A trigger refers to a person, place or situation that causes PTSD symptoms. If you have experienced sexual violence, you may find that sex is a trigger. If sex is a trigger you may find yourself avoiding sex completely, or you may avoid certain sexual acts or aspects of sex. Having sex become a trigger can be extremely upsetting. Identifying your triggers is the first step to healing sexually from your experience. If sex is a trigger, consider the following suggestions to identify these triggers:
- Examine Other Factors: Make sure to consider other factors unrelated to your trauma that could be contributing to your avoidance of sex or certain aspects of sex. For instance if you are having difficulty sleeping, you may find your sexual desire decreased. If you never enjoyed sex with your partner, it will certainly not get better after experiencing sexual trauma. One client realized her partner’s approach to sex and the way he initiated sex no longer worked for her after she experienced a sexual assault. Another client eventually realized a change in medication was greatly impacting her sexual desire. Remember, there may be other valid reasons for you not wanting to engage in sexual activity outside of your trauma.
- Identify Triggers Related to Sexual Intimacy: Sexual intimacy includes how you and your partner relate not only physically, but also emotionally. Therefore, when you are trying to identify what is triggering, make sure to examine the emotional aspects of your relationship too. Make sure to look at bigger relational patterns—for instance like control and safety. Feeling safe and feeling in control is usually very important to survivors of sexual violence. One client found that after experiencing a sexual assault he was no longer comfortable with his partner managing all of the household tasks. He realized it made him feel not helpless and not considered. Both he and his partner were surprised about this revelation, as this set up had always worked for them before. After making adjustments to how they paid bills, running errands, setting dates, etc. the survivor found himself feeling safe in the relationship, and began to feel safe enough to connect with his partner sexually again. Ask yourself the following questions: When do I feel most connected to my partner? When do I feel least connected to my partner?
- Identify Environmental Triggers: Many survivors of sexual violence find themselves triggered by external factors that remind them of the trauma. Go through the five senses and list your triggers (sight, smell, touch, taste, sound). One client found she needed to rearrange the furniture in her bedroom and give it a new coat of paint because it was too similar to the room in which her sexual assault happened. Another survivor realized he was less triggered by engaging in sexual activity during the day or in a well lit room, as his assault had happened in a dark area. Another client found the smell of alcohol repulsing after her sexual assault and that she could not engage in sexual activity if her partner had been drinking.
- Identify Triggers Related to Specific Sexual Activities: Certain sexual activities may feel too triggering until you heal from the trauma. Do not engage in specific sexual activities that you know cause you anxiety, panic, dissociation, anger, feeling shut down, feeling numb, etc. If you continue to engage in these activities you could be retraumatizing yourself. In addition, by engaging in these activities while either in a physically excited state (anxiety, panic, anger) or a dissociated state (numb, out of body like experiencing, dissociating) you are only strengthening the neurological connections between that specific activity and that emotional state—only making this pattern harder to break. Specific sexual activities that are too triggering need to at least temporarily be taken off the table until you have healed from your trauma.
Healing from sexual trauma is a long process that will require patience and understanding from yourself and your partner. Having sex become a trigger can be one of the most upsetting aspects of sexual trauma. Consider seeking therapy for yourself or with your partner to heal from your sexual trauma.