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Sensorimotor Expressive Art Therapy and Trauma

The body’s feedback systems guide expressive, action-oriented approaches.

 © 2020 Courtesy of Cathy Malchiodi, Ph.D.
"I Can Feel My Heart Beat" from the visual journals of Cathy Malchiodi, Ph.D.
Source: © 2020 Courtesy of Cathy Malchiodi, Ph.D.

In working with trauma, many of the innovative approaches to treatment now include a focus on the body’s experience of traumatic stress. Somatic Experiencing® (Levine, 2015), Eye Movement Desensitization or EMDR (Shapiro, 2017), Neurofeedback (Fisher, 2014), Sensorimotor Art Therapy (Elbrecht, 2018), and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (Ogden & Fisher, 2015) are a few of these strategies that address trauma in body-resonant ways.

Expressive arts therapy is an integrative form of psychotherapy that capitalizes on combinations of movement, sound, enactment, and image-making, among other means. It emphasizes the body’s experience of trauma and uses action-oriented, mostly non-verbal, sensory-based methods to assist individuals in trauma repair and restoration of the self. In particular, it taps embodied intelligence that helps individuals experience themselves, their relationships, and the environment in novel ways. Traumatized individuals, especially those who have endured chronic or early childhood trauma, find themselves literally cut off from their bodies. At the very least, they are not conscious of how their bodies are communicating or sensing their surroundings. In other words, there is a lack of body-kinesthetic knowledge that impairs the resolution of traumatic stress.

Neurobiology has taught us that we need to “come to our senses” (Malchiodi, 2020) in developing effective components for trauma intervention. Approaches like sensorimotor psychotherapy and similar approaches keep the senses and body awareness central within the healing process with trauma survivors. Expressive arts therapy amplifies psychotherapeutic work with the senses and body awareness by introducing multilevel sensory-based experiences through gestures, sound, image-making, improvisation, musicality, play, and imagination. By using “bottom-up” methods involving kinesthetic, tactile, auditory, and other channels of communication, the concept of sensorimotor expands possibilities for deeper somatosensory expression, including body awareness of distress as well as calm, joy, aliveness, and pleasure.

The following brief film summarizes core principles of sensorimotor expressive arts therapy, including the following: the importance of rhythm, movement, synchrony, and entrainment; sensory integration and interoception, exteroception, and proprioception; and sensory overload as a result of traumatic stress. These principles inform the practice of sensorimotor expressive arts therapy as a form of restoration for individuals who struggle with the body’s responses in the form of hyperactivation (anxiety, over-regulation) and/or hypoactivation (numbing, withdrawal, depression).


Elbrecht, C. (2014). Healing trauma with guided drawing. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Fisher, S. (2014). Neurofeedback in the treatment of developmental trauma. New York: Norton.

Levine, P. (2015). Trauma and memory. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Malchiodi, C. (2020). Trauma and expressive arts therapy: Brain, body, and imagination in the healing process. New York: Guilford Publications.

Ogden, P., & Fisher, J. (2015). Sensorimotor psychotherapy. New York: Norton.

Shapiro, F. (2017). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). New York: Guilford Publications.

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