In the last few articles, we have explored together how childhood trauma negatively impacts the ability to form lasting and loving relationships with a partner.
We’ve studied the impact that having trust issues, flashbacks, loneliness, body image problems and hypervigilance play in our avoidance of allowing closeness to others.
In this article, let’s talk about ways to overcome the deep-seated and devastating effects of childhood trauma, and our greatest ally, compassion.
Overcoming the Fear of Touch
For survivors, like me, just the thought of someone touching us can be terrifying. When someone gives us an uninvited hug or a partner decides to surprise us with a kiss, the alarms immediately sound in our brain.
The best illustration of what touch can be like for a survivor I have ever read comes from Stephen J. Bradley, LICSW, LMHC that he gave to Northampton Couples Therapy.
His description illustrates to those who do not understand how fear of touch works understand better what it feels like.
In the interview he stated the following:
“Imagine a stranger comes up to you that you have never met and engages in a lengthy conversation with their nose just an inch from your face.
“That would probably activate your inner alarm system, right?
“Most people in this situation would agree this feels ‘too intimate’ and may leave us feeling confused, defensive or upset.
“For children who have experienced trauma, however, it doesn’t take a stranger to activate their inner alarm bells. It can be someone they know well, such as a teacher approaching them in class.
“When partners come together, this can become a real conundrum. It can become stressful for people who have experienced abuse or neglect.”
Now let’s look at a recap of the role the amygdala and hippocampus play in the ballet of fear survivors experience.
The Role of the Amygdala and the Hippocampus in the Fear of Intimacy
We’ve already explored how the amygdala and hippocampus play a role in the fear and dread of intimacy. However, it is vital to revisit this information to understand how to overcome the problem.
As I have written in a previous post, the amygdalae and Hippocampi of our brains work together to help us remember events by categorizing them for storage with their associated emotions. They are also responsible for our response to danger whether it is real or perceived.
The amygdala is a primitive structure located deep inside our brain. It is always on the alert to danger and is the first part of our brain to respond when it perceives it.
When triggered, the amygdala begins a cascade of physical responses by shooting chemical signals to other parts of the brain that release cortisol and adrenaline to ready our bodies to fight/flight or freeze.
Also, the amygdala plays a vital role in memory consolidation. It is impossible to form long-term memories without the cooperation of the amygdala.
The hippocampus controls memory storage in the brain. Memories consist of chemical signatures that the amygdala and the hippocampus together create to make memories ready for storage and retrieval.
However, when overwhelmed the amygdalae and hippocampi of children who are experiencing adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) change in size and do not function well.
The damage that happens in childhood to the amygdala and hippocampus causes adult survivors to overreact to any trigger they may encounter in their environment that they determine is dangerous.
This can mean a survivor reacting with intense terror in a situation such as a sexual encounter with their partnership leaving both feeling confused and wondering what to do.
My Own Story of the Fear of Intimacy
To be honest, I have not yet conquered my own fear of intimacy. I cannot bear someone giving me any form of uninvited touch. When they do, I immediately feel like a rabbit who has just seen a hawk. My instincts tell me to withdraw or strike out verbally or physically when they are not trying to harm me.
That’s because my amygdala has suddenly gone into overdrive triggering the need to flee, fight or freeze.
I was once married and my reaction to touch was a horrendous problem. I had not experienced intimacy from a partner before and had looked forward to seeing what it was like.
However, what I should have experienced in our intimate moments and what I felt in those moments of closeness, I quickly found were two completely different things.
I felt fear, disgust, rage, and wanted to get a divorce immediately. For some reason, I was unable to make my reactions known to my partner.
Unfortunately for him, we remained married for eight years. I faked my way through our intimate encounters while feelings of terror flooded me. Finally, I cut him off totally and suddenly without him ever knowing or understanding what had happened.
My encounter my abusers in my childhood left me terrified of touch and so after being married to my husband, I have not had any intimate contact with anyone. We’ve now been divorced for just over 17 years.
I hide away, feeling extremely lonely, but being too terrified to allow anyone to get close to me. I cannot begin to express the longing I feel for intimacy and the fear I feel that it might happen.
Retraining the Amygdala and Hippocampus
I have done research into how to achieve the recovery or discovery of intimacy, and so far, the best advice comes from Stephen J. Bradley, LICSW, LMHC whom I mentioned above.
Mr. Bradley has offered couples therapy for over twenty-five years and in his practice, he has helped couples overcome the effects of childhood trauma in their relationships.
Mr. Bradley states that he begins by asking a set of questions of the affected partner.
He states that his inquiries help his clients “apply the brakes” to their anxiety.
He asks them:
“What happens to you when your partner looks you in the eye?”
“What happens to your body?”
“Do you feel connected, distant, stressed, anxious?”
By asking these questions and teaching clients to ask them of themselves, Bradley is helping them to recognize what is going on in their bodies when approached by their partner.
He also teaches his clients to practice intimacy in ways other than sex to increase trust and reduce the automatic fear response. He recommends encounters such as taking long walks side by side and avoiding face-to-face encounters during the beginning of treatment.
He encourages his clients to pay attention to the sights, smells, and sensations they feel while walking.
Cooking a meal together is another form of intimacy that is far less threatening than sex.
He encourages his clients to enjoy the smells, tastes, and textures of the spices or other foods that they prepare together.
By paying attention to their perceptions, his clients tone down the hyper-alert amygdala and help train the traumatized brain to the fact that their partner is not dangerous. The hippocampus then can take the new emotion of trust and consolidates it into memory along with the pleasant sensations experienced while walking, the smells of the cooking food and the fun they had during these non-triggering encounters.
Later, when an unreal danger alerts, the amygdala, the hippocampus can bring back the good memories and sensations of the enjoyment of the non-sexual encounter. The amygdala then quiets down avoiding an unpleasant encounter with a frightened survivor.
Working as a Team to Have a Great Relationship
Any intimate relationship works better when both partners are open, honest, and dedicated to making it work. It isn’t fair to allow someone to get close and have intimate sexual and other thoughts about you and you not explain how you really feel.
I know, I wasn’t open and honest with my partner, and I hurt him badly.
Being honest with the terror or discomfort you feel when approached by a partner is vital to securing and maintaining a lasting relationship.
Communication of what makes us uncomfortable and what we can tolerate helps our partners to understand what they need to do to help.
The first thing a couple’s counselor teaches the couple is to recognize stress symptoms. These may include withdrawal or as in my case, the unexpected rejection of a partner.
Avoiding this tragedy happens by asking questions like:
- Have your partner’s sleeping patterns changed?
- Has your partner been moody or changed how they act towards you?
- Has your partner begun over or under eating?
- Does your partner “feel” differently?
- Has your partner acted withdrawn and uncharacteristically quiet?
Two other vital symptoms that you may notice your partner is exhibiting are having the lack of a verbal filter and unexplained physical problems.
Let’s examine each of the above symptoms one at a time.
The Lack of a Verbal Filter
Otherwise known as venting, when someone whom you love is feeling trapped or highly stressed, these strong emotions may trigger them to say things they would never normally do.
Not only may they say hurtful things, but they will also do it in a way that is loud and completely out of character for them.
This happens because your partner has become confused to time and place. They see you as one of the people who harmed them in the past and have suddenly become terrified of your presence.
Reexperiencing an abusive past is as horrible as it sounds. All the emotions felt decades ago when we were children surfaces with great force leaving both the survivor and their partner bewildered.
Unfortunately, because you, the partner, have become someone safe to the survivor, the emotions become displaced and vented at you.
It is because of such behavior exploding into a relationship that many loving partnerships collapse.
However, it does not need to end this way as there are ways to mitigate this outcome.
For one, remember that your partner is not venting at you but at the people from the past who injured them. Triggered from the past somehow, the terror from the past and has made themselves known.
To handle this situation, allow your love to vent, give them space, and do not take what they say personally. Most of all, do not make any moves to hold or touch them.
Secondly, after their brain calms down, they will realize what they have said and feel mortified. Allow them to come to you and after you ask permission, hold and reassure them.
Remember always that this person who was just an emotional wreck, experienced things when they were kids that no child should ever experience. They need your patience, strength, and compassion.
Dealing with Unexplained Physical Symptoms
There are many physical disorders that are directly related to having experienced a traumatic childhood. Among them are chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, migraine headaches and others for which there are no explanations.
Called somatic symptoms, these physical afflictions interfere highly in the lives of those experiencing them.
Another physical symptom that you may not have considered is pain during sex.
Some women, me included experience extreme pain during intercourse for which there is no known cause. Not only does this symptom distress the survivor, but their partner may feel they are somehow to blame.
The first thing anyone experiencing any of these symptoms should do is to consult with their doctor or gynecologist. If there isn’t anything found, then its time to recognize that what the survivor feels is coming directly from their history.
Unfortunately, somatic symptoms and the stress that causes them, often leads to survivors experiencing death at a much younger age than on average.
Compassion is the Answer
Although we have discussed some serious challenges to we survivors forming loving, long-term relationships, I am a firm believer that compassion is the key. For what it is worth, here are my suggestions to both survivors and those who love them.
As a survivor, you may want to withdraw and hide away from any chance of becoming involved in a partnership. However, if we do that we will not find the compassionate person that can help us conquer our fear of intimacy.
If you do manage to overcome your fear and form a relationship with someone, keep in mind that the person you love may not understand the fear you experience when you flash to the past. Embroiled in their own emotional reactions to what they perceive on an instinctual level as rejection from you, they too may also behave badly.
Give them room, listen, and reassure them that you do love them.
As someone who loves a survivor, your first instinct may be to reciprocate by withdrawing your love and feel cheated.
However, if you leave either mentally or physically the person you love, you will miss out on the kind of relationship many can only dream about.
You see, survivors have lived through hell and that makes them understand love more than anyone else. We can love deeply because we have seen the worst that humans can perpetrate against their fellows.
A partnership between any two people must include dealing with the bad times with the good, the ups with the downs. The greatest way to survive the flashbacks, meltdowns, and fear is to keep the lines of communication open between you and your partner.
Talk about what is happening inside each of you. Be honest and open about how you felt when you hurt one another. Never withhold your love from each other because you feel hurt, instead keep in mind that you love this person, no matter what.
Arguments? Oh, yes, they will happen. Just remember to come back together afterward and after talking it out, hold one another.
By showing compassion, not only will your relationship survive, it will thrive and both of you will experience a satisfying and long-term fellowship.