Part Two: Sexual Trauma & Sexual Health – Coping with Triggers

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

Yesterday, we explored the impact of sexual trauma on our sexual health in terms of understanding triggers. As a brief recap, triggers are things in the present that automatically release memories or feelings related to past traumatic events. 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.

Triggers can have a profound impact on sexual experience for survivors of sexual trauma. The experience of a trigger can last momentarily or have results that last days. Despite the impact, triggers can be a gateway to healing past trauma. They alert us to a painful connection that, when we are ready to face, can be attended to and healed. Part of that healing is learning to understand and cope with the triggers.

Ways to cope with triggers during sex:

1. Grounding: In the throws of a triggered experience, it can be difficult to keep from slipping into the past. The sensations and emotions may be intensely rooted and that keeps you from connecting to the present. It also keeps you from connecting to the you who is engaging in a consensual sexual encounter. Grounding techniques can help to reconnect you in the present. Grounding techniques are simple ways to mindfully bring your attention to the present. One way to ground yourself in the present is to purposefully think about and name the things in the room. The goal is to interrupt the triggered experience just briefly to reconnect you to the present.

For more information on grounding techniques in general, check out this site.

2. Awareness: Because triggers are so personal in nature, it is important to learn about your own triggers. Noticing when they happen may be easier said than done in the moment, particularly if you are being triggered during a sexual encounter. Often, we are in a state almost frozen in the past when a trigger occurs making it difficult to connect our thinking selves with our feeling selves. So, awareness may have to begin after the triggered moment passes. When you can, ask yourself what about the encounter felt familiar with past traumatic experiences. Explore multiple components – was it something physical? A sound? A smell? A sexual position? Lack of emotional intimacy or too much intimacy? Feeling vulnerable?

The more you know about what led to the trigger, the more empowered you can be in choosing how to cope.

3. If you have a partner, communicate: Again, this is often easier said than done. For some, communicating about sex or being able to discuss vulnerability, particularly when you are still trying to figure it out yourself, can feel impossible. You may or may not have shared your past with you partner. You may feel like you want to protect your partner from the past by keeping it to yourself. Communicating to the extent that you feel comfortable about being triggered can help to educate your partner about your experience. It can help to let your partner know that you might need to slow things down or stop entirely until the past become less present. Couple therapy may be beneficial for couples who are beginning to work through how to navigate sex after sexual trauma.

4. As much as possible, seek out opportunities to create positive and loving experiences – both sexual and nonsexual following a triggering experience. This is true if you are with a partner or not. Experiences like touching and talking in an intimate environment are helpful if they feel non-threatening. The goal is to pair non-threatening moments to build positive associations.

5. See professional help: Okay, this is one for coping AFTER sex. Please don’t call your therapist during sex. It creates all kinds of weird boundary issues that you will just have to discuss first. 🙂

In all seriousness, the task of healing from past trauma is one of immense courage. It is not one that you have to take on alone. A good clinician who has been trained in treating trauma can be an ally on your healing journey.

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