Your friend walks past you and touches your shoulder in a “hello” — in response, you drop your coffee.
You felt an urge, so you try to masturbate. As your hands graze the skin near your genitals, you feel your muscles lock up and you jump out of bed.
You go to the doctor, and you can’t help but track the nurses’ and doctor’s gloved hands the entire time.
Each of these is an example of hypersensitivity to touch, one common post-traumatic stress response. Although these examples are stark, touch hypersensitivity can show up in both big and small ways.
It’s absolutely possible to develop a healthier, more pleasurable relationship with touch — so if you or a partner are struggling with touch hypersensitivity (after trauma or not), read on.
A Simple Overview of Trauma and PTSD
Although “trauma” and “PTSD” are two terms that get thrown around a lot, many of us don’t have a great understanding of what they mean. Often, we associate trauma exclusively with one-time, catastrophic events. Or, we might assume that PTSD is something that only combat veterans get.
Neither of those definitions tells the entire story.
Trauma refers to any deeply distressing event, circumstance, or series of events that result in physical or psychological harm. This could include things like sexual assault, partner abuse, getting in a car accident, living in an area with a high rate of gun violence, or even living in poverty. The situation may continue to affect us long after we are safe again, although everyone processes these experiences differently.
PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, refers to a wide variety of symptoms that someone might experience after living through a traumatic event. According to the American Psychiatric Association, there are four general categories of PTSD symptoms:
- Intrusive, distressing thoughts or memories related to the event, including visceral flashbacks.
- Changing behavior or habits to avoid remembering, thinking about, or talking about the traumatic experience.
- Changes to mood and thought patterns, such as feeling that you are unworthy of good things, believing that you are deserving of blame, or being unable to feel happiness or pleasure.
- Experiencing a different level of reactivity than before the trauma. You might feel more “on edge” and hyperaware of your surroundings, or you feel emotionally “numb”, leading you to engage in potentially unsafe situations. Touch hypersensitivity falls into this category.
- Intrusive, distressing thoughts or memories related to the event, including visceral flashbacks.
Critically, not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD, and some people may experience some symptoms of PTSD without ever having an official PTSD diagnosis. To be diagnosed with PTSD, symptoms must be present for at least a month and must affect how you are able to live your life.
It’s possible to rebuild a healthy relationship with safe, pleasurable touch.
Even if you aren’t officially diagnosed with PTSD, you may still experience some PTSD-related symptoms, like flashbacks or feeling more sensitive to touch.
Why You Might Feel More Sensitive to Touch After Trauma
When we experience a traumatic event, our brain works hard to try to protect us. In the moment, we might experience a fight, flight, freeze, or fawn reaction. But after a traumatic experience, our brain may continue to function on high alert. In particular, your amygdala and prefrontal cortex (the parts of your brain that help you assess threats and regulate emotions, respectively) can sometimes become more sensitive.
When someone has experienced a trauma, their brain might do two different things. First, they might become non-reactive, or even numb, to safe touch (while being extra-reactive to unsafe touch). Or, they might become highly reactive to all types of touch, even if there isn’t a threat present.
Think of the second option as a highly-sensitive smoke detector. If the smoke detector in your kitchen is really sensitive, it might activate its alarm system even if you’re safely sauteing onions on the stove. Even though there isn’t actually any smoke or fire, your alarm system is still sounding — and you have to follow up with a series of actions to try to quiet it.
Just as the sensitive smoke detector may send out erroneous alarms when there isn’t any smoke, folks who experience hypersensitivity to touch may subconsciously perceive safe touch as a threat – even if it’s someone simply trying to hold their hand.
That hypersensitivity may be amplified in a sexual context, too. Someone who experiences touch hypersensitivity may also experience pelvic pain (such as vaginismus, vulvodynia, or perineal pain), difficulty reaching orgasm, or erectile difficulties.
These symptoms don’t need to last forever, though. It’s possible to rebuild a healthy relationship with safe, pleasurable touch!
Restoring a Sense of Safety to Touch
Hypersensitivity to touch can be a frustrating and confusing experience. You may want to be touched, but when it happens – there goes the alarm. When that happens, you may start to doubt your ability to perceive situations or feel frustrated at your body for reacting “unnecessarily.” You might also feel lonely or out of control.
For some people, this cycle might lead them to avoid touch entirely — just like if you wanted to avoid setting that smoke detector off, you might bring an extra fan into the room, avoid cooking on the stove, or disconnect the smoke detector entirely.
But avoiding touch entirely won’t help your brain start seeing safe touch as, well…safe. In fact, avoidance can actually increase your symptoms in the long term.
That doesn’t mean that you should push yourself to do things before you’re ready, though. When it comes to rebuilding a sense of safety (and even pleasure) with safe touch, there are some things you can do to retrain your brain at your own pace.
“I am touching myself with my own hands. I am in control of my hands, and I can stop any time I need to. I am safe here.”
Before we jump into the list, a quick note: Sometimes, trauma survivors feel a desire to get back to who they were, or how they experienced things, before the trauma happened. It’s okay to feel that grief – and I recommend getting to know yourself as you are now. You may notice that you enjoy new types of touch, or that things you previously liked are no longer as pleasurable as they once were. That’s all okay.
We’re all always changing, regardless of our experiences with trauma. So take a breath and try to find a sense of curiosity about who you are today – and who you could be in the future.
1. Start with nonsexual self-touch
When many of us think of touch hypersensitivity, we think of partnered touch — but touch hypersensitivity can affect our experiences of self-touch, too. So before you jump into partnered touch exercises, I recommend starting with nonsexual self-touch (even if it’s a comfort zone for you right now).
Non-sexual self-touch might seem surprisingly simple, and could include:
- Brushing your hair or putting it into a protective style
- Rubbing moisturizer into your skin, slowly
- Wrapping your arms around your torso and giving your body gentle hugs
- Laying your hands flat on your thighs, then gently squeezing
- Massaging your feet
- Clasping your hands together so you’re holding hands with yourself
I recommend starting this activity with parts of your body that feel less reactive to touch, or that you tend to feel more comfortable in. Then, slowly move to parts of your body that tend to be more reactive.
Notice how you feel in each moment. Do some areas feel calm and cozy, while others feel more aggravated? Take a mental note of which areas feel more secure and which areas feel hyper-responsive. (And remember to keep taking deep, measured breaths all throughout).
When you feel comfortable with nonsexual touch, you can try engaging your genitals, too. This doesn’t need to be in pursuit of orgasm or even with the intention of masturbating. It’s just about reminding you that this part of your body can be safe and respected, too.
2. Reassure yourself
As you work to rebuild your sense of touch safety, you may notice your brain telling you that you are unsafe. In those moments, take a big breath and exhale completely. Try reassuring yourself with simple messages, like:
- “I know that in the past, this type of touch hasn’t been safe. I am practicing trusting myself right now, and that might be uncomfortable for a little bit.”
- “I am touching myself with my own hands. I am in control of my hands, and I can stop any time I need to. I am safe here.”
- “Thank you for trying to protect me. It’s okay. I am safe right now.”
3. Listen to your body
There may be moments when you start to become overwhelmed or feel like you’re pushing yourself past your limit. If that starts to happen, listen to your body.
There is no time limit that you need to adhere to with these exercises or practice, so don’t force it. If your brain is screaming “stop!” when you touch a particular part of your body, listen to it. Part of teaching your brain that touch can be safe is demonstrating that your “no” will be respected.
If that happens, move the touch to a part of your body that feels more neutral (like giving yourself a hug or putting your feet flat on the floor and clasping your hands together). Take a break if you need to – take a drink of cold water or move around your space a little.
Continue to practice self-reassurance in these moments. You can try saying something like “Rebuilding a sense of safety is hard work. It’s okay to need a break. Thank you for trusting me with this process.” Self-compassionate messages can help you be more patient (and less critical) with yourself during this process!
On the flip side, if you notice that your body is telling you that it’s ready for or interested in more, listen to it. Remember, you can stop whenever you need to!
4. Use tools
For some people, direct skin-to-skin touch (even self-touch) can be incredibly overwhelming right from the start. In these situations, don’t force it — instead, turn to tools.
By “tools” I don’t mean screwdrivers and the like. A tool is anything that facilitates a simpler process. You might incorporate:
- A hairbrush to brush your hair.
- A soft blanket to rub over your skin.
- A foam roller to massage your muscles.
These tools can help you bridge the gap and begin to feel comfortable with your skin being touched (both by an object or by a person). You may also use them to help “tune” your skin to the feeling of being touched before you move on to self-touch with your hands.
In a sexual context, vibrators (particularly softer external vibrators) can help you feel comfortable engaging your genitals again. As you begin to feel ready for sexual self-touch, consider incorporating toys into your exploration — you can use them on your genitals, or simply let them tease other parts of your body. You can also alternate between the item and your own hands, following what your body asks you to do.
5. Try partnered touch, slowly
When you feel consistently comfortable with self-touch, try incorporating nonsexual partnered touch.
You can ask a friend or partner — anyone who you trust and feel comfortable with — to practice these nonsexual exercises with you. Before you dive in, I recommend giving them a quick and simple explanation, because consent is key.
You can try saying something like “I’ve been having a hard time with touch lately. I’m working on feeling comfortable with it again. Would you try _____ with me? If I have a strong reaction, here is what I need.”
This explanation is simple, asks for permission, and also communicates your needs if you do become overwhelmed. Remember, ask for their consent before each new activity that you try. You can adapt the nonsexual self-touch list mentioned above for these partnered exercises, and all the same principles apply: remind yourself that you are safe, listen to your body, and use tools if you need to.
Additionally, you can practice saying things like “stop”, “squeeze harder/softer”, or “wait” throughout these partnered exercises to help teach your brain that other people can respect your boundaries, too.
You deserve to experience safe, pleasurable touch, even if that concept feels totally foreign to you. Remember, you’re teaching your brain something new, so give yourself compassion, adequate support, and plenty of breathing room. You’ve got this!
Need to talk to someone about what you’re experiencing? There are many resources available:
Open Path Collective offers lower-cost therapy across the United States.
RAINN offers a free chat and hotline for survivors of sexual violence.
Postpartum Support International runs a call or text helpline for folks who are struggling postpartum.
Exhale offers a text support line for people who need support after an abortion.
Trans Lifeline is a peer-run suicide prevention hotline specifically for trans folks.
Veterans Crisis Line has a live chat, text line, and hotline for military veterans who need help.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached by dialing 988 in the United States.
The Trevor Project provides a live chat, hotline, and text line for LGBTQ young people.