journey back to emotional and physical intimacy

The recent #MeToo campaign has brought a conversation to the surface, one of people sharing their experiences of sexual harassment and assault.  This is all part of a larger conversation about what happens to those, regardless of sex or gender, who experience violation of their personal boundaries. By the definition of trauma, we go through a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.

Trauma is an individual experience, yes. It’s an intersection of the situation and experiences of that person. It is impossible to prepare for – and the forms in which it can impact us are unlimited. At Pillow, we’ve come across this question from our conversations with experts in the field of sex, relationships and intimacy time and time again:

How can we help people re-integrate intimacy into their lives after trauma?

We hope that in one small way we are adding to this picture by providing a tool that helps people. Some of the episodes can feel challenging, and that’s because intimacy is a challenge for all of us, it makes us all feel vulnerable. But we have framed episodes to be gentle and slow-  offering both touch based and non-touch based episodes. Some are as simple as gazing into another’s eyes, feeling appreciated or being held in a warm hug.

This is not just about sex. For many it’s about allowing themselves to open up or hold less tightly onto control. Even in the smallest of things, it requires trust. Trust which may not have been kept before and due to those experiences may go against an individual’s natural instinct. Trauma takes away a person’s sense of safety, and that can make navigating the world of intimacy and love overwhelming. This goes against the desire to move forward and onwards, and continues to hold so many who have had traumatic experiences back.

Many people talk about reclaiming after such events and experiences, in the shape of feelings of control, intimacy, sexuality, health. Someone who works with those in search of such healing is Silva Neves, a specialist psychotherapist who works as a Psychosexual & Relationship Therapist. He specializes in working with Trauma Therapy & EMDR. We also look forward to having Silva create an Episode with us in the very near future.

Pillow’s in-house therapist & expert Kate Moyle spoke with Silva to explain a little more of his approach for helping people get back to intimacy.

K: How would you as a therapist working in this field define trauma?

S: In my field trauma is either a single event or a series of events that were disturbing or non-nurturing that has a long lasting psychological impact on the person, causing the loss of functions such as keeping a job, social relationships, sex life or managing emotions, for example. I work mainly with clients who are survivors of sexual traumas. Many people are coerced into having sexual contacts that are unwanted, this is also a sexual trauma, and usually less recognized. Another form often unspoken about is sexual betrayal.

K: What do you feel are the key parts of it, that impact specifically intimacy but also love, sex and relationships?

S: People who suffer any traumas, can develop symptoms of PTS (post-traumatic stress). One of the most common symptoms of post-traumatic stress is flashbacks, which is re-experiencing the traumatic event in a range of sensory forms like images, sounds, scents, pains in the body, as though it was happening now.

Survivors can also experience dissociation: avoiding the reminder of the traumatic event by numbing emotions so that the person feels nothing, sometimes it is so acute that people describe feeling outside of their bodies. Survivors can also avoid going to certain places or doing certain things that remind them of the trauma. In some cases, this can be life-limiting.

These symptoms are usual and normal to experience immediately after a traumatic event. If these symptoms lasts for more than one month after the traumatic event, it is when survivors might consider getting professional help.

Persistent symptoms will have a profound impact in intimacy, love, sex and relationships. Having flashbacks is extremely distressing and takes so much energy that there is usually none left for intimacy or relationships. Triggers to flashbacks or dissociation will often be when people get too physically close to them, even if it’s their loving partner. The triggers can come from a certain sexual position, or parts of the body that are being touched, specific smells or even just noticing their partner wanting to be sexual with them.

It can take a long time for the survivors to feel safe in the presence of another human being that is close. Although consciously they can rationalize and know that their partner is not an abuser and is a loving person, the nervous system takes over, like the fight, flight and most often freeze, when a trigger is being perceived. This makes intimacy, sex and relationships very challenging.

Many are left with negative thoughts about themselves and they will feel inadequate to be intimate with another person or even feel good enough to love somebody else. It makes receiving and expressing love to somebody very difficult.

Survivors may also feel shame of their body, because many may harbor a dysfunctional cognition that it is them looking sexual that caused the perpetrator to abuse them. Having such shame about their body can make sex and relationships difficult.

Intimacy in a relationship is a vulnerable act. Vulnerability is a powerful loving aspect of being human.

For survivors, vulnerability means deep pain and hurt, so it is understandable that they will try to avoid vulnerability and therefore may find difficult to be emotionally and physically close to someone. They may even resort to sabotaging relationships to make sure that people don’t get too close to them. This is when anger can be used in a way to keep people away. It can be misplaced towards the world in general, and often the anger is directed at their partners. 

K: As a therapist, how do you work with such a huge topic on such an individual scale, is the most important thing to understand the individual, their experience and the meaning it has in their life?

S: As a therapist, the most important is to be in collaboration with my clients. They need to consent to treatment at every session, because, of course, consent is crucial for trauma therapy. I always tell my clients that they do not need to trust me, because I know that trust takes a long time to build, but they need to be willing to be in collaboration with me. We can work towards healing traumas without them telling things that they don’t feel comfortable saying. At the same time, I offer them the open space for them to tell me whatever they need and want to tell me about their trauma.

The other most important thing is to help the client reduce their PTS symptoms. It is often a very distressing aspects of trauma and once the symptoms reduce, clients can start to have a better quality of life. Trauma therapy is always focused on how they feel and think about it. How they have perceived the trauma, what it was like for them and what meaning it has for them is very important. I always believe them. One person reacts very differently to a traumatic event to another person. I never make assumptions. I am fully present with them.

K: Would you have any advice for the partners of those who have suffered trauma?

S: Be patient, because healing is long but possible. It is ok to be frustrated and even angry at times because it is difficult to be the partner of a survivor of sexual abuse.

Do not see your partner as a victim, but a courageous human being who is doing their best, even when it feels like they are not.

S: People heal at different paces. Do not assume that it is linear. Your partner may have two or three good days, or weeks, but it doesn’t mean that it will only get better from there. There are a lot of ups and downs. I think it is always a good idea for partners of survivors of sexual abuse to have their own therapeutic support.

K: You are going to be writing an episode with Pillow in the not-so-distant future, how do you think products and apps like this could potentially be helpful for re-introducing or introducing intimacy into a relationship?

The Pillow app is an extremely valuable tool for couples when a partner (or both partners) are survivors of sexual abuse. As long as they make an agreement, give consent to it and work together in collaboration, they can go through the Pillow episodes, slowly, one by one, which can really help with reconnecting both with intimacy and their sexual selves.

So this is it. At Pillow, we are here to support the healing and deeper connection within yourselves and your partner. As long as we remain in solidarity with our amazing experts and our purpose in getting you more intimate with love, change and healing is bound to happen.

We Love You,
Team Pillow

P.S.  Here are some recommended resources from Silva and Kate that would be helpful for anyone recovering from trauma:

Childhood Disrupted by Donna Jackson Nakazawa
Strong at the Broken Places by Linda T. Sandford
Recovery is My Best Revenge by Carolyn Spring
Rescuing The Inner Child by Penny Parks
Recovering from Trauma Using Compassion Focused Therapy by Deborah Lee
The Sexual Healing Hourney by Wendy Maltz

Prefer exercises? If you can’t wait, here is one to get to right away for loving the self. We promise Pillow will have similar in support of Self-Love very soon.
I Heart Me by David R. Hamilton

And if you prefer sitting back and learning via Ted Talks…
Intimacy After Trauma with Kat Smith