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Sensorimotor psychotherapy is a form of treatment developed by psychologist Pat Ogden for patients who are survivors of traumatic events. Neuroimaging studies show that post-traumatic individuals engage in less higher-brain function and more activity in the amygdala, a portion of the brain that functions as the alarm center for the body. These traumatized patients bounce between hyper-aroused states, in which they overreact to minor stress, to hypo-aroused states, in which they are incapable of taking action when they should. Classic examples range from the soldier who dives under the table every time he hears a loud noise to the shell-shocked soldier who cannot protect himself or do anything other than wander around in a daze. Sensorimotor psychotherapy helps patients to rewire the memories of the trauma and the associated physical defense mechanisms, such as diving under the table, so that they are able to respond normally to regular, everyday stimuli.
For example, imagine a middle-aged businesswoman who was repeatedly raped as a child by a close family friend. After an altercation with a male coworker, she may begin to experience panic attacks, insomnia, and poorly controlled rage with elevated blood pressure, uncontrollable shaking, and rapid speech. As a first step in her sensorimotor psychotherapy, the therapist will work to increase the patient’s understanding of how, on a subconscious level, she was engaging in the same physical defense mechanisms that she had used during her rapes, which triggered fleeting memories of the rapes and, in turn, caused her to experience the same level of emotional turmoil. She can then be coached to remember a time when she felt strong, becoming tuned in to how her body feels during that memory. This allows the patient consciously to experience a state of calmness and strength in her body, to which she can return at will.
The second phase in the sensorimotor psychotherapy might be to teach the woman to change actively from a negative to a positive state even when discussing a traumatic event. This requires a patient to tune into her body responses and actively explore how the body response connects to the distant past event. The therapist then may direct the patient to focus narrowly on the body response, devoid of the memories. For example, when the patient states that she feels like she can not breathe, she focuses solely on sitting up straighter and breathing in slow, deep breaths. Through sensorimotor psychotherapy, the woman can learn in the third phase that she can separate the body response from the bad memories, talk about the rapes without actively reliving them, and learn to adjust her body responses so that her reactions remain within a well-defined range.
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