Why You Might Have Intimacy Issues After Trauma
It is a myth that only sexual-abuse survivors suffer from intimacy issues. In fact, sexual-abuse survivors may not exhibit any physical intimacy issues. However, in this case intimacy issues are not uncommon because when we experience a traumatic event of any type, our body goes into physiological “survival mode”—a response that, if not completed and returned to a normal regulation of the nervous system, can lead to emotional and physical intimacy issues. For example, you might be in a loving relationship, but after you experienced a natural disaster such as the recent fires in California and hurricanes in Florida, the loss of a loved one, a car accident, or anything else traumatic, you might start to wonder if you fell out of love because you now feel distant, disconnected, lack sexual desire, or even feel repulsed by touch. The reason why you are feeling this way might not have anything to do with the love toward your significant other but rather with what you went through either recently or a long time ago. Trauma causes the body to go into survival mode (fight, flight, freeze) at the time it occurs and these effects may linger, triggering our physiology to disburse stress hormones such as cortisol that have the side effect of making us feel disconnected and withdrawn, decreasing our heart connection to anyone we love. In addition, our fight, flight, freeze response may activate our body to be in a constant constriction and shut-down mode, not allowing us to relax enough to be intimate.
Fortunately, you can start counteracting those disconnecting stress hormones with the bonding love hormone called oxytocin and practice simple relaxing exercises to feel more connected and to discover loving feelings again. Oxytocin fosters a sense of connection and bonding and can be activated simply by giving and receiving compliments and appreciation. Try to make it a habit to give two or three forms of appreciation a day. This can be new for you or something you already value and practice on a regular basis. Couples who I give this assignment to in my therapy practice often say that looking for something positive to report in the evening made them focus less on the negative and more on the positive. My book Heal the Body, Heal the Mind points out that you can also increase oxytocin by “…simple physical contact—warm eye contact, smiling and laughing with others, and sending loving messages to one another. All of these add ‘love fuel’ to your fire and make your relationships more juicy and loving” (Babbel, 2018, p. 100).
In addition to withdrawal and feeling disconnected, a multitude of other trauma symptoms can interfere in any relationship. After a traumatic event you might feel vulnerable and try to avoid emotional pain, becoming guarded and controlling. Unfortunately, those coping mechanisms can cause depression and anxiety, possibly leading you to drift further and further away from emotional and physical intimacy with your partner because we can’t shut down or avoid one feeling without impacting others. As the authors of Undefended Love explain, in order to feel a deep connection with others it is important to reconnect to our own emotions and sensations. Accessing repressed feelings and being able to manage them allows us to be in touch with our own feelings and can help us to eventually re-open our hearts to our loved ones. Try to take small steps to let yourself feel and then release the difficult and repressed negative emotions—to acknowledge and articulate them to yourself—and when you are ready, share them with a trusted person. For example, you might say to yourself, “I feel lonely, sad, or anxious.” You might share these feelings with a psychotherapist at first, then a trusted loved one. As you practice connecting with hidden emotions, you become better and better at it. In addition, as you sense your emotions, see if you can detect accompanying physical sensations such as your heartbeat, muscular constriction, or any other sensations. If you do not feel comfortable expressing your emotions verbally, you can try to express them with movement, gesture, posture, art, music, or anything else. Notice how your body and emotions can calm down and/or shift when you pay attention to your sensations. It is beneficial to acknowledge emotions and be connected to sensations. Try it out—you might be surprised that with practice you feel more and more connected to yourself and, in return, with others. You can also try relaxation practices such as breathing exercises, meditation (sitting or moving), restorative yoga, or any other relaxation to counteract constriction and your body’s “survival mode” tendencies.
Babbel, S. 2018. Heal the Body. Heal the Mind. A Somatic Approach to Moving Beyond Trauma. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Psaris, J. and M.S. Lyons. 2000. Undefended Love. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
First published on Psychology Today.