Dissociation and the Body

by Pat Ogden

Sensorimotor Psychotherapy draws on the Structural Dissociation Theory (van der Hart, Nijenhuis & Steele 2006) to understand and treat complex dissociative aspects of Complex Trauma. This theory clarifies that after repeated trauma, one part of the self remains fixated on animal defense systems (cry-for-help, fight, flight, freeze and shutdown/feign death), while another part(s), associated with daily life systems (attachment, exploration, sociability, sexuality, play and so forth) tries to keep the implicit traumatic memories sequestered to carry on with the normal life activities. However, these avoidance strategies are unsuccessful when traumatic reminders trigger animal defensive responses and extremes of arousal. The structural dissociation model helps clients and therapists alike make sense of unintegrated parts of the self that can form because of complex trauma.

As clients learn to mindfully observe and describe the various parts, they develop mindfulness of two or more parts simultaneously—a skill that is particularly important in the treatment of dissociative disorders as it promotes integration.

The expression, “part of the self” is a metaphor used to describe the lack of integration between the systems of daily life and those of defense. As Bromberg (2011) asserts, each part of the self “holds a relatively non-negotiable affective “truth” that is supported by its self-selected array of “evidence” designed to bolster its own insulated version of reality” (p. 15). These “truths” are reflected in the body. SP pays attention to the manifestations of parts of the self that are visible in physical and autonomic patterns.

Clients learn to recognize the physical signs that indicate certain parts are being activated, along with their associated emotions and agenda, and thus increase awareness of the elements of present experience that might precipitate the full emergence of a part. For example, low arousal, a slumped posture, blank expression and loss of muscle tone are often connected with feign death/shutdown response.

High arousal, darting eyes, and tense arms may indicate a “fight part,” while tension or movement in the legs might indicate a “flight part.” A “freeze part” might be reflected in constriction, lifted shoulders, wide eyes combined with stillness. Parts rooted in daily life may demonstrate less tension, more movement, with mid-level arousal.

Therapists observe the physical indictors of various parts of the client, cultivate curiosity about them, and explore the use of movement to regulate dysregulated parts and increase communication among them. As clients learn to mindfully observe and describe the various parts, they develop mindfulness of two or more parts simultaneously—a skill that is particularly important in the treatment of dissociative disorders as it promotes integration.

Therapists convey to clients that each part has a function and the behaviors related to each pertain to implicit memories and attempts to assure survival. With this viewpoint, clients become more accepting and curious of internal parts, regulatory resources needed for each part can be developed, and eventually implicit trauma memories of each part can be processed.

Bromberg, P. M. (2011). The Shadow of the Tsunami and the Growth of the Relational Mind. New York: Routledge.

Van der Hart, O., Nijenhuis, E. R. S., & Steele, K. (2006). The Haunted Self. New York, NY: W. W. Norton

Byron Clinic is presenting Pat Ogden in her forthcoming series of 2-day Australian workshops in November 2019: When Words Are Not Enough: How to Engage the Body to Disrupt Entrenched Patterns.
Find out more…

Pat Ogden in Australia, 2019

Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney:
November 2019

Sensorimotor Psychotherapy: Interventions for Trauma and Attachment

by Pat Ogden PhD

“Sensorimotor Psychotherapy is a landmark book in the history of body psychotherapy and effectively provides the bridge between traditional psychotherapy and body-oriented therapies. In this discipline-changing volume, Pat Ogden brilliantly decodes the crucial role that the body plays in regulating physiological, behavioral, and mental states.”

Stephen Porges

Author of "Polyvagal Theory"

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