Aftershocks: Talking about the Physical Effects of Sexual Trauma

Welcome back, readers: this is the last installment in a series on the physical effects of sexual⁠ trauma⁠ . (In case you missed them, here are parts one, two, and three.) To conclude the series, were talking about talking: namely, how to talk with sexual partners about any physical effects that you have experienced as a survivor of sexual trauma.

Note that while this article centers survivors, the information here can still be very valuable if you are an intimate partner⁠ of a survivor.

For this last article, I interviewed Heather Russell, LPC, a mental health professional with more than decade of experience counseling people from all backgrounds. A survivor herself, she has a heart for helping clients recover from sexual trauma. In 2013, she founded Sacred Cycle, a Colorado-based non-profit organization dedicated to helping survivors recover through cycling and professional counseling.

Talking with Partners about Trauma: A Counselor’s View

As professionals who both work with people who have experienced sexual trauma, Heather and I had an insightful, thought-provoking conversation. I was interested to learn more about how counselors help people navigate the consequences of traumatic experiences, including physical effects that may impact their future relationships. Heather had great insight to offer: here are the key takeaways from that discussion.

It’s okay to talk to your mental health provider about physical symptoms like pain, muscle tension, and more.

Heather was interested to hear more about the physical effects of sexual trauma that I’ve encountered as a pelvic physical therapist. She told me that the physical concerns I described don’t always come up with her clients in talk therapy. She guessed that this may happen because counseling clients don’t always realize that it’s okay to discuss physical issues with their mental health provider.

In part two of this series, we covered the central nervous system⁠ (CNS), and discussed how an overactive CNS can contribute to physical effects like persistent pain, chronic fatigue, and sensation changes. Many strategies that physical therapists use to help their patients calm an overactive CNS overlap with techniques that mental health providers employ in therapy. Research on chronic pain shows that it’s critical to combine physical and psychological care approaches, rather than relying on just one to address the condition.

If you’re working with a mental health provider for recovery from sexual trauma, don’t be shy about sharing any physical impacts of your experience. Your counselor can help you manage those concerns, even if you’re already working with another professional like a PT to address them.

When you’re dealing with complex physical sensations, more brains are better than one! Think of recovery as a team sport: the more high-quality, professional “players” on your team, the more likely you are to out⁠ -play the concerns for which you’re seeking care.

Before you share your story with a partner, it’s important to lay a foundation of strong self-worth.

Let’s face it: it can be really scary to bare your soul to someone else, particularly when the story you’re trying to tell includes trauma. To face down this fear, it’s important to have a strong sense of self: you’ll need internal confidence from which to draw strength.

During our discussion, Heather stressed the importance of laying this strong foundation before tackling challenging discussions with partners. She works with her clients who are processing sexual trauma to help them rebuild their sense of self-worth. For many people, traumatic experiences can lead to feelings of shame, and shame can damage their concept of their own worthiness. Unpacking these connections can be a critical component of recovery from trauma.

Heather explained that healing any damage to your self-worth can help you prepare to share your story with your future partner(s). By rebuilding your internal confidence, you’ll be better prepared to accept the reactions of the people you tell about your trauma and the impact it has had on you.

Be choosy about the people with whom you share your story. If possible, have professional guidance from a therapist when preparing to share.

Each person’s trauma recovery journey is unique: some people will find that they prefer to tell all of their future sexual partners about sexual trauma they have experienced (and any aftereffects they experience). Others may prefer to be selective, only sharing with certain partners or only sharing after a certain number of sexual encounters with a partner.

For this reason, it can be extremely beneficial to work with a professional counselor who can help you navigate these discussions, if and when you choose to have them. Heather recommends that her clients are very selective about the people with whom they discuss their traumatic experience(s). In her experience, not all partners are equally ready to hear and respond to stories of trauma and recovery.

For Heather, it’s important that her clients understand and can accept that different partners may respond differently to stories of sexual trauma. She wants her clients to be prepared for this ahead of time so they aren’t surprised by reactions that aren’t what they expected. This concept leads directly into Heather’s fourth recommendation.

Don’t let your healing process hinge on other people’s reactions to your story.

You’ve probably heard some variation of the phrase, “You can’t control other people’s behaviors; you can only control your reactions to them.” Just as different partners may react differently if/when you open up about trauma, you may find that you react differently to their reactions.

Heather stressed the importance of learning to accept another person’s response without letting it get in the way of your own recovery. If you share your story and the other person doesn’t respond as you’d hoped, that is on them. It in no way invalidates your experience or the challenges you face in recovery.

Heather recommends that her clients have an established support network to which they can turn if a conversation about trauma doesn’t go as planned. Whether it is your therapist, a support group for survivors, or a trusted friend who already knows your history, it helps to have someone “waiting in the wings” to help you process the experience of sharing your story.

There you have it: a professional counselor’s perspective on how to discuss the physical effects of sexual trauma with partners. I hope that Heather’s insight has been helpful, but keep in mind that recovery looks different for everyone. The advice here is not intended to be a substitute for personalized recommendations from your own mental health provider, if you have one.

Moving Forward: Next Steps in Trauma Recovery

Remember that you are in the driver’s seat of your life after sexual trauma: if, how, and when you tell your partners about the trauma you’ve experienced is entirely up to you. Regardless of how you approach your recovery, it can help to have help. If you have access to mental health care, consider working with a provider who specializes in trauma recovery.

If you’re looking for a pelvic health PT to help you with the physical effects of sexual trauma, check out:

  • Pelvic Rehab – for international pelvic PT listings (including the US and Canada)
  • The Academy of Pelvic Health’s PT Locator – for pelvic PTs in the US

Beyond all you will find here at Scarleteen, are a few other online resources for sexual trauma survivors:

And finally, here is the link to Scarleteen’s direct services options where the staff here can give you one-on-one help.

However you approach your recovery, remember: you aren’t alone. You deserve help, hope, and healing. You are worth it.

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  • Caitlyn Tivy PT, DPT, OCS

In this third installment of this series, we hear from a survivor who developed substantial physical concerns after her trauma experiences. Kayla* is a survivor of multiple episodes of sexual trauma, and she has undergone extensive care for her post-traumatic symptoms.