, clinical, health or any other business or clinical practice advice related to your work as a therapist.