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Trauma’s Impact on Intimacy

Updated: Mar 11, 2023

The recovery from trauma can be a long and gradual one.

It’s extremely common for trauma of any kind, not just sexual, to impact close relationships and intimacy after. I define trauma as any event or events that overwhelm your ability to cope. Trauma can range in intensity and longevity. But, the simplest way to understand it is as prolonged stress that goes beyond your ability at the moment to deal with said stress.

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When we experience trauma, our body goes into a survival state.

If you cannot or are unable to return to a regulated state after the inciting traumatic event or if you experienced trauma that was ongoing or unable to be escaped (like many children growing up in abusive homes or people trapped in relationships as adults), that can lead to emotional and physical intimacy issues. The survival state mentioned above refers to responses such as fight, flight, or freeze. These are all activated by the releasing of cortisol-a stress hormone- in your body as it recognizes a threat.

Cortisol, especially at high levels for a prolonged period of time, can make us feel distant and withdrawn. This can impact our ability to connect with loved ones. Symptoms of stress-induced withdrawal can look like irritability, lack of sexual desire, sensitivity to or fear of physical touch, avoidance, or difficulty expressing their feelings. Especially if the abuse was of a sexual or emotional kind, this can inject panic and defense mechanisms into any situations that feel somatically similar to where and how the originating trauma occurred. Essentially, your body is trying to keep you safe from similar traumatizing events happening to you again.

The problem arises in situations where you’d like to be connected or intimate and you feel as though you cannot after trauma.

The first thing to remind yourself and your loved one of is that your post-traumatic responses usually don’t have anything to do with your love for your significant other. Sometimes our body’s response to our loved ones can alarm us and make us doubt our feelings for the people we’re close to, but the majority of the time, your feelings are centered around what happened to you in the past and not the present. This is important for the loved ones of a traumatized individual to remember as they navigate trying to help them.

A great place to start rebuilding intimacy after trauma is through our words.

Before trying to take larger steps to enact physical intimacy, try to share several encouragements or compliments daily with your loved one. Make it a practice to share daily compliments for each other and bring to remembrance why you enjoy each other. This encourages connection, and the oxytocin hormone, to start flowing- an antidote to the large amounts of cortisol present in a traumatized person. Along the same line, sharing difficult feelings with “I statements” after trauma can help counteract the tendency to avoid sharing after stress. This might feel difficult at first and if you feel you can’t practice with a loved one, it might be time to pursue a therapist to help navigate the residual effects of trauma.

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It can also be helpful to keep the focus on non-sexual touch primarily to again help oxytocin build to combat the stress after trauma.

This can include eye contact, hand holding, sustained hugging, foot rubs, or massages. Start as small as you need and build. Make sure you’ve created a safe and calm environment to initiate any kind of touch post-trauma and that you have a safe word if the traumatized person starts to feel overwhelmed or triggered. Physical closeness to our loved ones is one of the most healing tools for PTSD, but it must be approached with consent and awareness to help rebuild safety. Remember, that for some kinds of trauma, the person is trying to re-establish a sense of safety internally as well as externally. Internal safety feels like presence and comfort within your own skin, trusting the sensations and feelings coming from your body. Many people find practicing some kind of yoga, martial arts, or Tai Chi helpful to reconnect to their physical form and help encourage that mind-body connection that is so pivotal for internal safety.

Other Tips for Coping with Trauma

Finding a group or class where you can practice these postures with others can be a communally healing experience. A simpler place to start reconnecting to your body is by tracking your breathing and heart rate. These are two indicators of your stress and emotional state and they’re always accessible to you. Try to note throughout the day if you’re holding your breath, if your heartbeat feels fast or slow, and try to sit with it for a minute or two, just noticing those body sensations. Notice how your body can calm down when you pay attention to its signals of distress. See if it becomes easier to express your feelings verbally once you have calmed your body down.

If it still feels difficult to share your emotions verbally, express them another way. Use art, movement, music, or whatever resonates with you to bring those heavy feelings up and out. You might notice over time that it becomes easier and easier to connect with your breath and heart, calm your body down, and slowly begin to share with others when you feel more internally safe.

If you feel like you’ve tried some of these methods to no avail or currently feel stuck, it might be time to search for a therapist skilled in trauma work and PTSD recovery.

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Working with a therapist can help give you the space and tools to address the overwhelming post-trauma and reconnect with yourself and others. Along with a skilled therapist, finding a trauma support group or at the very least a friend you feel comfortable sharing with can aid in the isolation that can occur after a traumatic event. With support and time, physical closeness to others will start to feel safe again. Be gentle with yourself and take breaks when you need to as you remember you are recovering from high stress on the body and brain.

Begin Working With a Trauma Therapist in Atlanta, GA

Trauma can have lasting effects, but your relationships don't have to suffer. Our team of caring therapists is equipped to support you and provide the coping skills to improve the strength of your relationships. You can start your therapy journey with Remain Connected Counseling by following these steps:

  1. Reach out to talk to an Atlanta therapist.

  2. Have your first appointment at Remain Connected

  3. Start feeling more balanced on a physical, mental, and emotional level!

Other Services Offered at Remain Connected Counseling

Our team knows you may experience more mental health issues in addition to trauma. This is why we are happy to offer a variety of services. Other services offered include teen therapy, anxiety treatment, and EMDR therapy. We also offer Pastoral counseling, life transitions therapy, depression counseling, and more all under a Christian counseling lens. By using online therapy, these services are available to anyone in Georgia. Learn more about our team of dedicated therapists and contact us for more information.

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