Sexual trauma is a horrendous experience that may debilitate a person’s sense of safety and trust in themselves, in their body, in their relationships, and their sexuality. Sexual trauma is any event in which a person experiences non-consensual sexual contact or behavior. It’s important to note that experiences of trauma are highly subjective, can feel overwhelming, and what can be traumatic to one person may not feel like a big deal to someone else.
There is a great deal of variability in how we experience different circumstances in life. Sexual trauma may be overt in the form of physical contact or it can be in the form of covert or non-contact sexual trauma such as being exposed unwillingly to the sexual acts of others.
Oftentimes trauma stored in our body isn’t about what happened to us so much as it is about how our nervous systems integrated the experience. This is why rebalancing our nervous system can be the fastest and most efficient way to manage the unwanted triggers and begin recovering from sexually traumatic experiences.
Impacts of Sexual Trauma
Sexual trauma is a violating experience that can have many global impacts on one’s well-being, including reduced capacity for emotion regulation and emotional awareness, dissociation, and create negative impacts on cognitive functioning and mental health, including the way we process information and perceive ourselves. Some of the other symptoms of untreated sexual trauma consist of flashbacks, intrusive memories, decreased or inconsistent memory, and impaired social and relational functioning.
It is also not unusual for survivors to suffer with an internalized sense of shame, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, poor body image, low self-confidence, and a greater risk of impulsivity and substance abuse.
Sexual trauma can also negatively impact one’s sexuality. Our sex lives involve not just our anatomy, but also our psychology and emotions. Having a history of unresolved trauma whether physical, emotional, or sexual can affect how we perceive intimacy, if we can enjoy sex like it’s meant to be, or have a healthy relationship with our sexuality.
Some survivors dissociate from their bodies completely when having sex because during the sexual violation this was a brilliant strategy to reduce the full intensity of the event. When the dissociation from the body becomes chronic, we may develop sexual dysfunction, such as inability to orgasm, difficulty maintaining an erection, excessive vaginal dryness, or pain during sex.
The Mind-Body Connection & Trauma Healing
“Memory lives in the muscle.” – Richard Strozzi Hecker, Ph.D. (Founder of Strozzi Institue)
When a traumatic event occurs and it’s too much for the brain to cope with, parts of the traumatic memory get locked up and don’t process in a cohesive and integrated manner the way other memories do. This is our brain trying to protect us. The result is a lack of resolution and a nervous system that is out of balance.
When a person thinks about the trauma or is triggered they may experience the same sights, sounds, thoughts, and feelings that accompanied the event(s) originally. In other words, it feels as if the trauma is actually happening again in the present moment. And when we are being triggered, our coping skills are reduced to those from a much younger version of ourselves. Hence the very common therapy question “How old did you feel in that moment?”
It is common for those who have a history of unresolved trauma to be in a constant state of hyper-vigilance or to feel like they are in constant danger. This is because the nervous system is constantly looking for danger after experiencing trauma and does not necessarily recognize the difference between real danger and perceived threat.
The slightest trigger can set off the system into survival mode, aka fight, flight, freeze or fawn. At this point we are officially out of our “Window of Tolerance” and are approaching either the state of Hyperarousal or Hypoarousal in your nervous system. These are the two dysregulated states of the autonomic nervous system. Hyperarousal is an extreme state of stress that resources the fight or flight response.
Our brain-body system is running on overdrive and we are actively seeking safety, but this is nearly impossible while in that state. Hypoarousal is the opposite, our brain-body system is running low, and we experience a degree of system shutdown. Energy drains out and the mind collapses inward, this is connected to the freeze and fawn responses.
Here are some examples of each state:
- Fight: Emotional reactivity, intrusive imagery, hypervigilance, impulsivity, obsessive or cyclical thinking
- Flight: Defensiveness, feeling unsafe, reported or observed fidgeting, excessive exercise, anxiety, and shallow breathing
- Freeze: Relative absence of sensation, feeling cold/frozen, restricted breathing, no energy, being passive, numbness of emotions, feeling ashamed, and flat affect
- Fawn: People pleasing behavior, inability to say no, not maintaining healthy boundaries, giving too much of yourself in relationships, and avoiding conflict at all costs
The Healing Process for Sexual Trauma
When it comes to treating trauma there are two approaches:
Top-down processes recruit your brain to guide your body on the path toward healing. An example of that can be meditation where you are training your attention to help regulate your nervous system when you are feeling triggered. Another example can include cognitively-oriented trauma-focused therapies. However, experimental research has demonstrated that the brain’s ability to regulate arousal through cognition becomes compromised, and can even be deactivated, by acute stress. This is why we can’t talk ourselves out of trauma or being triggered.
The second approach to treating trauma is the “healing the body from the bottom-up” which includes more somatically driven and body-based interventions. These evidence based interventions aim to undo trauma’s imprint on the body by directly targeting sensory receptors located throughout. Examples include exercise, breathwork, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), vagus nerve massage, or cold therapy.
These are some strategies that help you ground yourself in the present moment, and build tolerance for discomfort in a safe environment. You are teaching your body that it can handle strong sensations that are associated with emotions and work toward widening your window of tolerance.
Healing from trauma and reclaiming a part of you that has been wounded can be an extremely uncomfortable process, yet it can provide an immense sense of liberation, pleasure, and empowerment. If you’re finding that some days you’re feeling more in survival mode and old ways of being are a little louder in your head, you may revert back into habitual reactions. This doesn’t mean you’re taking a step backward.
This may simply mean that old patterns are coming up and you can act with intention towards your more healed way of being. Ask yourself: “What does my body need right now to feel safe?” And listen to your body’s response. Even though our Nervous System reactions are automatic, there are still ways to manage our trauma conditioned responses and return more quickly to our window of tolerance where feelings are tolerable and we feel open and curious versus judgmental (towards ourself and others).
In this state, we are aware of our own and other people’s boundaries, our reactions are proportionate to the situation, and not from an old wound from sexual trauma. You don’t have to go through this journey by yourself. A therapist specializing in treating trauma can help guide you on the path of healing.