A “trigger” is an experience that causes a strong physiological and/or emotional reaction because it reminds the person experiencing reaction about a traumatic event. Sexual assault, rape and even some medical trauma may cause sex to become a trigger. In addition many different types of trauma could impact the way a person experiences their body and sex. If you have experienced difficulty with sex since a traumatic event, consider the following suggestions.
- Consider other life factors: There many be other reasons you may not want to engage in sex with your partner unrelated to the trauma. Make sure to evaluate whether you have always been bothered by or haven’t enjoyed certain sexual activities. Relationship distress and other life stressors such as an illness, death of a parent or friend, a career change, or a move, can impact sexual desire. Make sure you are not attributing all of your sexual symptoms to the trauma when there could be other factors that are influencing your experience of sex.
- Examine your surroundings: Certain aspects of your environment may be also causing you to feel triggered, or are magnifying the experience of feeling triggered. Everything from the furniture arrangement, time of day, temperature, lighting, etc. could be triggering. Change the setting in order to reduce feeling triggered. Make changes that make create a sense of safety and do not remind you of the trauma.
- Determine what activities are triggering: Is everything sexual trigger or only certain activities? Is every touch triggering, or only certain types of touch? Do you feel triggered as soon as your partner initiates sex or is it only once a particular sexual act is initiated? If you can figure out what specifically is causing you to feel triggered, you can identify which sexual activities may need to be temporarily on hold while you heal from the trauma. You can also give your partner feedback about what specifically is triggering so they know how to not trigger you.
- Go with pleasure: Equally as import as identifying your triggers is identifying what activities you still enjoy and find pleasurable. Find something, even if small (like holding hands, or cuddling with clothes on) that feels safe and enjoyable to do with your partner. Engage in these activities when you desire.
- Make sure you feel in control: Many trauma survivors must feel in control in order to feel safe enough to engage in sex. You may need to change the way you and your partner initiate, the types of activities you engage in during sex, the type of touch, etc. in order to feel safe and in control. Tell your partner the importance of feeling safe and in control and how they can help you to feel this way.
- Learn your early red flags of dissociation: You should never engage in sex during dissociating. However, once you’re dissociating it may be hard if not impossible to make decisions about sex. In addition, you could be reenacting your trauma by having sex while dissociating. Therefore, you need to learn what the early signs of dissociation are for you. Early signs could be feeling “spaced out,” feeling dizzy, feeling numb, being unsure of where you are, nausea, sweating, shaking, etc. Learn your particular signs so that you can prevent yourself from engaging in sex when triggered or dissociated.
- Use grounding techniques: “Grounding techniques” help to manage anxiety and trauma like reactions. In addition, make sure your partner knows what these grounding techniques are so that they can prompt you if your anxiety escalates quickly. Grounding techniques can include affirming statements like “I am safe and I am with my partner,” or “I can stop at any point if I feel overwhelmed.” Another technique would be to tune into all five senses and start describing what you are experiencing (i.e. “I am feeling my partner’s back,” “I smell the flowers on the bedside table”). Focusing on the five senses may help you to stay in the moment and prevent dissociation. You can also use diaphragmic breathing and other mindfulness skills to stay in the present.
Healing from a trauma is a long-term process. It is normal to find that you and your partner may need help managing trauma symptoms that are impacting your sex life. Consider seeking counseling for yourself and/or your partner if the trauma symptoms seem overwhelming and you do not feel as though you are healing from the trauma.