Thanks to Charis, an SAL member who created the following post for her Twelve Step Meeting Topic Study. Thank you for sharing your strength, hope, and experience with us! We’d love to hear your comments or questions on our discussion board.
As a child, did an adult ever swear at you, insult your, or humiliate you? Did an adult ever push, grab, or throw something at you? Did anyone ever touch or fondle you in a sexual way without your permission? Have you ever felt that no one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? Have there been times when you were not sure you would have enough to eat? Were your parents divorced? Have you lived with an addict? Have you ever witnessed someone be hurt verbally or physically? Has a household member ever been depressed, mentally ill, or attempted suicide?
These, and many other experiences, are all traumatic. Often, when we are in the situation, we interpret our experiences as normal, and may not even realize what is occurring or has occurred is traumatic. We may experience trauma symptoms without knowing what they are or act in ways which make us feel shameful or worried without understanding why. We may not feel like ourselves. We may feel addicted to chaos or acting out behaviors, or feel numb, but not know why or how to stop it. We may have a vested interest in believing we are not in trauma, because we fear being victimized or we want to believe we are strong. The reality is, just as with any issue, we must first overcome our denial in order to heal.
Trauma is the actual, literal change in the brain as a result of events which were overwhelmingly painful, confusing, or dangerous which we had no power to stop or control. Trauma can also be subjective, meaning what is traumatic to one person may not be as traumatic for another. However, the research indicates certain experiences are customarily traumatic, such as abuse—especially sexual abuse or betrayal. Trauma often results from what we may consider small hurts—fighting, being ignored, neglected, or abandoned. An event doesn’t even actually have to occur to be traumatic. If we perceive something as dangerous, a perception can cause trauma as well. You may also have heard of trauma in relation to war, or natural disasters. There is no need to compare types of trauma. While the causes may be different, trauma always refers to the chemical changes in the brain and the behaviors that accompany it.
There is no shame in trauma; it simply means you have been through something extremely difficult and were helpless to stop it. To be in trauma is not a choice. No one is strong enough to avoid trauma when traumatic events occur, and no one can will the symptoms away. (Since the brain actually changes in trauma, that would be like willing your cancer to be gone).
There is hope, however! Trauma is recoverable.
Symptoms of Trauma
One way we can tell if someone is in trauma is if they have various trauma symptoms (as a result of the stress their brain has undergone causing them to feel unsafe). Sometimes you can tell there is trauma just by the symptoms, even when you don’t remember what happened to cause it. Sometimes we repress trauma—meaning we forget about the hard things that have happened, as a way of coping. But even if we have forgotten, the symptoms will show us we have been traumatized. Sadly, forgetting does not cure anything. Not all the symptoms must be present for a person to be considered in trauma, but some of the symptoms may include…
• fight, flight, or freeze responses to triggers (events which remind the person of the original trauma),
• avoiding re-exposure to trauma by denial, repression, idealizing, minimizing, or dissociating,
• the feeling or perception of being hurt in the present moment in spite of actually being loved and safe in that moment,
• re-experiencing trauma via anxiety, flashbacks, hypervigilance, or nightmares,
• hijacking experiences where you lose control of your normal self and rage or feel overwhelmingly sad or afraid,
• physical health concerns with an otherwise unknown cause,
• disconnection, numbness, or inability to connect with or feel affection for others,
• seeking emotional numbing through adrenaline, emotional eating, or other behaviors,
• feelings of hopelessness, despair, and depression (Schwartz, 2016).
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms know that they are your brain’s attempt to seek safety. It is important to acknowledge that these behaviors occur because your brain perceives you are in danger, and is seeking safety. These behaviors often cause a great deal of shame, but knowing where they come from helps. A better response than self-criticism (and more reasonable, once you understand what is happening inside you) is self-compassion. Through self- compassion, you can assist your immune response in calming down and increase your sense of safety. Another great way to increase your sense of safety is through mindfulness. When you feel safe, the acting out behaviors stop because the need they were attempting to fill is met.
There are lots of diagnoses which describe trauma. While these diagnoses may be accurate for understanding your situation, they are often a result of misunderstood underlying trauma. If you are in trauma you may have been diagnosed as having borderline personality disorder, somatization disorder, ADHD, anxiety, depression, codependence, PTSD or Complex-PTSD, among others. Diagnoses like this can be helpful, but should be taken with a grain of salt. Simply understanding you are in trauma is often sufficient.
Resiliency is a safeguard against trauma, and a path to recovery. Resilience is often confused for grit or strength, but this is not accurate; you cannot white knuckle or pull up your boot straps to be resilient. The current research says resilience has two components.
Connection means that you trust that someone can be counted on, is in your corner, and will allow you to be vulnerable when necessary.
Empowerment means that you believe you have the ability to affect change in your life and environment, and you can problem solve. Resilience can be built by working to identify your personal authentic power, and by building a personal support system of people you can rely on when you are struggling. Resilience is currently considered the number one protective factor against trauma.
We know what trauma is now, and we have sort of touched on what to do about it (see the resources listed at the end for more information on healing trauma), but why does sex addiction cause trauma? Why do our brains perceive danger we cannot escape from after a disclosure or discovery or other addiction-related event? There are lots of reasons, but here are a few big ones:
1. Building resiliency is key for any healthy life, even if you haven’t yet experienced trauma. Often, our resiliency relies on our spouse. They are our primary connection. This is a healthy need and way of meeting it. It is called healthy or secure attachment. In fact, our spouse is designed to be our primary source of comfort and safety. However, when our spouse betrays us we not only have been launched into a dangerous experience, but our primary comfort (attachment) is unavailable to us, and is actually the source of our pain. We therefore have nowhere to turn to calm our nervous system, and our bodies and brains experience traumatic damage.
2. Many addict behaviors are abusive and traumatic. The big issue is infidelity (please note, the research shows that pornography and masturbation register as infidelity to a partner’s brain), but there are smaller behaviors as well which we may not even realize are harmful to us. These may include gaslighting (causing us to doubt our perceptions), lying, exposure to mental illness (addiction is often co-occurring with mental illness), abandonment or neglect of emotional needs, etc.
3. Many partners of sex addicts have experienced childhood trauma such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, neglect, bullying, or domestic violence. Trauma does not heal over time unless there is a sense of safety (established by resiliency). Resilience must be cultivated. Even after we have worked to build resiliency (and likely built it around our spouse), when we are re-exposed to trauma, old symptoms can resurface. You may find yourself raging like you did when you were a teenager, or any other number of old patterns. It is the experience of a trauma heaped on a trauma.
Addiction is traumatic. Each of us experience trauma in different ways, but, as partners of sex addicts, we have likely all experienced it. It is nothing to be ashamed of. We often must trust our trauma symptoms more than our perceptions of trauma, and begin to work toward a sense of safety through self-compassion, mindfulness, and resilience. This discussion only scratches the surface on trauma research, so I have included a resources page if you want to know more about trauma and trauma recovery.
Donne, W. & Donne, M. (2013). We will end the conflict now: Victory over pornography from the perspective of a recovered addict and his wife. Springville, Utah: Plain Sight Publishing.
Engel, B. (2006) Healing your emotional self: A powerful program to help you raise your self- esteem, quiet your inner critic, and overcome your shame. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Engel, B. (2002). The emotionally abusive relationship: How to stop being abused and how to stop abusing. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Germer, C. (2009) The mindful path to self-compassion: Freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotions. New York: Guilford Press.
Herman, J. (1997). Trauma and recovery. New York: Perseus Books.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005) Wherever you go there you are: Mindfulness meditation for everyday life. Hachette Books.
Levine, A., & Heller, R. (2010) Attached: The new science of adult attachment and how it can help you find—and keep—love. New York: Penguin Group.
Martinkus, S. (2015). Rescued: A woman’s guide to surviving and thriving after sexual betrayal. Castle Rock Colorado: Open Sky Publishing.
Neff, K. (2011). Self-Compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. William Morrow.
Schwartz, A. (2016) The complex PTSD workbook: A mind-body approach to regaining emotional control & becoming whole. Berkeley, California: Althea Press.
Steffens, B., & Means, M. (2009). Your sexually addicted spouse: How partners can cope and heal. Far Hills, New Jersey: New Horizon Press.
van der Kolk, B. (2014) The body keeps the score. New York: Penguin Group.
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