Listen to your body!
What numbness is communicating to you?
One of the most common issues that especially women bring up around sexuality, is the sensation of numbness and the inability to fully feel certain parts or even their whole body during intimate interactions.

This experience is often strongly present for people who went through traumatic experiences in the past but it is also very prevalent among the general population.

To understand more where this is coming from and what the underlying mechanisms are, it is important to understand the level of disconnection from our bodies that most of us experience. We grow up in a world where intellectual capacities are highly valued and most of our guidance through life is based on our mind's capacities, while the body is often regarded as a vehicle that carries our minds. As children, we have to learn very early on to sit still, listen to our parents and teachers and disregard our bodies impulses to move and express itself. It is therefore at a very basic level that we stop listening to, respecting and expressing our bodily wisdom and when we start to interact sexually and sensually we are already conditioned to listen to our minds rather than our bodies.

Our nervous system including both mind and body holds deep wisdom and clear indications as to what it is capable of holding, what feels good and pleasurable and what is too much or uncomfortable.
In an ideal world, we would go slow enough to feel and listen and communicate with all of our systems and find those sweet spots where we feel aligned, centred and able to enjoy. In reality, we are disregarding most of what our body wants to tell us and we override those signals and adapt to the speed and actions we feel are expected of us.
When we engage in interactions, sexual or non-sexual that are too much for our nervous system to be held, processed and integrated a very wise and ancient protective strategy is dissociation.
In the extreme cases of abuse, violence and overwhelm certain parts of the brain disconnect and protect us from fully feeling and being in this experience. In the same way, if we allow our body to go through an unwanted experience or an uncomfortable situation it can respond with numbing out those sensations.

From early on we have to go through such experiences of undesired touch, for example at the doctor's office. Especially for young girls having to go to the gynaecologist and being touched (often for the first time) by a stranger and in no way by a choice coming from desire, we get used to allowing invasive unwanted touch.

Studies find that repeated uncomfortable or painful stimulation leads to numbing of that area, protecting us from having to feel those unpleasant or painful sensations. It is therefore understandable that so many of us experience numbness when we are exposed to unwanted touch, are generally disconnected from our capacity to communicate with our bodies and mostly have the idea that our bodies should simply function correctly.

Over time this becomes an automatic pattern leading to numbness even when we desire to be touched and feel. Old memories are triggered often subconsciously and the body responds with the safest strategy of disconnecting from fully feeling.
So, what can we do to fully feel ourselves and enjoy pleasure and touch and our sexuality?
First of all, we need to come back into our bodies and reestablish communication. Allowing ourselves to inhabit and feel our body and consciously listening to the sensations, feelings and impulses in combination with naming and describing what is happening is a very useful approach. Embodiment practices and coaches can be of great support on this exploration and provide a safe and held environment.
Slowness and safety are important factors for creating new experiences that can rewrite our learned patterns, as it is our previous experience of not feeling safe enough to feel full that created this protective numbing in the first place.
Another important aspect lies within the empowerment of communicating our needs, desires and boundaries with those around us. And just as we have learned over time to protect ourselves, it also takes time to learn that we can be safe while feeling ourselves. Time, compassion and a safe environment are the key.

Gerber et al., (2008) Numbness in clinical and experimental pain – A cross-sectional study exploring the mechanisms of reduced tactile function, Pain 139 (2008) 73–81

Read more on trauma, rewiring and safety:

Taylor, Miriam - Trauma therapy and clinical practice neuroscience, gestalt and the body; McGraw-Hill Education (2014)