You’re turned on and enjoying sexy heat with a partner when it hits you: emotional paralysis. The need to rush out the heck out of there. Or an intense urge to fight. Your heart might pound as sweat coats your palms. You might feel nauseated, dizzy or all-around tense.
What to Do When You're Triggered During Sex
In other words, you’ve been triggered, smack in the middle of sex. Reminded of something traumatic you’ve endured, your mind and body react as though the event is happening, or could soon happen, all over again. While these occurrences are anything but fun, they’re both common and nothing to be ashamed of.
Triggers can spur the body’s fight, flight or freeze reactions in trauma survivors, of whom there are many. More than 8 million adults in the U.S. have post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, and an estimated 70% of Americans go through a significant trauma at some point.
If you’re struggling to cope with the after-effects of trauma on your own, please seek whatever support you can, knowing that growth and healing are possible. If you find yourself feeling triggered during sex, consider the following steps.
Mindfulness is undoubtedly helpful during sex, and especially so when triggers rear their heads. Shamyra Howard, a sex therapist, clinical social worker and owner of On the Green Couch in Baton Rouge, suggests paying attention to how your body responds to particular activities in the moment.
One simple way to do so involves intentional check-ins with yourself. Literally think to yourself, “How does this feel? What do I need right now to feel safer and more secure?” Then act on your needs, even if they don’t seem to make rational sense just yet. If you need to take a break, ask for a hug or put on a robe and step outdoors, do so. If you wish, continue processing your feelings by journaling or talking things out with someone you trust soon after.
Hit Pause or Switch Gears
Sexual consent isn’t something that happens solely before sex does or doesn’t unfold. Feeling triggered is one of countless valid reasons to decline sex or specific activities on the spot.
“Do you need to stop, switch positions [or] move to a different space? Or maybe you want to cuddle,” said Howard. “Whatever your needs are in the moment, make sure your partner knows.”
If completely stopping sex feels too jarring or unappealing for other reasons, switch to an activity you feel more comfortable with. If you’re triggered by receiving a certain type of pleasure, for example, shift to the giving side or to a completely different activity.
Keep Communication Open and Clear
Clear communication can be extremely helpful when you're triggered, but that's not often easy in the spur of the moment. As a preemptive step, consider creating a plan in advance for your partner to check in with you periodically during sex, Howard suggests. They could ask, “Is it OK for me to touch you here?” for example, or whether you’d like them to continue a particular activity. Then be sure to provide clear feedback, answering questions honestly or voicing your needs or desires. If it feels more comfortable, use leveled safe words.
Meanwhile, keep in mind that you don’t need to go into details as far as the root cause of your trigger or anything else you don’t feel comfortable with. Giving yourself freedom to feel, observe and respond to your feelings without judgment can provide a therapeutic means of self-care.
Work With a Fear Hierarchy
As appealing as it tends to be, the goal of healing after trauma isn’t to obliterate triggers, but to learn to better manage them. As a glorious byproduct, better managing triggers often leads to less frequent and intense flare-ups over time. Throughout the process, you can take steps to ease back into greater comfort with activities that feel sensitive.
“If a particular activity, like holding hands, has become a trigger, you can work with a fear hierarchy,” said Nicole Prause, founder of Liberos, who has a research paper on trauma and couples' sexuality under review. “You have a list of some behaviors that approximate the trigger (e.g., hands being close to each other, touching fingertips, overlapping fingertips, etc.) and you wait and engage in relaxation with each step up the fear hierarchy, however long it takes, to eliminate your anxiety at earlier steps.”
Try a Grounding Technique
Grounding techniques rely on the five senses - sight, smell, sound, taste and touch - to reconnect you with the here and now. Adina Mahalli, a certified mental health consultant specializing in trauma therapy with Maple Holistics, considers these efforts extremely helpful for coping with triggers during sexual encounters.
“Concentrate on each of your five senses individually,” she said. “Consciously describe something you are seeing, feeling, smelling [and] hearing, and one good thing about yourself. This will help to bring you back to the present and not into your own mind reliving your traumatic event.”
Identify the Trigger
Once you feel safe and grounded after a triggered episode, sex therapist and educator, Jennifer Litner recommends seeing if you can identify the trigger.
“Did you see something? Hear something? Smell something?” she suggests asking yourself. “Naming our triggers is an important step of working through them.”
This can be a hugely important step, given that many people dissociate and continue to engage in sex when feeling triggered, according to Litner. Commonly described as “going through the motions,” doing so can make matters worse, while keeping you from the pleasure and connection you deserve.
If you've gone through the motions, give yourself grace. Use the experience as a chance to look inward and learn more about yourself and what happened. If you’re not sure, discuss it all with a trauma-informed therapist or support group. Seek out free or low-cost options, if needed. No one should have to navigate these healing steps alone.