Arguing with someone I care about is one of my clearest triggers. I’ll start out fine: I’ll stay rational and reasonably calm. I’ll be able to remember to have compassion for their alternative view. If the argument continues and I feel unheard, I may start to raise my voice and feel myself getting frustrated.
But there’s always a very obvious point at which some little switch flicks in my brain, and I totally lose the capacity to engage with the other person. I’ll feel myself quite literally freeze; sometimes I’ll notice that I’m opening my mouth but I have no idea what to say. I won’t be able to follow what they are saying anymore, or even if I can I certainly can’t form my own sentences. Sometimes I know that I need us to stop talking and hug, but I can’t ask for this, let alone move my body to initiate it.
I get caught in a freeze (unable to move or speak) or sometimes in a dissociate (becoming fuzzy and as though I don’t know where I am anymore).
It’s not always this obvious or dramatic. Sometimes the pressure I feel while trying to socialise in unfamiliar groups of people leads to a freeze response. I notice that I’d love to be mingling and chatting, feeling easy about coming and going as I please, but I’ll feel rooted to one place because it feels ‘safe’.
Or sometimes if someone I love is expressing anger over something totally unrelated to me, my brain will respond as though it is directed at me. Again I’ll feel myself lose the ability to follow what they’re saying, much less ask them to slow down or stop.
The problem is that our brain doesn’t really distinguish between real or perceived threat. Each of us have our own unique cocktail of developmental trauma (unmet needs from our earliest years) and also possibly event trauma (specific overwhelming events throughout life). These traumas felt overwhelming at the time, and when we get triggered as adults we behave as though these traumas are playing out again – even when we’re not in situations that pose any real threat to our existence.
Understanding what’s actually going on in my brain when this happens has been really helpful in finding more compassion for myself, and beginning to work with my triggers to give myself more choice when I can feel myself starting to lose capacity.
Which brings me to…
The Basic Neurology of Triggers
When we feel ourselves unable to behave in rational, measured ways, and we notice that we’re getting carried away by a strong emotional response (whether that looks like rage, freezing up, or dissociating), what we are feeling is parts of our brain temporarily shutting down. This means our capacity to choose how to respond becomes impaired.
The first part of our brain that goes offline is our neocortex. This is the newest and most advanced part, in evolutionary terms. We use it for social engagement, language, and complex problem solving. It’s the part of us that allows us to make rational judgements about situations.
When the neocortex stops calling the shots, control shifts to the limbic system, our mammal brain. This area is a little older and governs a lot of our emotional responses. When we go into a fight or flight response, or a rigid freeze where we’re unable to move or speak, this is likely because control has passed from our neocortex to our limbic system.
Finally, if our mammal brain’s response hasn’t resolved the situation and we find ourselves still feeling unsafe, then our brain tries one more strategy: to act from the brain stem. This is the oldest part, the lizard brain. If we go into a limp, collapsed state, or a dissociation where we start to lose sense of where we are, then this may mean that we are now responding from our lizard brain.
The fascinating thing about all of this is that it allows us to track exactly what’s going on when we find ourselves in situations where we’re not behaving the way we’d like to be. When that switch goes inside my brain and I’m not able to follow what my partner is saying anymore, I understand why – and understanding why is the first step in doing something about it, which I’ve written more about here.
Different parts of our brains are responsible for the four responses we often default to when in a situation we perceive as threatening: people-pleasing (hyper-socialisation), fight, flight, and freeze. Because these responses don’t distinguish between real and perceived threat, it doesn’t matter whether we are actually in danger or not: most often we’ll go into one of these responses in everyday situations when in fact we’re perfectly safe, such as when we’re socialising in a large group or in a disagreement with someone we love.
What Is The Fight or Flight Response?
We’re actually talking about four different survival responses. In brief: hyper-socialisation appears as trying to keep everyone happy. This could involve telling lots of jokes, giving lots of compliments, or smiling and laughing much more than you might otherwise. The fight response can manifest as outright aggression, or as trying to exert control over a situation. Flight causes us to want to disengage, run away, and hide, while freeze involves a level of dissociation where we literally freeze up, often becoming unable to move or act.
These are emotional responses which may have been caused by unresolved trauma at some point in our history, and triggered by a current event. The more evolved part of our brain, our neocortex, would allow us to rationalise and notice that we are not in any real danger and that we don’t need to fight or dissociate. But this part of our brain doesn’t respond as quickly as the older limbic system, and instead our survival instincts kick in much faster and prevent us from behaving the way we would like to.
If this happens often and prevents you from the intimacy and anxiety-free social life you want, there are things you can do. Of course therapy may be useful, but there are also ways of helping yourself to move through these responses so they have less power over your behaviour.
1. Notice Your Fight or Flight Symptoms
The first thing to do is to become acquainted with the behaviour your stress response triggers. For people with social anxiety, socialising in groups could go one of several ways: perhaps a hyper-socialising response where they go into people-pleasing mode, desperately trying to impress everyone in the room, or a shut-down frozen response where they feel completely unable to form sentences.
Whatever the situation you struggle with, and the response it elicits, notice what happens in your body. Do you start biting your fingernails or feeling your face going red? Do you feel tingling in your limbs or squirming in your belly? Becoming more connected to your body helps to identify when your limbic system is kicking in, which is the first step to taking away its control.
This isn’t an overnight process, but with practice you can learn the patterns that signify you’re becoming stressed before it spirals too far.
2. Move Away from the Fight or Flight Response
Once you’re able to notice when you start to move into one of these responses you can work with it to move into a less anxious place. Because the fight or flight response comes from the oldest part of our brain in evolutionary terms, the trick is to stop functioning from this place and instead re-engage our neocortex so that more rational behaviour can take over again.
Grounding exercises are a good way to achieve this: asking the brain to notice the body, the environment, and acknowledge who, what, and where we are. Reminding yourself of the actual safe situation you are in rather than the perceived threat. When you first begin practicing this it may help, if possible, to take yourself into a quiet place for a few moments.
You can begin by noticing all the places your body is currently in contact with the earth, maybe your feet on the floor and your buttocks on a chair. Feel the contact, your weight, and the support of the surface. Then move your attention through the rest of your body, noticing each part in turn.
Next, take in your environment, noticing details: perhaps counting how many things of a certain colour you can see. This further helps to bring you back into the part of your brain that can analyse your current situation in a more measured way.
Finally, the breath can be helpful too. Breathing usually becomes shallow and high up in the chest when we’re stressed; by slowing the breath down and bringing it deeper into the belly you can help to move yourself out of anxiety.
3. Practice, Patience, and Compassion
This is a process that takes patience: you’re trying to change potentially deeply ingrained patterns of behaviour, which could take a lot of conscious effort. These stress responses can feel familiar and comfortable, even if we regret our behaviour later. Finding a healthier version of comfortable takes time.
Finding compassion for yourself, both for the stress responses you live with and the time and effort it may take to overcome them, is important too. We all live with patterns that hinder our expression in some way because they’re not an easy thing to recognise or change, and recognising this can help to ease the journey.
Intimacy is often closely associated with sex – to the extent that the words are sometimes interchangeable. But sex and intimacy don’t quite mean the same thing, and one is not a requirement in enjoying the other.
Sex is an easy default when trying to create connection and intimacy. Enjoying sex with a new person is no bad thing, but it can be unhelpful if we’re using it as a way to cover up a need for intimacy which we are unwilling to address.
Why do we rely so easily on sex when we want to feel close to someone new? Do we find it so difficult to connect in other ways, to show our vulnerable selves without assuming sex is what we need to feel close to someone? Are our difficulties in connecting so hidden from us in our shadow that we don’t know how else to find intimacy?
It can be interesting to look into what our real needs are, and question whether we might be covering them up by defaulting to sex as our default way to generate a connection. Perhaps slowing down and feeling more feels good, or sharing play, touch, humour, and wisdom.
Then we have more options open to us: instead of trying to find intimacy through sex, we can create satisfying intimacy first and then use sex as a way to express and deepen that intimacy.
Polyamory is the sometimes challenging, often liberating, and almost always unpredictable practice of having multiple simultaneous intimate, sexual relationships with different people. It’s becoming more popular. New dating apps cater specifically to non-monogamists, and more mainstream apps are beginning to include features for those seeking a polyamorous relationship. There are meetups and munches, conferences and communities.
Types of Polyamorous Relationships
On a practical level, different people do polyamory in different ways. Many of them have their own subcategories. Solo poly folks enjoy relationships without any expectation of merging their lives in many of the ‘traditional’ ways such as living together or combining finances. Kitchen table polyamory denotes constellations where everyone involved – partners, lovers, metamours – is able to sit down at the same table and enjoy each others’ company. Relationship Anarchists prefer to eschew all unnecessary hierarchy among their partners, whereas others will name a primary partner who always has priority among other lovers, or describe themselves as “monogamish”.
The common factor among all of these ways of approaching relationships is the belief that romantic love, sexuality, and partnership don’t have to be confined to only one other. And why should they? We don’t treat any other form of love this way – we love friends, family members, and pets without any fear that loving more than one will cheapen the love we have for others. We understand in this context that love is not a finite resource.
A (Brief) History of Polyamory
According to Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan (well worth a read), the ‘traditional’ approach of only having one partner at a time only came into being around 10,000 years ago – quite recently, in relative terms. Before this we were nomadic hunter-gatherers, living in tribes, enjoying promiscuous sex and not worrying about which children belonged to whom. Sexual intimacy was enjoyed playfully and openly, as a shared resource, strengthening bonds within the group.
The advent of agriculture brought a huge cultural shift, and with it came an incentive to know who our children were so that we could be sure they inherited the land and wealth we had begun to accumulate. And so we began to marry.
The “default settings” we’ve mostly been living ever since – the narrative of dating, then agreeing some form of exclusivity, moving in, and finally marrying – is a reassuring script to be able to fall back on. Engaging in polyamorous relationships forces me to eschew this progression and really feel into what I want, both in my life generally and with each new person I meet. Do I want hierarchy, or as little of it as possible? How much energy do I want and need to spend with the people closest to me? How much intimacy do I want with each person? This process is both liberating and occasionally exhausting.
What Does Polyamorous Mean?
There are clearly other things that define polyamory, besides simply the practice of having multiple relationships at once. For me it signifies a throwing out of this script: I no longer have to go along with the main narrative I’ve been exposed to my whole life about what relationships “should” look like. I can take each relationship on its own terms and define it however I like, and I get to create something new with every new person.
Perhaps this means only seeing them once a month or so with limited contact in-between, or perhaps they become a close friend who I catch up with often and can rely on. Maybe they’re in another country and we enjoy intimacy when we’re occasionally sharing physical space, or maybe we move in the same social circles and share many mutual friends and lovers.
How Polyamory Works
A polyamorous relationship is therefore built on an awful lot of honest communication, and a willingness for everyone involved to process their own desires and fears. I need to be truthful not only with myself about what I really want in my relationships, but I must be able to communicate this to those I’m in relationship with, too – even if they are casual lovers, even if what I need to say might end the relationship.
Fear, too, needs to be recognised and welcomed. So many of us grew up learning that we must jealously guard our partner, that any attraction to third parties threatens – and may necessarily end – our relationship. We learn to find safety and security in monogamy, but this is false.
Monogamous relationships can still end for all sorts of reasons, and remaining exclusive to each other doesn’t really protect against any of the things we fear. The only difference with polyamory is that we make these fears explicit.
As Willow Smith said recently:
“That insecurity and fear is something that we need to overcome and something that we need to evolve out of and transmute that into something new and different that can actually be helpful and make us love more and more freely… Monogamy, I feel, actually inhibits you from learning those skills of evolving past those feelings of insecurity and jealousy.”Willow Smith
Polyamorous relationships, when done successfully, force us to confront the things we’re scared of in a much more immediate way than monogamous commitments. Perhaps I feel anxious if I know that my partner is on a date with another person, scared that I will be abandoned – even if there is no evidence to support this. Bringing this up when we’re next together, naming it and acknowdging it as part of my experience can help to remove its power. Perhaps there’s something my partner is willing to do to help, even if it’s as simple as offering reassurance.
Relating in this way also encourages me to become more self-reliant, which seems a little counter-intuitive in the context of having multiple intimate partners.
One of the first arguments many people make in favour of polyamory is how great it is not to have to rely on one person for all of their needs (and likewise not have them rely on us for everything either). The tricky side of this is that my partners are not always available to me in a way which I enjoyed in monogamous relationships. If a partner is spending a weekend with another lover, then they are unavailable to me for a couple of days. I have to know that I have a solid network of friends (platonic, romantic, or otherwise) in case I need company or emotional support. And in the worst-case scenario that no-one is around, I know will be ok on my own for a little while.
As someone who has a history of losing myself in another at the expense of investing time in friendships, this has been a helpful lesson to learn. It’s nudged me forcibly in the direction of finding and building my own communities.
Relating openly, practicing polyamory, means being able to own all of our jealousy, fear, and anxiety and discuss it with those we love, trusting that it won’t necessarily end our relationship. It means being able to grow through these challenges and learn how to really understand what we want and how to care for ourselves. And finally, of course, it means being able also to express the love and affection we have for all of the people we’re close to, in the ways it feels most authentic for us to do so.
Whether you’re into floggers and rope or vanilla as it gets, there’s a lot to be learned about communication, boundaries, and consent from those in the BDSM community. Although these may not be the first things many people think about when asked what makes for the most memorable encounters, they can make sex so much better if we get good at them.
So why is that?
One thing I’ve learned during my own explorations is that relaxation is everything when it comes to pleasure. And in order to relax, we need to feel safe.
If there’s one thing experienced BDSM enthusiasts know about, it’s safety. Knowing how to ensure everyone is as safe as possible is absolutely vital when experimenting with bondage, intense sensation, and other activities which could cause real physical (and emotional) harm.
Here are a handful of ways those in the BDSM scene ensure safety – and therefore also relaxation, and ultimately pleasure.
Talk About What You Want
Responsible BDSM players will only engage with others who are able to clearly speak their wants, needs, boundaries, and limits before they begin a scene. When people’s physical and emotional safety is at hand, it’s vital to be able to know that your partner knows their limits and has communicated them clearly with you.
Even when you’re not tying each other up or playing with extreme sensation, being able to voice your needs is so valuable. It can feel vulnerable and tough to admit to what you want, especially with those whose opinion matters most. But being able to do this can only make sex better; it’s unfair to assume that our lovers can read our minds and know what we want, or what our limits are.
Being able to be vulnerable and intimate in this way, and showing all of our desires, encourages our lovers to open up to us, too. This is how intimacy begins: by allowing all of ourselves to be seen by those we trust, our desires as well as our limits.
Talk About What you Need
Alongside being able to discuss your wants, you can also think about what you need to feel safe, to be able to relax and enjoy. If you’re negotiating a BDSM scene you might be asked by your partner about what aftercare you may need once it’s over. Do you need contact, cuddles, a particular food or drink? What about a check-in the next day?
This doesn’t only have to apply to experiences that include extreme sensation and power play. Perhaps we would like to request a text from the person the following day, or lots of cuddling afterwards. Maybe you need them to spend the night afterwards.
Being able to identify what you need, and ask for it, helps to remove anxieties over whether our needs will be met. And discussing these in advance also helps to filter out people who cannot meet our needs.
Establish Safe Words
It can be so easy to ‘tolerate’ touch; to allow our lovers to do what they’re doing without correcting them or asking for something different, out of fear of rejection, abandonment, or shame over our true desires.
Sometimes in the moment it’s far too much to specifically ask for something else. Being in this place of noticing you’re not enjoying what’s happening but feeling frozen or stuck and unable to ask for something else can be unpleasant and triggering.
In these moments it can be helpful to have a safe word. Many people who indulge in BDSM use a traffic light system, with red meaning stop and orange meaning a check-in is needed, and that can be helpful here. Or, to make it a little more gentle, I like to adopt the word ‘pause’ (thanks to Rachael Maddox for that one). I explain to my lovers that when I say pause, it means just that: we pause what we’re doing, we cuddle, we give me some space to feel in to what’s not working and figure out what I’d like instead. This might be a massage or a cup of tea.
Safe words are so helpful because they allow us to interrupt whatever pattern is currently playing out. Instead of getting caught up in the stories of what may happen if we ask to stop or ask for something different, we can use a different word to communicate that something needs to change, even if we’re not quite sure what yet.
Sex Can Mean Different Things
In the vanilla, hetero-normative world of sex, the definition of what ‘counts’ is often fairly limited. And if those few activities don’t work for you then it’s easy to feel like the sex you have isn’t valid or good enough.
We can learn from the creativity of the BDSM community. As a well-used saying goes, “Your kink isn’t my kink (but your kink is ok).” People come up with all kinds of ways to enjoy each other’s bodies and minds outside of the conventional narratives, and in doing so liberate themselves and their partners to enjoy sex on their own terms.
If the sex you’re having isn’t working for you, maybe it’s time to question whether you’re only engaging in particular activities because you feel it’s what sex ‘should’ look like. You get to decide what works for you (and it doesn’t have to involve kink).
Learn New Skills
If you want to be able to tie someone up Japanese rope bondage style, and do it safely, then you’re going to have to ask someone to teach you. Likewise, there are countless workshops teaching all kinds of skills in playing with extreme sensation and power dynamics. Within BDSM there are always new ways to learn new skills if that’s what you’re into.
Why should vanilla sex be any different? What skills could help us to make sex better with our lovers? And how could this attitude of wanting to learn help us?
Firstly, a keenness to learn about our partners’ bodies is a great place to start – without going with a fixed script or approaching the exercise with judgement. There are all sorts of other communities too who teach techniques you can use to help develop intimacy with yourself and the other, and relax into feeling more pleasure. Explorations into Taoist methods and neo-tantra can help us to feel more into our sexual energy, for example, and bring us more in tune with both ours and our partner’s needs.
Ultimately, all of these practices we can learn from the BDSM community are in place to keep everyone involved safe. And when we’re feeling safe, we feel more able to relax and open more of ourselves, which is key to deepening intimacy and more fulfilling sex.
I read a quote recently which really stuck with me:
“People think that intimacy is about sex. But intimacy is about truth. When you realize you can tell someone your truth, when you can show yourself to them, when you stand in front of them and their response is ‘you’re safe with me’ – that’s intimacy.”Taylor Jenkins Reid
Before I’d really given it much further thought, I suppose I would have said that ‘intimacy’ between two people meant a kind of sexual closeness; intimate massage, intimate relationship, intimate touch. ‘Intimacy’ becomes one of many euphemisms for sexuality without us having to think twice about whether it’s actually separate, and whether we can seek out one without the other in our relationships.
I’m certain I’m not alone in having proven many times how easy it is to engage in sex without intimacy. Which makes it all the more curious to me that it’s one of the words so often used to refer to types of bodywork that involve genital touch, or relationships that include sexual contact, regardless of any of the other dynamics between those involved.
What Is Intimacy, If It’s Not Sex?
Modern usage of the words intimate and intimacy date back to the late 19th Century, when newspapers used the word euphemistically to refer to sex (and women’s underwear). But it comes originally from Latin intimare meaning, “to make known, announce, impress,” which in turn came from intimus meaning “inmost, deepest.” Its roots are much more closely aligned with Taylor Jenkins Reid’s sense than today’s conflation with genitalia and sex.
Or are these two things – allowing ourselves to be known, and speaking about sexuality – really so separate after all? Our sexuality is so often the place where we hold the most shame, fear, and vulnerability. Wounds run deep here, and take time to heal, if we are able to even become conscious of them in the first place. Allowing ourselves to engage sexually with another, even to be naked in front of them, can require a huge amount of trust that we will be seen, along with all our anxieties, and feel safe.
There is an alternative to this of course, which is to never show all of ourselves to avoid the risk of rejection or abandonment, but sacrificing any chance of intimacy along the way. The conflation of sex with intimacy can lead to lots of very unfulfilling encounters, desperately wanting to be seen but being held back by fear, all the while substituting physical closeness for something that feels deeper.
Just as shame over sex caused newspapers 100 years ago to use ‘intimacy’ as a euphemism, our shame today causes us to confuse the two, seeking out sex when what we’re really craving is the intimacy of being seen.
Could we explore decoupling intimacy from sex, and learn how to feel safe while allowing ourselves to be seen first, before we engage sexually? Practice speaking our vulnerabilities before we introduce tangling limbs and sweaty requests for water?
Could we practice more intimacy in our non-sexual relationships, and notice what happens if we speak our immediate truth, with all the awkwardness and vulnerability of admitting that we’re frightened, or hurt, or excited?
Perhaps. But how do we go about this? How do we begin to understand what intimacy really is, and create more of it?
The first thing to know is that it starts with ourselves. We can’t just ask for more honesty and truth from another; we have to open ourselves up first. And before we can do that, we need to know ourselves. We have to practice intimacy with ourselves before we can ever hope to create something with someone else. What are you most scared of? What are you avoiding, and how? What are your most unhelpful patterns and habits?
Becoming better acquainted with all the gnarly, difficult stuff – and meeting it with compassion – means that we are able to bring all of this to our relationships in a conscious way. Instead of reacting out of fear without understanding why, we can speak about our vulnerabilities with those we feel closest to. In allowing these darker parts of ourselves to be seen, we can experience the kind of intimacy that comes from allowing another to see all of us while knowing we are still safe.