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Three Ways Trauma Hijacks Intimacy

In this article, you will learn three ways that the brains of people who have been through trauma can hijack their ability to enjoy intimate relationships.  I will also discuss new, exciting healing methods that can help free people from these painful patterns.

Being in love is one the most beautiful and enjoyable experiences.  Most of us are willing to pay almost any price to have that experience, and still often find it elusive or fleeting.  Navigating the ups and downs of loving relationships is often challenging – even for the most psychologically balanced among us.

Lots of us are avoiding committed relationships.  According to the US Census Bureau, 53% of all women and 47% of all men aged 18 or older were single in 2014.  Compare that to the 1976 census when only 37.4% of Americans 18 and over were single.   We have become more commitment phobic since then.

BTW, a lot of those single people must live around San Francisco – so many people I meet around here have avoided marriage and children.

So why are such huge numbers of people staying out of committed intimate relationships, even though being in one is one of our most powerful drives and desires?

One big answer is trauma.  A major reason the majority of adults in our country are not in committed relationships is because so many of them have been traumatized.  Some people know it and clearly remember something terrible that happened to them.  Plenty more just live with what I call “low-grade PTSD” (post-traumatic stress disorder).   They may not remember any one big thing that happened to them, but nonetheless, their brains and nervous systems are on high alert much of the time.  This makes it close to impossible to let someone else into their space without feeling panicky.

Please see my blog post Where is Our Epidemic of PTSD Coming From for backup on this point.

In my last blog post entitled From Autonomy to Intimacy I discussed how autonomy, which means “boundaries up” is a totally different psychological and physiological state than intimacy, which means “boundaries and barriers down”.  One of our most powerful urges is to be safe – our root chakra survival instinct.  Keeping “boundaries up” usually feels like the safest way to move through the world.  That way we can protect our sensitive inner self from unwanted people and energies.

A person who can freely choose to move between autonomy and intimacy has well developed interpersonal boundaries.  Once a person, animal or situation proves itself to be safe and comfortable they can then choose to let down their boundaries and be more intimate with them.

People who have been through significant trauma, especially childhood abuse have a much harder time doing this.  It has been demonstrated in many studies that heavy-duty trauma (and what trauma is not heavy-duty?) literally rewires the brain and endocrine system to stay on high alert most of the time.  This prevents us from being able to let down our guard and be intimate with others.

Having sex with another person is not necessarily intimacy.  Plenty of people engaging in our superficial hookup culture are able to have sex and still keep their emotional boundaries up.  Online hookup dating apps like Tinder support this culture.  Other newer dating apps like Neqtr provide a more conscious, heart-centered alternative.

People with PTSD may either avoid sex like the plague or may be promiscuous and have it freely with lots of people.  Both of these behaviors are most likely an avoidance of real intimacy.

Before I list the three ways Trauma Hijacks Intimacy, I will share three statistics with you to show just how prevalent this issue is.

A person who can freely choose to move between autonomy and intimacy has well developed interpersonal boundaries.  Once a person, animal or situation proves itself to be safe and comfortable they can then choose to let down their boundaries and be more intimate with them.

1. PTSD does not just happen to soldiers coming back from war. Far more people develop PTSD by growing up in dysfunctional families.  Here’s a crazy statistic:  For every military service person serving in active duty there are ten children being traumatized in their own homes.  This makes many U.S. families more devastating than war zones! [1]

2. One of the most thorough research studies about the prevalence of childhood abuse was the ACE study done the early 1990’s by the Centers for Disease Control in collaboration with Kaiser Permanente insurance company. This massive study followed 17,421 people who were insured with Kaiser.

The study participants were mainly middle-class white people who could afford good medical insurance.  Only about a third of them reported childhoods free from abuse.  That means that two-thirds of this group of people were either beaten, sexually molested, neglected or witnessed severe violence in their homes.  Of the two-thirds of people who reported some form of abuse, 87% of them reported at least two different forms of abuse in their homes. [2]

3. The same study also followed what happened to these abused children in adulthood. The researchers found that people who had experienced childhood abuse tended to have more depression, suicide attempts, lost time at work and financial problems than kids who grew up in healthier families.  Other studies have linked child abuse to higher adult incidences of chronic disease including fibromyalgia, arthritis, auto-immune diseases and cancer. [3]

What is the fallout from this in our ability to have intimate relationships as adults?  Here are three ways Trauma Hijacks Intimacy.

1. Our brain’s alarm system gets stuck on overdrive

Our brains have a highly evolved alarm system to protect us from danger.  Input from our senses and nervous system converge in a brain area called the thalamus.  This input is sorted and then passed in two directions.  One is down to the amygdala, two almond-shaped bulbs that sit in the limbic, or emotional area of the brain.  Input also goes up to the frontal lobes of the brain, parts that deal with thinking and reason.

When a perception of possible or imminent danger hits this system there is a check and balance between the “high road” of the frontal lobes and the “low road” of the limbic brain.  In other words, the amygdala prepares you for fight or flight and the frontal lobes take a bit more time to think about it – is this really of concern?

For example, if you are walking through a park on a dark evening and see something that looks like a snake at your feet your amygdala will go on instant alert, ready to spring into action.  It may send a signal to hypothalamus, which starts to dump stress hormones into your bloodstream.  That signals your adrenal glands to secrete adrenaline and cortisol into your blood stream.  The stress hormones also send blood to your muscles and take it away from your digestive system and immune system, and make you start breathing faster.  All this is to prepare you to fight or flee.

Your higher logical brain is also on alert.  It can take a time out and ask “is that really a snake?  Let’s make sure before we get too riled up.”  If you don’t give into panic and take a better look, you may see that the alleged snake is really just a hose some maintenance guy left on the ground.  Your frontal lobes can then send the “all clear” signal and your alarm system can stand down.   This would be a healthy way to approach this experience.  If it was a real snake you could just back way and take another path.

People who grew up with trauma in childhood are rarely able to chill out like that.  A major factor in our ability to be cool, calm and collected is the amount of the neurotransmitter serotonin that our brains produce.  In the animal kingdom, dominant animals have higher serotonin levels, while those low on the pecking order have lower levels.  So high serotonin levels seems to be correlated to self-confidence and higher levels of self-esteem, and lower levels the opposite.

Low levels of serotonin have been shown to make the amygdala more hypersensitive [4]. People with a hypersensitive amygdala are much more likely to be stressed out a lot.  It is clear that traumatized children tend to grow up with lower self-esteem, thereby lowering serotonin levels and predisposing them to PTSD.  Their brains alarm system tends to stay on high alert, even when there is no real threat around them.

2. A bad remodeling job

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain and nervous system to remodel itself based on repetitive input.  Neuroplasticity is a double edged sword.  The positive side is that children who grow up in multi-lingual families can easily learn more than one language.  It allows people who have lost body functions through strokes to regain them through rehabilitation.

Children who grow up in relatively secure families develop brains that could stay cool and collected in the face of possible threats.  They also can develop the ability to have intimacy with trusted people.  Those are the beneficial side of neuroplasticity.

The other edge of the sword happens when children grow up in abusive families while their sensitive brains are forming.  Because they rarely feel safe in their own homes, and some of the people who are supposed to be their caretakers are also hurting them regularly, their brains get molded to stay on high alert.  They rarely, if ever get the “all clear” signal that lets their alarm system relax and stand down.

As a result, it is difficult to impossible for them to move from autonomy to intimacy as adults.  Even when a partner proves himself to be a truly nice, trustworthy person an abuse survivor may not be able to open up to him.   Or she may lash out at unpredictable times, getting labeled as “high maintenance” or “worse”.  This behavior really has little to do with her present time partner – it is the PTSD in action.  Of course traumatized men exhibit similar behaviors. This has been responsible for a great deal of domestic violence or emotional withdrawal after military veterans return home after active duty.

After going through the agony of this through a series of failed relationships many trauma survivors choose to become part of the majority of adults avoiding committed intimate relationships.

3. We tend to attract losers

Another way traumatized people miss out on intimacy is through the people they tend to attract.  People who were abused as children tend to keep attracting abuse in adulthood.  The same ACE study quoted above found that women who had been molested or neglected as children had a 700% higher likelihood of being raped as adults than girls who did not experience abuse.  Girls who saw their mothers getting beaten had a much higher incidence of experiencing domestic violence as adults. [5]

This stat makes me think of the Forrest Gump movie with Tom Hanks and Robin Wright.  Robin played Jennie, Forrest’s childhood crush.  The movie implies that Jennie was abused and incested by her father during her childhood in their rural Southern community.  As a young woman she was attracted to a string of violent or uncaring boyfriends after she left home.  She couldn’t accept being with Forrest, who was always good and kind to her, until she was dying of AIDS at the end of the movie.

What is the solution?

The flip side of every problem is a solution.  This is part of the Yin-Yang nature of our reality.  As I mentioned above, neuroplasticity is a double-edged sword.  On the negative side children’s highly impressionable brains and souls can be adversely modeled by abuse to create a hypervigilant condition that make true intimacy almost impossible.  The other, positive side is that survivors of abuse are capable of remodeling themselves into people who can regain the ability to feel a greater degree of safety.  As they internalize this feeling more and more many are able to enter into fulfilling intimate relationships.

This rarely comes easily.  It takes a commitment to reaching out for help and doing the inner work of healing.  Traditional psychotherapy has not been highly effective for helping people with PTSD regain a healthy life.  Most clients have been put on long term psychotropic medications that often create more problems than they solve.  For example, researchers have documented that use of newer antidepressants such as Prozac creates a significantly higher risk of suicide in children and adults.

Fortunately there are new healing methods that have shown far better long term results without dependance on meds.  Some of the most promising therapies include:

What is the fallout from this in our ability to have intimate relationships as adults?  Here are three ways Trauma Hijacks Intimacy.

1. EMDR: This stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, often called Rapid Eye Movement therapy.  A therapist moves their finger or a pen back and forth in front of the client’s face, asking her to track the movement with her eyes.  At the same time the therapist asks the client a series of questions that could bring up the memory of the traumatic events.  This simple method has shown remarkably good results.  Clients don’t have to talk about their trauma for it to be effective.

2. Family Constellation Therapy: Also known by several other names, this is a form of group therapy where the person receiving the healing is guided by a facilitator to select people from the group to represent people from their life.   The people they select may represent real family members.  They may also represent an ideal substitute for one, such as the loving and present father they never had.  By placing these people in positions around them the client is able to re-program parts of themselves that were stuck in old, dysfunctional relationships.  This system can help people to resolve emotional blocks so they can learn to re-enter satisfying intimate relationships.

3. Yoga: Abuse survivors need to take it slow in learning hatha yoga because some postures may remind them of past painful memories.  But with patience they can learn to trust their bodies and natural instincts again and help heal their minds.

4. Biofield healing: This is the primary healing system that I use with clients who have been through trauma and are expressing symptoms of PTSD.  This involves working in their energy field to re-connect and re-wire their minds and spirits to their bodies.  It is a profound process that often allows clients to rapidly release themselves from past trauma and learn to be comfortable in their own skin.

Clients sometimes go through what I call “initiations” as they go through Biofield healing.  This is a powerful experience of their souls more fully inhabiting their bodies, often for the first time in their lives.  People who go through these spontaneous initiations often develop new interests or career directions, or feel freed up to get involved in more healthy relationships with higher consciousness partners.

I combine Biofield healing with vibrational medicine and intuitive coaching as needed to relieve pain, boost energy levels and empower them to move forward living a fulfilling, creative life.  One vibrational method I use involves stimulating sets of acupuncture points on opposite sides of the body with microcurrent and color light wands.  By switching the direction of the current flow back and forth through the head area this method has produced results similar to EMDR, and in many cases, exceeding it.

All of these therapeutic methods mentioned here help trauma survivors develop a more grounded and healthy relationship with their bodies.  They can all help people to feel safer and less liable to be hijacked by old memories of abuse.  These methods tend to work better than talk therapies or drug therapies because people are doing the real inner work of remodeling their brains and learning that it is safe to fully inhabit their bodies.

So yes, neuroplasticity can mold children or adults to suffer with PTSD, and it can also be the ticket to a new, fulfilling life.  When people’s awareness is much more in present time and they feel grounded in their bodies they are at choice whether or not to engage in intimate relationships.  They get themselves back, and can more freely move between autonomy and intimacy.


1. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families Child Maltreatment 2010


3. Van Der Kolk The Body Keeps the Score 2014,page 100

4. Gray and McNaughton The Neuropsychology of Anxiety: Reprise, in Nebraska Symposium on Motivation 1996

5. IVan Der Kolk The Body Keeps the Score, page 87

Free Fulfilling Relationships 30 minute initial consultation offered with Darren Starwynn, O.M.D.