Intimacy and Trauma

Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Sarah Wassall, explores how past trauma can impact upon a performer during intimate scenes, and provides useful techniques and advice to support those who may be affected. 

Acting is an incredibly demanding career; One where an actor’s psychological health and emotional vulnerability are both precious and necessary. Intimate scenes can be particularly challenging. 

As a Clinical Psychologist offering Consultancy and Therapy to Film and Theatre Professionals,  I help actors work in ways that maintain their mental health and enhance their performance. Amongst my clients was Naomi*, who sought support when struggling with what she first perceived to be a straightforward scene – a non-consensual kiss between two characters. Naomi hadn’t previously considered it too challenging in terms of intimacy. But it was the smell of her co-actor that was a trigger.  Naomi couldn’t place it; perhaps it was his aftershave, or shampoo. She only knew it as the smell of a person and a time that she had spent a decade trying to forget. 

The Body’s Response to Trauma

Instantly, before her brain could process it, Naomi sensed his scent as a reminder of past trauma and an indication of danger, and this triggered a physical reaction. This automatic defensive reaction to danger is primal and ingrained and has been essential to the continuation of humanity. As her body prepared to fight or take flight,  Naomi’s muscles tensed, her breath and heart rate quickened. It was beyond a regulated, moderated reaction that she could use as an actor to apply to her character and scene though. As Naomi’s brain and body reacted to the trigger, the bits of her brain that think about language, reason, social connection and communication took a break, to allow her full focus to be on signs of danger. Subsequently,  Naomi was unable to say her next line  – or stay in character. Her brain’s preoccupation with potential threat meant she didn’t have the capacity to talk herself out of it, or to be able to explain to her co-actor, the cast and crew what was happening. 

Afterwards, Naomi was mortified; questioning her strength, professionalism and ability as an actor. She was, however, brave enough to ask for help to figure out what had happened and how to look after herself in future. During our sessions, the first thing I worked on with Naomi was being self-compassionate. Beating herself up in the moment did nothing to help her relax her mind and body and get her functioning back on track. To be able to move on in that paralysing moment, she needed to remind herself that her reactions were without shame. They were automatic and made sense. They weren’t evidence of her being an unprofessional actor, but rather indicators that she was human, and a human with the strength to survive at that.

Knowing Your Triggers

Understanding your triggers can be so helpful, giving you a heads up with how to face tricky situations. However, our memories of past traumatic events can be patchy, and sometimes triggers are not so easy to predict. Sensory triggers, like certain sounds and smells, sudden touch, the particular pitch of a yell or intensity of eye contact can be powerful activators of emotional memories which are stored in our body. When this happens, we, like Naomi, might start to sweat or feel fear, shame, panic, tension, and changes in our breathing and heart rate.  All the bits of our brain that we rely on as an actor, such as language, reflection and social connection are compromised, allowing our mental energy to fully focus on signs of danger. Where we are completely overwhelmed, we might then phase out and go blank. All of these reactions are automatic and normal bodily responses to not feeling safe. 

Utilising Your ‘Glimmers’

The key to managing these triggers is to know and utilise your ‘glimmers’. Deb Dana, an international expert and clinician specialising in complex trauma, established the concept of glimmers, defining them as ‘signs of safety’. When our body picks these up it can drop its natural defences, allowing us to move and on and function in the moment.

Glimmers, like triggers, can be most powerful when they are sensory. Smells, music and tastes are great, and can be used easily and discretely within a rehearsal or performance space. Before the next rehearsal Naomi spent some time thinking about her scents of safety. She settled on a handkerchief washed in the detergent her mum used. She was able to pull this out when needed and breathe deeply into it. This was doubly effective as slowing our breathing is great at telling our body that the world is safe. Research (Komori., 2018; Lin, Tai., Fan, 2014) suggests that keeping the exhale longer than the inhale and slowing the breath to approx. 5.5 breaths per minute are winner combinations, and as every Acting Coach will tell you, diaphragmatic breathing is best! Naomi tried breathing in deeply for a slow count of 4, then out for 6. 

Naomi thought about songs that reminded her of times she felt in control and safe. Playing these on headphones during breaks, or singing in her head during the moment helped keep her regulated. Naomi extended this work by creating her own post rehearsal playlist to help her step out of her character and away from difficult memories. It was full of positive songs from great times in the past that helped her reconnect with a strong and positive sense of self.  

Naomi then thought about her co-actor. She took time with him before to know and feel comfortable with him. She made a list of all the different ways he was different to the unsafe people in her past, from his hobbies, to his voice tone, to his height. Every detail and differentiation helped her to weaken the triggering association. Then she mentally planted glimmers on him. One glimmer was his jumper, it looked soft and from that association she could conjure a sense of comfort. She noticed the auburn in his hair and linked that with a sense of warmth. Focusing on these aspects at points during rehearsals allowed her body to feel safe with him and for her to mentally separate him from her abuser, freeing her up to feel in control of her body and her performance. 

Finally, Naomi accepted that although these triggers were nothing to be ashamed of, they were an indicator that she still felt the mental bruises from her past. She was a survivor of real threat in the past, who deserved to receive the time and care from a professional to process her past trauma. 

The Importance of Self-Care

Naomi’s trauma was significant, and being triggered at work was a horrible experience for her. We can’t erase our past, and as actors often we might not want to. The difficult times inform our performance and professional growth. Past experiences, emotional reactions and vulnerability are the tools of our trade and as such we need to treat them with respect and compassion. To keep creating art, we cannot afford to neglect these precious aspects of ourselves. So, like Naomi, take time to think about how you emotionally care for yourself before and after a rehearsal or performance.  Allow yourself to build in moments of nurture, safety and comfort throughout the working day. Most importantly, don’t be ashamed to ask for help. Both you and your experiences are valuable and deserving of support. 

If you would like to find a trusted professional, the mental health charity Mind offers a useful guide on trying to find a therapist, which includes free / restricted budget options.

To learn more about treating your experiences with compassion and respect, and to free up your creativity by learning to self-soothe when triggered, these books would be helpful 

*Naomi is a fictional case study devised from Dr. Wassall’s clinical experience of providing therapy with clients with the performing arts who have experienced trauma. 

Dr. Sarah Wassall, Connected Futures Psychology Ltd.

twitter @Dr_SarahWassall


Dana, D. (2018). The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation. Published by W. W. Norton

Lin IM, Tai LY, Fan SY (2014). Breathing at a rate of 5.5 breaths per minute with equal inhalation-to-exhalation ratio increases heart rate variability. Int J Psychophysio;91(3):206-11. 

Komori T. (2018). The relaxation effect of prolonged expiratory breathing. Ment Illn. 2018;10(1):7669. doi:10.4081/mi.2018.7669

doi: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2013.12.006. Epub 2013 Dec 28. PMID: 24380741.

Dr. Sarah Wassall

A Clinical Psychologist offering clinical assessment, therapy, consultancy, supervision and training for individuals, families and professionals.

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