Although sex and intimacy centers pleasure, for many, it can be dysregulating and cause dissociation.When we are dysregulated we are forced into our fight, flight, or freeze response. Many of my clients discuss how it can be hard for them to stay present and connected to their body during intimacy even when they desire to be intimate. Their dysregulation causes them to dissociate making sex something that is happening to them versus an interactive experience. An article by Dr. Sarah Ashton describes dissociation aptly by stating
“Dissociation is an adaptive survival response to a perceived threat (externally or internally). Being in a dissociative state moves us further away from our mind, body, environment and sense of self so that we can reduce our connection with the perceived threat.”
The article goes on to discuss how although we may no longer be in the dangerous situation our brain may continue to use this strategy even when we're not in danger, especially if we are experiencing a trigger or something that reminds us of our previous trauma. Which brings us to sex and intimacy. There are a plethora of reasons one might be dissociating during sex, but most commonly it is linked to trauma. Sexual trauma , attachment trauma, medical trauma, injuries etc all can impact how one is able to connect to their body during intimacy. It's helpful to know what this may look like. In her article Dr.Ashton gives some description of what dissociating during sex may look like.
“ You feel out of your body like you are looking down on yourself”
“You forget about the detail of what happened”
“ You feel foggy”
“Not able to feel sensations”
“You are not fully present and your mind goes to another place or goes blank.”
“You feel frozen like you can;t move or feel disconnected from your movement “
“ You are not aware of pain, discomfort, or sensations in your body
What is Grounding?
So what is there to do? There is no short answer and working with your own therapist will be crucial to healing and growth. That being said, one of the many things I do around this with clients is help them incorporate grounding work/skills into their intimacy. Grounding work helps us to bring our attention and focus back to the here and now. Oftentimes when we are dysregulated our mind and body can feel elsewhere. Maybe we are too in our head, maybe too anxious about the future or overall over stimulated. Grounding helps us to bring our focus back to the present, it allows us to take a pause from our current stressors and ground ourselves and regulate. Grounding anchors you, gives you a chance to calm down, and allows you to eventually return and address the problem that is triggering the unpleasant emotions to begin with. And grounding can be done anytime, anywhere, alone or with others.
Grounding Work as Foreplay
So what does this look like for us to incorporate this as a part of our foreplay and intimacy? How I like to conceptualize it is that grounding work can be done before and during intimacy. Grounding before allows one an on ramp into intimacy and allows for them to prepare and ease their way into certain body sensations. Grounding before, allows for intentional foreplay that allows for each partner to start in a regulated state. Oftentimes we might start out well but notice ourselves dissociating or becoming unregulated during intimacy. It can be hard to know what to do in those moments and how to address them. Incorporating grounding work during this time can allow for you to pause, and reorient yourself to the present moment. The overall goal is to allow one to be present with their body, maintain connection with their partner(s) and to stay regulated. Now this may not all happen at once, which is ok. You are actively trying to override your nervous system which isn't a small feat. These things will take practice and it will be important to tailor these exercises for you and your situation. Another thing I mention to clients is that these things can be practiced together outside of intimacy if you want to give yourself a chance to practice under more neutral circumstances.
Grounding Techniques for Foreplay
So here are some grounding techniques I use frequently with my clients. They are usually used outside of intimacy but I will discuss what it could look like to incorporate them into intimacy. So let's start with some that might be good for before intimacy.
The Body Scan
The body scan is a straight forward grounding exercise that looks to connect you to your body and how it's feeling in the here and now. Connecting to our body is grounding because it gets us out of our head and refocuses our attention to what our body is presently feeling. You can find step by step scripts of the body scan grounding technique all over the internet which is why it's one of the easiest to incorporate. To get the gist , during a body scan you are taking your awareness and attention and bringing it from the tips of your toes all the way up to the crown of your head. You are doing this slowly and mindfully , going through each body part. You're making yourself aware of each body part , how it feels, and allowing yourself to focus on only this.
During intimacy we can incorporate this in two ways. For one, you can have your partner be the lead. By lead this means that they will guide you through the body scan out loud while gently touching, squeezing or massaging each body part as they help you bring awareness to it. The other way this can go is you be the lead. Which means you will guide yourself through the body scan out loud. You can still choose to include your partner via touch and allow them to gently touch or massage the body part as you name it during the body scan. The goal is to ground you to your body and help you be present to sensations in your body. Incorporating touch from your partner in this also helps you ease into the sensation of someone else's touch.
Temperature is a common grounding technique used to help regulate your nervous system. It’s useful because similar to the body scan it's getting you out of your head and into your body/senses. You are typically the most present when you are able to connect to your body. In non intimate settings utilizing temperature to ground can look like, touching and holding something really cold or hot like an ice cube, or washing your hand in cold water, holding a hot mug of tea etc. The point is to allow yourself to feel the sensation of the temperature and how your body responds to it.
There are many ways to introduce temperature in intimacy. One of the many common ways is massage candles. These candles are specifically designed so that when they burn the wax turns into an oil that can be used on your skin. This is a nice way to play with temperature and ground to the body. Another easy one on the opposite end is using ice cubes. Feeling the sensation of cold on your skin can help you connect with your body’s sensations.
Now let's talk about what grounding work could look like during intimacy. So let's say you are in the middle of intimacy and you or your partner notices that you are no longer present or no longer regulated. This would be a good time to pause for a second and try one of these simple exercises.
Connecting to the Senses: 5,4,3,2,1
The 5, 4, 3,2,1 grounding exercise is a very common exercise that you can find all over the internet. It is one that you can do anywhere , anytime, alone or with someone else. You simply have to identify five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. I also encourage client’s take a deep belly breath between each category to help slow them down and truly get into it. It grounds you to the here and now in such a literal way. It can be a good reset for when you may be getting overwhelmed or stimulated. So putting us back into the scenario proposed earlier. Let's say you are in the middle of intimacy, you can pause and do this with yourself or invite your partner to do it with you. Looking at your partner name five things you see, hear, touch etc.
If we look at what is at the root of most grounding exercises we will find deep breathing. Deep breathing is the crux of grounding because it literally communicates to your nervous system and helps it get back on track. There are so many deep breathing exercises that are easily accessible. I like suggesting deep breathing as a grounding exercise because you can do it with yourself or with your partner. During intimacy deep breathing can simply be you putting your hand on your stomach and allowing yourself to breathe deep into your belly. Your partner can also help with this by breathing with you. This can be helpful if you are struggling with staying focused on your breath. Sit in front of your partner and look them in their eyes. Deep belly breath with them. Over time try to see if you can match their breath. This not only helps you ground but can help you stay connected to your partner
Staying regulated and present during intimacy is a struggle for many. Our nervous system can sometimes have a mind of its own and not allow us to fully enjoy the experience of intimacy. Learning to ground allows us to support our nervous system in becoming regulated again. Incorporating these various grounding techniques can be a supportive addition to your intimacy process and allow for more safety and care.
Psychology, S. (2023, February 21). Dissociation & Sex. Ships Psychology. https://www.shipspsychology.com.au/blog/dissociation-and-