This article talks about some skills and strategies to heal the traumatized part of your brain and move toward the intimacy you deserve. If you missed the last article about the ways that sexual abuse/assault impacts intimacy and sexuality, I’d recommend going back and reading that article before beginning this one.
Every nervous system is a little different. What works for one person may not work for another. There are many options for healing trauma and developing a healthy intimate and sex life, so I encourage you to choose options that resonate best with you.
Shift Ideas about Sex
A good place to start might be with the ideas you and your partner(s) hold about sex. Often survivors of sexual assault hold negative beliefs about sex. These beliefs result from parts of our brains confusing sexual assault (violence) with sex (consent, pleasure, equality). The two are not the same, and we need to rewire our brains to reflect this. I recommend having a look at Wendy Maltz’s comparisons chart here https://healthysex.com/healthy-sexuality/part-one-understanding/comparisons-chart/. This will help explain the difference between ideas about sex that come from experiences of abuse, versus healthy ideas about sex.
You can continue to develop a healthy sexual mindset by avoiding media that portrays sexual assault or sex as abuse or talking about sexual attitudes with friends or with a therapist. You can also educate yourself about sexuality and healing through books and workshops. One book I strongly recommend is Come as You Are by Emily Nagoski.
Communication with Partners
This may be the most important recommendation in this article. You cannot have consensual sex without communicating about it. That’s true for anyone, whether they’re an assault survivor or not. Sex remains a taboo subject in our culture, even though sex is very normal and most people have some form of sex at some point in their lives. When things are taboo and not widely talked about and understood, people develop feelings of shame about the taboo subject. Shame lurks in the darkness. This feeling of shame or embarrassment or even just awkwardness keeps many people from talking about sex with their partners despite engaging in sex.
Consent is dynamic: It can be given and withdrawn at any time
All people, and especially survivors of assault/abuse need to be able to give and withdraw consent AT ANY TIME during a sexual or intimate act. Many survivors will experience flashbacks or triggers at various times through physical or sexual activities. Because they don’t feel safe to tell their partner to stop (often out of fear for making them feel bad), they will instead dissociate and push through the sexual experience. When you do this, you are telling your brain and body that what you feel doesn’t matter and that the other person’s pleasure or comfort is more important.
While it may feel frustrating to have to stop mid-sex or mid-kiss or mid-hug because something has triggered you, listening to your body will actually help the healing process go much faster. Each time you override what your brain and body needs, the trauma gets reinforced and the triggers continue to come back. Slower is faster when healing from trauma. This is something partners need to understand. If a survivor is saying no, it’s because they trust you enough to say no, not because they’re not attracted to you. Every “no” is sexy because it’s getting you closer to an enthusiastic, consensual “yes”
Understand and Communicate your preferences
In addition to understanding and respecting the need to withdraw consent at any time, it’s important to talk about sexual preferences. What feels good, what feels neutral and what doesn’t feel good. Communicate when something felt uncomfortable and explore together to find what does feel comfortable. When sex is approached with curiosity and exploration rather than rigidness and shame, it becomes increasingly safe and pleasurable for both parties.
The need to take a break
Sometimes survivors of sexual abuse and assault may need to take a prolonged break from sexual activity. This can happen when the individual is in a relationship or not. The break allows space to focus on healing and figuring out what feels good and what doesn’t without worrying about the anxiety of managing their partner’s advances. When you are ready to engage in sexual activity again, do so when you want it, not when you believe you “should.” You have a right to be an active participant in your own sex life. Communicate your likes and dislikes and give yourself permission to say no at any time.
How to Manage Triggers and Flashbacks
As mentioned above, some survivors will experience triggers or flashbacks during physical touch or sexual activity. Flashbacks and triggers are often thought of as images of the traumatic experience. But they can also be experienced as unpleasant sensations, or a lack of sensation, an experience of disconnection, or an experience of overwhelm. When this happens it’s important to stop whatever is triggering the flashback, i.e. stopping the sexual activity or the physical touch. When you have a flashback, a part of your brain thinks it is in the past when the trauma happened, You need to remind that part of your brain that you are in the present moment and that the danger has passed. Another word for this is “grounding.”
Grounding Strategies/Orienting back to the present moment
- Name 5 things you can see, 4 you can touch, 3 you can hear, 2 you can smell, 1 you can taste
- Deep breaths
- Breathe in for 4, hold for 7, out for 8 (or any variation of that where you breathe out longer than you breathe in
- Box breaths: in for 4, hold for 4, out for 4, hold for 4 (repeat 4 times)
- Stand up and move your body – get the adrenaline out
- Run on the spot, go for a walk, jumping jacks
- Watch youtube video that makes you laugh (laughter is grounding)
- Play a categories game
- Say the alphabet backwards
- Show these strategies to your partner and do them together
Once you’ve successfully grounded (and give yourself as much time as your nervous system needs for this, remember slower is faster), take some time to rest and find comforts. Your nervous system has just gone through a lot. It can also be good to think about what triggered you and to discuss with you partner how to change that in the future. You may want the help of a counsellor to determine this.
Trauma counselling can really help you to overcome the impacts the trauma has on your life. You may also want to incorporate some couples counselling to help improve communication so that the two of you can work as a team on this.
There are 3 types of trauma counselling that can be beneficial. You may benefit from a mix of all three.
This type of counselling helps you to change the thought patterns and behavioural habits that have formed as a result of the trauma. You will learn to notice the emotions and to change the behaviours and thoughts that tend to come as a result of the emotions. Some examples of this include CBT and DBT.
Emotions and survival responses are physiological. You may notice a tightness in your chest when you feel anxious, a lump in your throat when you feel sad, a pit in your stomach when you feel embarrassed, or any variety of physical manifestations of emotions. When we feel an emotion our bodies are automatically mobilized to do something with it. For example, if you see a grizzly bear, your body might instinctively run or freeze or even try to fight it. You don’t even have to think about it, your brain does it automatically! Your body also knows how to heal from the trauma, but often circumstances prevent us from being able to allow our bodies to do what they need to do. Bottom-up counselling approaches such as EMDR, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, or Somatic Experiencing can help you to process the trauma by mindfully allowing your body and brain to do what it needs to do to heal. This will also greatly improve your relationship to your body
Mindfulness Counselling or Practices
Through mindfulness practices you can train your nervous system (brain and body) to become fully present. You learn to notice when triggers are happening while keeping a foot in the present-moment so that you don’t become overwhelmed. With mindfulness you can learn to allow emotions to come and go naturally without being swept away. If you’d like to start mindfulness on your own I’d recommend starting with short 2 minute practices and slowly working your way up. Examples of mindfulness-based counselling include Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.
I hope these tidbits can help you get started, or to continue on your healing journey. You deserve a healthy intimate life that includes boundaries, consent, pleasure and joy. Slower is faster; trauma takes time to work through, but it is very treatable, and you don’t have to do it alone.
Maltz, Wendy (2021). Healthy Sex: Promoting Healthy, Loving Sex and Intimacy. https://healthysex.com/
Nagoski, Emily (2015). Come as you Are: The Surprising New Science that will Transform your Sex Life. Simon & Schuster Inc: New York.
University of Alberta Sexual Assault Center (2019). Sexual intimacy after sexual assault or sexual abuse. https://www.ualberta.ca/media-library/ualberta/current-students/sexual-assault-centre/pdf-resources-and-handouts/intimacy-after-sexual-assault-2019.pdf