Sensorimotor Therapy & Trauma

In the sensorimotor approach, there are distinctive methods of working, one is with trauma and the other with developmental issues.  Developmental - meaning most life issues as many of our experiences start in childhood and take shape throughout the life span.

The practice of sensorimotor psychotherapy blends theory and technique from cognitive and dynamic therapy with straightforward physical interventions, such as helping clients to become aware of the body, track bodily sensations and implement physical actions that promote empowerment and success. Clients are taught to become aware of the relationship between the bodyʼs organisation and their beliefs and emotions.

Beliefs are embedded in the experience of the body in the form of tension, opening, movement, habitual gestures, posture, energy and structural patterns.  The meaning of these physical experiences often remains unconscious until we translate these non-verbal habits into words.  Finding the meaning reveals a belief, positive or negative.  Such interventions help to unify body and mind in the process of therapy.

Why work with the body?

The body for many reasons has traditionally been left out of “the talking cure.”  While change can occur through narrative expression alone the body holds the wisdom of the unconscious offering a real representation of the self. The body has a mind of its own and it remembers everything. If we can stay with the body and listen to the wisdom it has to offer it provides an opportunity for true healing.  What we often describe as body language is the non-verbal trying to communicate something to us, the unconscious trying to get through to the ego-mind.


Symptoms include:
Loss of sense of the future, hopelessness, shame and worthlessness, generalised anxiety and panic attacks, substance abuse, eating disorders, feeling unreal or out of body, self destructive behaviour, loss of sense of who I am, emotional overwhelm, numbing, loss of interest, depression, dissociation, little or no memories.

The effects of trauma contain developmental beliefs about self, relationships, the world etc. However, the pure effects of trauma manifest in symptoms such as racing thoughts, body sensations, intrusive images and physical pain or any of the above. Because the stress response disrupts general information processing survivors live in a somatic world rather than a world of language.

Current research in neuroscience shows that the imprint of trauma lives on in the reptilian brain rather than in the thinking brain. Mindfulness is a key element in the processing of both traumatic and developmental issues. Staying in the present moment and keeping the frontal lobes, the thinking/noticing part of the brain on board prevents traumatisation. As clients become skilful at observing and tracking body sensations, the sensations themselves usually transform into ones that are more tolerable. These experiences like the experience of grief can often find their own expression and resolution.

Techniques for working with trauma are taught within a phase-oriented treatment approach, focusing first on stabilisation and symptom reduction. Practical ways of helping a client stabilise include resourcing and grounding exercises; use of breath; containment; orienting exercises; creating boundaries; the practice of active defence; movement and emotional regulation. If a client wants to work with a trauma memory it is done slowly and gradually starting at the edges of the trauma and working inward toward the core.

Read more about the brain

The Triune Brain

This view comes from a theory of the human brain known as the Triune Brain developed by Paul MacLean, ‘triune’ meaning having three main structures, known as the ‘reptilian brain’, the limbic or mammalian brain, and the neocortex. In evolutionary thinking the brain development of humans happened over time from the bottom up as we evolved from reptiles to mammals to humans:



1. Reptilian Brain

Located at the top of the spinal cord, at the base of the neck underneath the rest of our brain. It is the oldest and most primitive part of our brain controlling basic life functions such as breathing, heartbeat, trauma reaction, basic sexual urge. It is associated with the basic life survival issues of safety, hunger and procreation – the perpetuation of the species.

1. Limbic Brain System

Located in the centre of the brain, it developed in mammals as an emotional response so that the mother was compelled to care for her offspring, to stay with them and protect them.

The mammal offspring generally is much more vulnerable and helpless than that of reptiles, and the human newborn child is the most helpless and vulnerable of all. This is because the human child is essentially born prematurely because of our big head, which houses our highly developed neocortex.

“ one estimation a human fetus would have to undergo a gestation period of 18 to 21 months instead of the usual nine to be born at a neurological and cognitive development stage comparable to that of a chimpanzee newborn.” (Scientific American, August, 2012) The limbic brain system is said to be the “seat of our emotions.” It communicates how we feel, records positively and negatively charged memories and controls how our body reacts to emotional situations. It has extensive pathway connections to the neocortex (higher brain) and often makes value judgments. The limbic system needs to communicate with the neocortex to process emotions, in order to understand them.

1. Neocortex

Located over the limbic system at the top of our brain, it is the latest, largest (two-thirds of total brain mass) and most highly developed part of the brain. It contains the most neuron cells, the building blocks for intelligence and memory, and it is where high order thinking, reasoning, learning and problem solving occur. The neocortex is divided into left and right hemispheres that are connected by nerve bundles. While this is a useful first-base understanding of the brain structure, it does not reflect the unbelievable complexity of the brain.

Starting relationship between a mother and her child. The potential of this information is that already at 12 weeks from conception there is the capacity for the child to absorb emotional experience and information, to be impacted and affected emotionally by his surroundings, primarily by his mother. Her emotional state, changes in feelings, reactions to things happening in her life, her attitude and feelings towards her pregnancy and the developing child, all of these are likely to have their emotional impact on the child. The relationship between the mother and her child starts with conception, and must include her experience and feelings of this moment and everything from this moment on; her feelings about being pregnant, towards her unborn child, her feelings about the child’s father, the quality of their relationship; her ambivalence, fears, hopes and misgivings, all are potentially available as emotional information to the child.

The constructed identity

Trauma survival according to Franz Ruppert’s theories, leaves us psychologically split, with the trauma experience split off and relegated to the unconscious. We still have access to our ‘healthy self’, when we feel safe. When we don’t feel safe, when something happens, however seemingly insignificant, that sends us closer to this split off unconscious trauma, we automatically go into our trauma survival self, instigating all sorts of behaviours to distract and protect ourselves from these uncomfortable emotions.

The constructed identity is what we construct over time to survive the stress of the ongoing atmosphere and culture in which we find ourselves. It is an accumulation of borrowed attitudes from others in our family, the historical trauma survival strategies of our mother and father, and momentary things that we discover ourselves as we go along that allow us to exist more or less safely within this family. These trauma survival strategies are continually refined and modified as we grow and learn, but in the end they become who we think we are.

© 2020 Philomena Hunt Psychotherapy