Many studies now support the connection between trauma and the later development of sexual or pelvic pain in women. One population-based study of adult women found that sexual, physical and psychological abuse was linked to a four to six-fold increased risk of genital pain in adulthood (Harlow & Stewart, 2005). Another 2011 study found that teen girls suffering from genital pain reported experiencing more sexual abuse, as well as a greater fear of physical abuse, than those who did not report genital pain (Landry & Bergeron). If you are currently experiencing sexual or pelvic pain you may want to consider how a past trauma may be contributing to your pain.
- The body remembers: Our bodies sometimes hold physical memories of past traumatic experiences. Body memories cause a person to experience similar physical symptoms they experienced at the time of a trauma. Sometimes when women are struggling with a sexual or pelvic pain condition, body memories from past traumas get reactivated (even if they were not triggered by the trauma before or had already done therapy around the trauma). These body memory experiences can cause distressing physical symptoms and may also aggravate the underlying medical conditions also contributing to the sexual or pelvic pain.
- Staying in a traumatic state physically: When people have experienced a traumatic event, sometimes their bodies get stuck in the fight or flight mode. Staying in this state can literally change your brain and cause other physical changes that put people at risk for a whole range of chronic health conditions including sexual or pelvic pain. One of the most widely researched changes is the increase in cortisol. Increased cortisol can cause a myriad of issues including a decline in cognitive functioning, impairment of the immune system, increasing blood glucose levels, increasing cholesterol levels, increasing stomach acids, etc. Any significant changes to physical functioning can contribute to underlying health problems and muscle tension, which will contribute to sexual or pelvic pain.
- The role of muscle tension: Stressful events can cause us to hold our bodies differently and tense our muscles. Over time this can cause significant muscle pain and may even require physical therapy to correct. The pelvic floor is a set of muscles that sits in the pelvis and connects to the hips, low back and core. These muscles are like a bowl and women’s urinary, reproductive and some bowl/GI related organs sit in this bowl surrounded by the pelvic floor muscles. And just like our backs or shoulders, these muscles can be in tension or spasm too! Muscle dysfunction, tightness and spasm can cause women to experience sexual and pelvic pain.
In order to effectively treat pelvic or sexual pain, you will need to address both the physical component, as well as the psychological component. Making an appointment with a therapist who treats trauma and understands sexual pain, as well as an appointment with a pelvic floor physical therapist or OB/GYN who specializes in treating sexual or pelvic pain disorders is a good start to treating the mind/body connection in sexual or pelvic pain.