There's a common misconception that sexual trauma is the biggest cause of women shying away from intimacy.
"While sexual trauma can certainly have this result, any traumatic event can cause our bodies to shut down and shy away from intimacy," explained Liz Zylstra, LLMSW, MPA, Psychotherapist, Grand Rapids Therapy Group. "In order to get a better understanding of this, we need to look at how our brain and bodies respond to trauma."
Sensory information is received through the thalamus before being passed to the amygdala, which acts as our "smoke detector" to determine if information is a threat or not. The brain of an individual who has experienced a traumatic event will detect a threat and begin to secrete stress hormones, sending them into a "fight or flight" mode.
Zylstra notes dissociation and flashbacks, causing a person to relive the event as if it's happening in the present, are common.
"Trauma can cause our sensory perceptions to stop working," said Zylstra, "and when we're no longer in touch with our senses, we don't feel fully alive. During this time, trauma survivors have reported a loss of emotions and feelings within their body and feeling as if they're a shell of themselves."
For the trauma survivor, regaining intimacy could be a particularly slow process where safety is key.
"Regaining intimacy starts with understanding your own body," said Zylstra, noting activities like yoga, meditation and massage therapy could be beneficial. "These activities help reduce stress hormones, causing us to feel calm and safe. Trauma treatment involves treating both the mind and the body. And as we regain control of our bodies, we become open to exploring more experiences."
If you're feeling like something is off, it likely is. Indicators that someone may need help with intimacy include a significant reduction in intimate interactions; lack of arousal; fear of being touched; avoidance of certain people, places, or things; flashbacks; feeling numb; dissociating; and dissolving relationships with family and friends.
"Symptoms that are left untreated can result in additional challenges such as depression and anxiety," said Zylstra, adding that identifying with someone who has a similar experience can help those who are feeling alone.
"If you aren't ready to seek professional treatment, my advice would be to join a support group either online or in person and to work on increasing social interaction and engaging in activities with calming aspects."
Partners can be supportive to trauma survivors through patience, encouragement and validation.
"Eye contact, nonsexual physical touch and human connection are extremely impactful for regaining intimacy," said Zylstra.
"Safety and reciprocity are crucial for trauma survivors and having a partner that listens and reflects can help increase these feelings."
If you have reservations about seeking treatment, Zylstra notes that many places, including Grand Rapids Therapy Group, offer free consultations with a mental health professional, in-person or over the phone.
Written by Sarah Suydam, Staff Writer for West Michigan Woman.
This article originally appeared in the Feb/Mar 2020 issue of West Michigan Woman.