Before we begin this article, we want to acknowledge that discussions of trauma can bring up a lot of emotions for many people. If you’re affected by anything you read in this article, we encourage you to reach out and chat to a close friend or a medical professional. You can also phone Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Trauma can take many forms, and it can affect us in many ways.
Fortunately, there is a road to healing after trauma—and we truly believe in your capacity to move forward and recover, even if it does take a little work. In this article we’ll take a look at how trauma can affect us, and what we can do to heal from it.
We want to be clear that we won’t discuss specific acts or situations that may cause trauma for people in this article, but if you’d prefer a different read you can head back to our NORMAL blog page.
- Trauma can affect ourselves and our relationships
- Mental health professionals can be a huge help in healing
- Books, podcasts, and small acts of intimacy can be surprisingly effective as well
In the same way that there’s more than one form of trauma, there are multiple ways that trauma can affect us.
In his best-selling book The Body Keeps the Score, psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk discusses trauma and its effects on the mind and body. Experiencing trauma, he argues, can make some people feel as though they’ve lost control over their physical self. He connects trauma to interpersonal and behavioural issues, relationship problems, and even health conditions like cancer, heart disease, and irritable bowel syndrome.
We want to be clear that van der Kolk’s book is a little controversial for its wide definition of trauma, its association of trauma with physical conditions that have many other causes, and its promotion of treatments that are still being studied for their effectiveness. (This article from The Conversation summarises the book well, if you’d like to read about it further.) Not every person with irritable bowel syndrome, for example, has experienced trauma; and if you’re researching treatments and therapies for trauma we would always encourage you towards methods that are scientifically proven to be effective. But the book has been helpful for many people because it makes one thing really clear: trauma can affect us in so many different ways, and every person’s experience with trauma is unique.
Here at NORMAL, we focus a lot on sex and intimacy—so we’re going to list some ways that trauma may affect the intimacy sphere of your world.
People who have experienced trauma might…
- Be less likely to trust intimate partners
- Seek approval from intimate partners in ways that don’t feel healthy for them
- Explore sexual and intimate acts that are risky or out-of-character for them
- Have difficulty experiencing pleasure during sex
- Feel less confident vocalising their needs during sex
Of course, just because a person identifies with one or more of the above points does not mean that there’s something ‘wrong’ with the way they approach intimacy, or with the way they have sex. We also know that not everyone who has experienced trauma is affected by it in these ways. But we know that for some people who have experienced trauma, feeling this way can be uncomfortable and can prevent us from being open and vulnerable with people we trust. So how can we begin moving forward?
Speak to a medical or mental health professional
This is our first suggestion because although we know it can be difficult to find the perfect GP or psychologist, we do believe it is worth it in the long run. A good GP can refer you to a mental health professional they believe is right for you, and they can also diagnose and treat any physical effects of trauma you may be experiencing. A good mental health professional can help you work through feelings you may be experiencing around trauma, and discuss treatments that may be right for you.
Consider coaching or therapy, as a couple or an individual
While professionals like couples’ therapists and sex coaches are a little different to doctors and psychologists, they still provide services that can be really, really beneficial to people who’ve experienced trauma—or people who’d simply like to think a bit differently about relationships and sex! We encourage you to think outside of the box and consider whether couples’ therapy may offer opportunities for you and your partner to strengthen your bond, or whether something like sex coaching may help you approach intimacy from a different angle.
Explore free and low-cost resources
We know that engaging a professional can be expensive, but there are a lot of useful resources you can access for free or at a very low cost. Books like The Body Keeps the Score can likely be found at your local library, podcasts like Terrible, Thanks for Asking and NPR’s Life Kit offer tips on how to confront and move through life’s most difficult moments, and group therapy can often be more affordable than one-on-one sessions. We do want to be clear, though, that exploring trauma solo can be difficult, so it can be worth reaching out to trusted friends or family members for some moral support if a medical professional is not within access.
Focus on intimacy that feels comfortable
Sometimes society focuses so much on penetrative sex as a form of intimacy that we forget there are other ways to be intimate with the people we care about. If sex is off the table for the moment, think about what forms of intimacy may feel good—maybe a good snuggle session is in order? What about a tender massage?
Or if that’s all a bit close for comfort, consider swapping manicures with your partner, holding hands, or even participating in something physical together that doesn’t include touch, like a dance class, yoga session, or a brisk walk. Penetrative sex can be enjoyable, but it’s not something you should feel compelled to rush into, particularly if you’re dealing with trauma and its after-affects. Start with something small, and look for that sense of comfort to let you know you’re on the right path.