What is Trauma?
Before we talk about sexual trauma, let’s understand trauma. So, what is trauma? Trauma can be confusing and complex, especially if the other party in the relationship has not experienced it. In my view, trauma relates to disturbing or distressing experiences at one or all of the bodies, that is, the physical, emotional, mental, energetic and/or spiritual bodies. At the physical level it could relate to a physical injury from an accident or an assault. At the emotional, mental, energetic and/or spiritual level it can be an unwanted psychological experience that has left an imprint on our emotional, mental, energetic, and/or spiritual bodies.
“[Trauma] is any assault to the body or psyche that is so overwhelming that it cannot be integrated into consciousness…an event that shatters belief systems about life…the assumption that the self is sufficiently competent to act, that people are generally good, that the world has meaning and is predictable. Trauma breaches the unspoken contract we think we have with life, that if we do what we are supposed to do, we will survive.” — Marion MacCurdy, The Mind’s Eye
Peter Levine, a well-known psychological trauma theorist, characterizes trauma not by the event but by one’s reaction to it and symptoms. He explains that “any overwhelming and distressing experience can cause trauma and that trauma is only recognizable in its symptoms.”
“Human beings have been designed over millennia, through natural selection and evolution, to live with and to move through extreme events and loss, and to process feelings of helplessness and terror without becoming stuck or traumatized.”Peter Levine, Unspoken Voice
It is true to say that traumatic events and losses are a regular part of life, and our bodies are designed to have the capacity to overcome trauma and heal. However, depending on the impact and intensity of the trauma and the nature and timeframe of support and healing provided to a survivor of trauma, they may or may not recognise themselves and their identity.
I’m not the same person I was before. I don’t exist. I’m nobody. I don’t recognise you. I’ve lost myself. I am losing my mind. These are some of the common themes spoken by trauma survivors.
In some cases, Survivors may only be aware of the resulting symptoms and not the original source of trauma, as memory loss or memory blocking of the original event is not uncommon.
Traumatic events can include things that happen to someone directly or to those that witness something traumatic happening to someone else. Trauma survivors may seem to shut down, feel distant, sad, numbed, and isolated in spite of trying hard not to think about trauma or painful memories. They may need help and ongoing support as they struggle to find their way out of the after effects of trauma.
What is Sexual Trauma?
Sexual trauma includes traumatic experiences that are related to one’s gender identity, sexuality, or the body in a sexual context. It includes a wide range of events including violating someone’s consent or sexual boundaries either by force or coercion.
For example, it can include sexual assault, rape, molestation, incest, and any other non-consensual sexual contact. It can also include verbal and emotional harm related to gender or sexual identity such as making crude jokes diminishing someone because of their sex, sexuality, or gender identity.
Even consensual sex can be traumatic, for example if it becomes painful without warning.
Survivors of sexual trauma can develop issues relating to:
- The Physical Body: These might include the inability to feel arousal and orgasm, pain and numbness in different parts of the body, especially genitalia and erogenous zones, disturbing sleep patterns, digestion and metabolism problems, eating disorders.
- The Mental Body: Examples include depression and anxiety disorders, PTSD, panic attacks, disruption in thought processes, poor decision making and judgement, confusion, suicidal thoughts, inability to focus.
- The Emotional Body: These may include feelings of shame, terror, guilt, fear, sadness, denial, blame, lack of sexual confidence, disconnection from sex and sexual feelings, other sexual dysfunctions, feelings of hopelessness, lack of self-worth, chronic fears, fear of abandonment, personality disruptions, issues relating to intimacy, attachment and non-attachment issues, drug, alcohol and other addictions, nightmares, insomnia.
- The Energetic Body: This may manifest as lack of energy, hypersensitivity to the energy of others, feeling vulnerable to the energy of others, pain which is not related to the physical body.
- The Spiritual Body: Survivors may experience a loss of faith in God, loss of connection with the universe, loss of faith in the goodness of humanity, a deep urge to withdraw from people and community.
Tune in tomorrow for part two, “Relationships with Trauma Survivors.