In walks in Veronica, a 24 year old sexual abuse survivor. Veronica had a long history of sexual abuse growing up by various family members, including her uncle and an older male cousin. Veronica had avoided sex as an adult but has recently engaged in sex and sexual activity with her boyfriend of 8 months. This is what brought Veronica into my office. Many survivors may react strangely to the possibility of sex. They might feel like they are being pulled in two different directions- wanting and not wanting sex. This ambivalence is what Veronica was also experiencing. She realized that she had a problem when she started to give her boyfriend mixed messages about intimacy and sex. She would describe situations in which she would put on lingerie, but as soon as her boyfriend came too close, she would pull away. Her reactions were confusing for the both of them. Veronica’s automatic reactions after these situations were to bury her anxiety, fear, and shame. This reaction to hide from her feelings had protected her in the past from dealing with the emotional pain of the abuse- but it was no longer working for her in her current life; in fact, it was perpetuating her pain from the past.
A big part of Veronica’s healing process was helping her identify what triggers her automatic reactions. I let Veronica know that it is possible for her to learn about her automatic reactions and to start gaining control of how they impact her.
When a survivor starts to identify what their triggers are, the triggers start to lose their secrecy and their power. For Veronica, practicing being aware and in the present moment was a very big step towards her healing process. She learned to connect to her body and become aware of body sensations. She learned to acknowledge her reactions even when she was unsure of what triggered them. This was a huge adjustment for Veronica because in the past she would run away from them.
Acknowledging what’s happening is the first step. Veronica then had to learn to calm herself down. Instead of running away or shutting down with her boyfriend, she started to bring herself to the present moment. For Veronica, the grounding phrase of “I am an adult now and can take care of myself” was utilized over and over in these triggers moments. She would also take deep breathes to calm her body down. Sometimes she would walk around the room, in efforts to get her body to connect to the floor, as a way to remind herself that she is safe and is capable of getting away (versus when she was a child and felt stuck in the abuse).
Now that she was able to reorient herself to the present reality, Veronica was able to make healthier, present oriented decisions instead of shutting down. These really came in handy for her when she was sexually active with her boyfriend. Here were some of the techniques Veronica used:
1.) Stop the activity, pause, re-engage: this entails Veronica and her boyfriend to stop, have Veronica acknowledge her trigger and bring herself back to the present moment. Then, when ready/calm, allowing herself to re-engage the sexual activity
2.) Altering the triggers: rather than avoiding the trigger, Veronica learned that she could take a break and continue the same activity in a different way. For instance, if being kissed on her neck is too overwhelming, she learned to ask her boyfriend to start kissing her stomach instead. This gives her power over her triggers.
3.) Stop the activity and continue the intimacy in another way: so instead of stopping all activity, Veronica would continue to be intimate with her boyfriend in different ways- such as holding each other, taking a shower together, dancing, etc.
By learning to take control of her automatic triggers, Veronica was able to get unstuck from her old, trauma based reactions. Instead, she learned tools that gave her the opportunity to have a more positive and healthy sexual experience.
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