Trauma and the Mind-body Connection
Updated: Jul 7, 2021
This week QSECC is teaming up with sex and relationships therapist Coty Nolin MFT (she/her) to talk about trauma and the Mind-Body connection. Let's dive in! Content warning: this zine includes discussions of trauma, sexual assault, mental health, and mental health care.
Have you ever felt a disconnect between your mind and body during a sexual
encounter? This can show up in various ways. Maybe you did not feel present in the experience, maybe you noticed you were paying more attention to every move you make or if your partner is satisfied rather than your own sensations. It's possible you felt distracted with all of the other tasks you feel like you need to do, or felt too stressed about work or your to-do list to be there in the moment. When our minds and bodies are present and integrated together, we call it an embodied experience. There are many reasons we may have trouble being embodied in our sexual experiences- things like relational dynamics,
difficulty with body image, gender dysphoria,
general life stressors can all cause challenges.
One reason some people experience difficulty
being present in their bodies is trauma.
How does trauma affect the mind-body connection?
When we experience any form of trauma (systemic, physical, emotional, mental, sexual abuse of any sort) our minds store these sensory/body memories. Then, even when we are not actively experiencing trauma, our nervous system may intake certain stimuli as a perceived threat to our safety. Those perceived threats may be what we call “triggers”. For example, let us say your perceived threat is that you have a thought “What if my partner does not like what I am doing?”, and it triggers a traumatic memory (in your body or mind) where you were unsafe if your partner did not like your actions. What does your body do? Your nervous system tells you “this could be an unsafe situation!” and activates your fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response.
These stress responses are activated to protect you; however, the “threat” of the traumatic experience may not really be there. Trauma also affects your ability to use imagination; it affects our ability to let our minds play, which is an important piece in sexuality.
What is a stress/trauma response and how do I know I am having one?
An integral part of trauma work is identifying your arousal states. Hyper-arousal is when we experience the “fight or flight” mechanism, it may present as anxiety, overactive thoughts (ruminating), panic attacks, quick-paced breath. Hypo-arousal is when you experience a shut-down or “freeze” response. It may present as feeling numb, dis-associated, slowed breathing, or exhaustion. After a trauma, we may feel “stuck” in hyper-arousal or hypo-arousal states. Again, it's likely we are processing an event as though the trauma is happening in real-time, and therefore our bodies tell us that we need to defend and protect ourselves- so these arousal states are activated.
The window of tolerance is when you feel like you can manage your stress levels. This presents as a sense of feeling calm, grounded, or even present. Cultivating your coping toolbox can help you stay in the window of tolerance more often.
How do I establish a sense of safety in my own body surrounding sex?
Trauma doesn't get smaller, the container gets bigger. Your “container” is your skills for understanding triggers, processing trauma (“making sense” of what happened), and integrating coping strategies. (note: for many folks, it is important for this to be explored with a therapist or health professional). Psychoeducation or learning about how trauma affects you is the first step. Finding a health care provider who can help you identify triggers, track hyper-arousal/hypo-arousal states, implement self-regulation and grounding techniques, as well as combat shame may be a good place to start!
Establishing safety in your own body surrounding sexuality can look many different ways. Depending on where you are at in your healing journey, gentle self-touch is one way to get reacquainted to your body. You can use guided self-touch exercises to create body awareness. Mindful masturbation is also a wonderful way to learn more about your body and sexual desires. For many trauma survivors, shame is one of the largest pieces to the puzzle. Processing shame with sexual health professionals can be a powerful experience in your journey. Most importantly, consider your own sexual scripts. Does your definition of sex need to be broadened to be inclusive of new ways to have pleasurable experiences?
How do I establish a sense of safety with partner/s?
Establishing safety with partners starts with cultivating safety in ourselves. Once we have done some self-exploration of our triggers, body awareness, and desires, we can begin to communicate this with partners. This may come in the form of discussions surrounding consent, setting boundaries, and constructing a plan for aftercare. While self-touch exercises are a way to re-connect with your own body, co-regulation is the process of connecting with a partner. Co-regulation happens verbally (expressing empathy) and non-verbally (safe touch). Essentially, co-regulation is your nervous system meeting my nervous system or the interaction between our nervous systems. This is NOT the process of relying on someone else to regulate you, but instead a connection with another.
To learn more about co-regulation, check out this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrzFxgWpfzQ
What types of therapy should I seek out?
Therapy may be a good fit for folks who are looking to process trauma further. A therapist may be able to help guide you through integrating mind and body experiences. Some therapies that are particularly helpful for trauma are EMDR, somatic experiencing, sensori-motor psychotherapy, Internal family systems. A sexual health professional also might be a good fit for folks looking to explore further how their trauma history may impact sexuality.
It might feel like a big step to further explore your trauma history, it can be a vulnerable experience to begin this process. However, for many folks it can ultimately be healing to gain more education on how trauma affects them, and how to gain tools to cope.
What did y'all think about this collaboration? As usual, let us know! We love hearing from you!