When we experience pain or an adrenaline rush, many people find themselves disconnected from the experience, not feeling anything, which can be very handy if you’ve dislocated your knee and have to get to the hospital to have it knocked back in!
Unfortunately though, a similar process can happen with psychological pain and we can learn to disconnect with those feelings that caused us to feel hurt in the first place. This can manifest itself in the form of feeling physically disconnected from one’s body or emotionally numb.
In it’s extreme form people can experience PTSD but it can happen from prolonged mini stresses and difficult experiences too. I have had a number of clients experience a lack of any sexual feeling as a result of prolonged difficulties, rejection or sadness in their relationship, as well as just from other external factors.
If we look to our biochemistry for answers, we know that being in this state for long periods of time, causes us to have elevated levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. We have understood for some time that the bonding or love hormone, oxytocin, however can play a significant role in alleviating unpleasant responses to stress. If oxytocin goes up, cortisol comes down. Having loving, close connections has a profound effect on our ability to reduce stress,but the hormone interaction also happens the other way. If we are continually in a state of elevated cortisol – where we are stuck in the cycle of needing it to function (say from a constantly high pressured job or caring for a terminally ill parent for example) – then we suppress our oxytocin.
As well as helping us have the energy to get through tough times, cortisol has an anti-inflammatory affect on the body. That’s why so many people end up getting ill as soon as they leave their stressful situations and go on holiday. Their cortisol reduces and the underlying inflammation they have been suppressing to ‘just get through this’ comes out.
There are a number of damaging affects of elevated cortisol, an increase in belly fat being one of them (which doesn’t exactly help with the whole ‘not wanting to connect with our body’ especially in a sexual setting). It really isn’t something that the body can deal with long term.
However, many of us have trained ourselves to live in this state, ignoring the warning signs from our body and shutting out experiences that would cause our bonding hormone to rise as our stress hormone would fall, and then we couldn’t function at this level. It’s not always a psychological decision to reject our partners, it can just be that at that time, our body can’t deal with what it knows will be a reduction in stress thanks to the flood of oxytocin.
So what can be done?
For example, when the major cause of stress is work, it comes down to having that difficult conversation to say ‘I’m not quite coping’. We don’t want to complain, we don’t want to show weaker than others (or put extra burden on them), don’t want to risk not being looked upon favourably at work for fear of loss of promotion or worse still losing our job. These are all very real threats. But so is ruining your health and your relationship. Stress is the biggest cause of employee absence in the UK so it really pays for your employer to work with you to mange the situation before it gets out of control. Even if nothing can be done to improve your workload or manage it better, there might still be damage limitation options. A longer lunch break a couple of times a week to make room for lunchtime yoga class? A walk through the park then eating your lunch with your phone switched off and paying attention to how your body feels as you sit on the grass or feel the sun on your face (or rain on your brolly in this country!).
Mindfulness based hypnosis or meditation can help to reconnect with the body, in the form of basic ‘body scan’ or ‘progressive relaxation’ meditations (google them, there’s loads to choose from). Any kind of meditation though can help to bring down stress levels on a daily basis. Therapy can address the underlying fears that say ‘if I’m not stressed, I won’t be motivated’ or ‘I’ll fall apart if I let my guard down’ as well as worries about hurting loved ones by being intimate sometimes, then seemingly unpredictably being unable to at other times. Your therapist can only do this however if it’s true. There’s no use in hypnosis to ‘get rid’ of fears if they’re actually correct or serving a purpose. If it’s not possible, then the only real solution is to find a way to cope without being in a permanent state of stress and that means taking time out and asking for help as mentioned above. It’s hard, if not impossible sometimes but a good therapist should be able to help you find some ways, or at least put things in place so you have a plan for when you can get to that stage (sooner rather than later).