Bath Exercise: For Survivors of Sexual Trauma or For People Struggling with Sexual Aversions/Discomforts
The Bath Exercise
(Designed for survivors of sexual trauma or for people struggling with sexual aversions / discomforts from The Center for Growth in Philadelphia)
Do you associate negative feelings with sexuality? Does intimacy always mean intercourse? Do you find yourself feeling anxious or withdrawing from situations that could lead to more? Is your ultimate goal to reclaim your sexuality and enjoy all the physical and emotional sensations? If so, then this tip is just for you.
The main purposes of these exercises are to build positive intimate experiences with yourself and your partner, build positive experiences with sexual or sensual touch and feelings, strengthen communication between you and your partner, and associate touch with positive attributes. For those suffering from a history of sexual trauma, proceed slowly. Pay attention to feelings and thoughts that this exercise may trigger. You are in control. Go at your own pace.
Set aside one hour so that you do not feel rushed when trying to complete this exercise. The actual exercise only takes about 20 minutes but you may find yourself needing more time to prepare beforehand or process your experience afterward. Ideally this should be a time when you can be alone or at least not interrupted. Prepare a bath and set the scene for relaxation. Dim the lights. Play some soothing music. Maybe use some bath salts or bubbles. Try lighting candles. Do whatever works for you to make you feel relaxed.
During the bath soak in the tub and relax for 20 minutes. Focus on the enjoyable sensations of being in the bath. Think about what it feels like to sit quietly in a non-sexualized way with yourself. Consider if you were trying to have sex with yourself or getting ready to have sex with a partner what might you do differently. After your bath initially write down five enjoyable sensations you experienced during the bath. Did you enjoy the soap on your toes? The warm water? The smell of the candles? Being able to lay down in the tub? After noting five enjoyable sensations, think about any experiences of feeling triggered or anxious during your bath. It is common to feel triggered and/or experience anxiety if the type of sensation or something about the setting reminds you of your trauma. If you find yourself triggered or anxious and are unsure of why, make sure to pay attention to your anxiety as it is trying to tell you something. Ask yourself what the trigger or anxiety could symbolize. A day later revisit your list and add any additional sensations you experienced and found enjoyable. If you had an experience of being triggered or feeling anxious reflect on what about the situation may have caused this. Ask yourself the following questions when reflecting on your experiencing of being triggered or feeling anxious:
1) What was my emotional state just before feeling triggered or anxious? 2) What was I thinking about just before feeling triggered or anxious? 3) What aspects of my environment could have contributed to feeling triggered or anxious? Consider the lighting, temperature, time of day, objects in the room, the weather, etc. 4) If someone else was experiencing your reaction, what might you encourage this person to look in to? Repeat this exercise and adjust the environment or situation if you feel triggered or anxious. Ideally you should be doing this exercise three times per week. Work on this task until you experience a 20 minute period of feeling relaxed with no episodes of anxiety or feeling triggered. At this stage the main goal is to learn what helps you relax and experience relaxation. Learning to relax yourself is a key task for your sexual healing. It’s likely your body associates sexual touch with an anxiety reaction. Anxiety itself is not conducive to good sex. Men will often experience performance issues like PE or ED, while women may find it difficult to lubricate or will tense their pelvic muscles, both which make sex more difficult and more painful. If you can learn what relaxes you, you will be more prepared to soothe yourself when confronted with anxiety in or out of the bedroom. Being in a state of relaxation will make you more able to enjoy touch and other sensual touch, thus helping your body to reprogram its reaction to these sensations.
Again set aside one hour when you can be alone. In addition to soaking and relaxing you will engage in various types of touch during your bath. You will experiment with four different types of touch on your arms and legs. The four types of touch include: light feathering (light touching with your finger tips), light massage, deep massage and scratching. Spend at least one minute with each type of touch on each arm and leg. Notice what feels enjoyable, relaxing or even sensual. Also take note of what causes anxiety or what is triggering. When you feel anxious or triggered try to bring yourself back to your body and back to the moment by following these three steps:
- Draw your attention to the setting. What do you see, feel, hear, smell or taste. Remind yourself where you are and that you are safe.
- Engage in a type of touch that you have identified as non-triggering. Spend a few moments engaging in this type of touch.
- Then try the type of touch that is triggering. Talk to yourself out loud, state what you are doing and where you are. State what you are feeling sensation wise and emotionally. Acknowledge any anxiety but try to focus on positive sensations or feelings you may also be experiencing.
Try this exercise at least three times per week until you can engage in all of the types of touch on both your arms and legs without feeling triggered. Use the techniques you have used to relax yourself in level one to engage in various types of touch. In level one the main goal was to master relaxation where in level two the main goal is to learn to identify enjoyable and triggering touch. Another goal of level two is to learn to confront your anxiety about touch in the moment. Learning how to recognize your anxiety, cope with your anxiety and re-engage in touch is an important lesson when healing from sexual trauma.
This level will also incorporate your partner. Explain the exercise to your partner before inviting them for a bath. Tell them how this is an opportunity for you to be intimate with one another without sexual contact. Your partner needs to understand that there will be touch, even naked touch, but it is not sexual touch. Explain that the touch is considered non-sexual because its purpose is simply to be enjoyed, regardless of whether you become aroused or not and that it is not intended to drive sexual feelings or make sexual contact. Make sure your partner explicitly understands that there will be no sexual contact and the structure of the exercise before beginning. Set aside one hour and set the scene for a relaxing bath. Again, do whatever feels relaxing for both you and your partner. Make sure to incorporate the aspects that have proven relaxing to you. First start off by simply sitting and soaking with each other. If comfortable, your partner may hold you or you hold your partner. Some partners may simply want to sit and relax without talking. Others may find they need casual conversation to lighten the mood by talking. After ten minutes, experiment with the four different types of touch on your partner. Try both their arms and legs. Ask them for feedback about what feels good to them. Allowing your partner to go first will allow them to become familiar with the four types of touch. After ten minutes, ask your partner to try the four different types of touch on your arms and legs. Provide your partner with feedback about what feels good, what does not feel good and what they could do differently. Make sure to make suggestions like, “I like that. It would feel even better if you touched me a little lighter there,” instead of “You’re doing that wrong,” or “Do that lighter.” After the exercise ask yourself the following questions:
1) Which types of touch felt relaxing to me? Sensual? Soothing?
2) How did I communicate to my partner my experience of a particular touch?
3) What was it like to provide my partner with feedback about touch that was relaxing? Sensual? Soothing?
4) How did my partner provide me with feedback about their experience of the four different type of touch?
5) In what ways was I receptive to my partner’s feedback? In what ways was it difficult for me to process my partner’s feedback?
If a type of touch feels triggering to you, ask your partner to touch you in a way you know is not triggering. If you still feel triggered after switching to a different type of touch, ask your partner to stop. Try to then focus on just enjoying sitting and soaking with your partner. Engage in this exercise at least three times per week until you can both touch and be touched by your partner without feeling anxious or triggered. To gain insight about why you may have been triggered while experimenting with different types of touch with your partner, ask yourself the following questions:
1) What was my emotional state just before feeling triggered or anxious? How was I feeling towards my partner?
2) What was I thinking about just before feeling triggered or anxious? What was I thinking about my partner?
3) What aspects of my environment could have contributed to feeling triggered or anxious? Consider the lighting, temperature, time of day, objects in the room, the weather, etc.
4) What aspects of my partner’s behavior could have contributed to feeling triggered or anxious? Consider tone of voice, body position, facial expression, etc.
5) How could I make it so that my partner can help me reduce my anxiety in the moment? What does my partner need to know to make this possible?
Remember…This exercise can help you relearn touch, identify triggering touch, learn to confront your anxiety from touch, identify positive and sensual sensations from touch and provide you with an opportunity to be intimate with your partner in a way that does not involve intercourse. Be patient with yourself when engaging in this exercise. Understand that it could take months for you to master this particular exercise. Touch can be very triggering for survivors of sexual trauma and it is normal in the healing process to take a few steps forward and then a few steps back when trying to relearn touch.