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  • Stephanie Post

How Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, IFS, and EMDR treat different Types of Stress




Stress is a normal part of life. And a little bit of stress can actually be a good thing. For instance, when we lift weights, we are stressing our muscles, helping them to become bigger and stronger. Similarly, little bits of mental stress can help us become more skilled and resilient.

But too much of any type of stress can wreak havoc on our bodies and overall health. The following are the three main types of stress according to the American Psychological Association:


Acute Stress

Acute stress occurs suddenly and out of the blue, sometimes experienced as brief shock or even trauma. Your boss may throw you a big project to finish under a tight deadline. Or you just barely missed a bad car accident. For a short period of time you will experience an elevated heart rate and blood pressure and perhaps a migraine. Usually, if we can take a moment to ground through the feet and breath, and orient to cues of safety within the present moment environment, our adrenals & nervous system have time to settle, thereby minimizing the issue of prolonged or chronic states of tension.

Episodic Acute Stress

These are like mini-crises that happen to some people on a fairly regular basis. Some people take on too much responsibility or are somehow overburdened in their life, and so they live in a constant state of tension. This can result in insomnia, generalized anxiety, excess guilt, and a minimization of one's need for rest and restoration.


Chronic Stress

Chronic stress is the result of ongoing serious or even minor life problems that wear us down over months and years because they haven't been addressed in a timely way. This type of stress extends deep into our tissues, and has been linked to illnesses impacting immunity, cardiovascular health, fertility, IBS, chronic fatigue syndrome, and more.


Traumatic Stress

Stress that is so intense that it surpasses our ability to cope effectively using our survival defenses of fight, flight, freeze, submit, and attach. When traumatic stress occurs, we jump out of an optimal level arousal, often referred to as our "window of tolerance," where we can think and feel clearly at the same time, and into dysregulated states of hyper-arousal and/or hypo-arousal, where the mind-body connection is compromised. Like chronic stress, if the traumatic event isn't processed effectively or fully, the shock of this even can remain in our bodies and influence our psychological processes in ways that leave us feeling anxious, depressed, globally mistrusting, inhibited, and in other ways.


Somatic therapy, particularly Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, works well these types of stress because it works with how the body is impacted by life stressors and events.


From a Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (SP) approach, the first goal of trauma therapy is to create a sense of stabilization in your nervous system. We use of a variety of somatic resourcing techniques to help you feel safe while calm. (Many folks after trauma are actually unnerved by calm or quiet states because of the anticipation of something bad to come soon after, so the goal is to experience calm in a new way). Some resourcing activities involve experimenting with breathing, movement patterns, playing with images, words, and sounds, that all emerge authentically from your somatic experience. We call this "bottom-up" processing rather than "top-down" (cognitively-derived) because the body gives you the answers to what's needed to bring you back into alignment and within your zone of optimal arousal. A therapist isn't telling you to practice affirmations in the mirror (an example of "top-down" cognitive approach) that might actually feel inauthentic. But when the resource comes from the bottom-up (the body itself), engaging in the resources as homework actually feels good and authentic.


Once enough stabilization and nervous system regulation has been established, the second goal of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (SP) is to gently and slowly work with the traumatic memories themselves, with tiny pieces of memory at a time, rather than the big, whole thing at once. With mindfulness-based interventions like "sequencing,""reinstating active defenses" (ones that were missing or truncated at the time of the traumatic event) and inclusion of somatic resources, tolerable bits of the memory get digested and cleared out of the system. The result is often a sense of calm, empowerment, wholeness, along with new understandings and beliefs about oneself and their relationship to others.


Depending on the level of complexity of the stressor, often it becomes essential to integrate other complimentary modalities, including EMDR and IFS (ego state/parts work). When something traumatic or wounding happens, it can cause us to split our personalities into different parts of self, that each hold their own memory network of beliefs, emotions, bodily patterns, and strategies for protecting the self. Often, different parts of ourselves can feel conflicted about the stressful or traumatic event. With the use of ego-state modalities like IFS that work with parts of self ("parts," for short), we can address the tension that exists between parts and establish the Client as the primary attachment figure who can support and create harmony among all all (the "family within"). This is a lot like learning to reparent ourselves. Once we have permission from all parts within a client's system, we can move forward to systematically desensitizing painful memories that our self-parts hold in our body, using EMDR


While Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (SP) is great for treating trauma that's held in the body, it is also a fantastic intervention for dealing with negative core beliefs about oneself that stem from painful or wounding (not necessarily traumatic) relationships or events. Like IFS, SP also works with parts of the self, and facilitates the identification of unmet needs, and supports the client in learning to repair and provide those missing needs to their younger or child parts that have been holding onto that pain for so long. Parts with unmet needs that had been exiled or repressed finally receive redemption and can let go of their compensating survival strategies (e.g., the child who had to work extra hard in order to get attention and feel loved can now relax as the message and experience "I am loved for who I am" has been provided). The result is a greater sense of relief, calm, wholeness, unburdened, and self-unity.

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