Part One: Sexual Trauma & Sexual Health – Understanding Trigger

This article is part of our focus through July on Sexual Health. Stay tuned for a month-long focus on Trauma Recovery and Resilience in the coming months. Visit the Resource section of our website for more information on Trauma Recovery.

By Dr. Jami Wilder

It is very unlikely that most of us will reach adulthood without some serious scars and wounds along way. In the course of life, many of us will experience such intense physical, emotion and psychological scars and wounds that they can only be described as trauma. In fact, one in three women and one and six men will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetimes.

The experience of sexual trauma has devastatingly profound effects on a person that reverberate through nearly every part of life. For survivors of sexual trauma, one area that can be particularly impacted is the experience of sex. Sex, which can be a fulfilling and connecting part of the human experience, also has the potential to retraumatizing for survivors. It can equally present the potential for healing and connection. When survivors and partners of survivors are able to access information and work toward healing, it is possible for connection, pleasure and satisfaction to be the outcome.

How the Past Impacts the Present

Sexual trauma represents a betrayal at every possible level – emotional, physical, spiritual and psychological. It is almost impossible for survivors to make sense of and understand what has happened because it is such a violation of self, trust and healthy connection. It often shakes our belief in ourselves and others to the core. Survivors must not only deal with the violations; we must also learn how to live in a world that has been robbed of a sense of safety.

Survivors typically enlist a variety of ways to cope with and protect themselves from the immediate violations in addition to the painful aftermath. We learn to dissociate from the experience and pain. Our minds and bodies enter into “fight, flight or freeze” mode to help us survive. We numb to lessen the emotional pain. We engage in other activities like cutting, drinking, restrictive eating, excessive exercise to seek emotional regulation related to the traumas we experience. These things keep us safe from experiencing the full pain of violation.

In terms of sexual health, as sexual trauma survivors engage in and initiate consensual sexual and emotional relationships with partners, or engage in sexual activity alone, those things that once kept us safe may make it a challenge to have a fulfilling sexual life. For many survivors, sexual experiences can be retraumatizing as the past is activated by the present. The term for this is triggering. Traumatic triggering happens when a reminder of the past happens in the present causing us to respond in the way that help us through the past. Triggering can be instantaneous and happen without conscious choice. Our bodies and minds respond in a millisecond to something that feels similar to a once threatening sensation. We are triggered to survive in that moment. We do in the present whatever was most effective in past. We freeze. We fight. We flee.

Let’s look at an example: A person who survived a sexual assault as a child by becoming immobile or freezing grows up. The person begins an adult relationship in which the partner is loving, caring, and respectful of boundaries. However, one night while having sex, the partner grabs the person’s arm – a physical sensation that has been associated with the past trauma. Suddenly, the person is overcome with panic and the urge to freeze and does not respond in any way.

Triggers are very personal and can differ from person to person. They can be a feeling or sensation, a memory, a sight, a sound, a smell, or a taste. Sometimes they are obvious; other times they are not. To learn more about triggers, visit 1in6.org.

Triggering can be terrifying for survivors and for partners. It can lead survivors and partners to each move in ways to avoid and restrict sexual activity. Often, a cycle will develop in which the anxiety of triggering the past leads to avoidance of sexual activity which then increases the fear of future encounters. Partners may engage in sexual activities less and less frequently, developing a pattern that may perpetuate circumstances that lead to more frequent triggering and less and less opportunity for connection.

It is possible to work together as a couple or as an individual to understand and move through triggering experiences to help in healing. Check Life in Balance tomorrow for Part Two: Sexual Trauma and Sexual Health – Dealing with Triggers to Heal.

Jami Wilder, Psy.D. is co-owner of Wilder Therapy and Wellness in Cranston, RI.

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