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What Is A Bristle Reaction & What Can It Mean?

Dr. Lisa Lawless

Dr. Lisa Lawless, CEO of Holistic Wisdom
Clinical Psychotherapist: Relationship & Sexual Health Expert

Heart Rejecting another Heart

What Is A Bristle Reaction?

Have you or your partner ever felt yours or their body tense up and resist physical affection? Perhaps it was a hug or a simple caress along the back, and suddenly it made you or your partner feel uncomfortable, annoyed, or anxious.

This type of reaction is sometimes called a "bristle reaction," and there can be various reasons it can be happening. It is a phrase coined by psychotherapist Vanessa Marin to describe tension related to physical touch.

It can feel confusing if it happens to you or your partner, as it typically occurs when affection is shown and often leaves people feeling like something is off. It can make the person experiencing it wonder if something is wrong and may cause them to be perceived as frigid or unloving toward their partner.

Is This A Psychological Term?

The term "bristle reaction" is not a psychological term and is likely derived from piloerection, which is when the hair (bristles) on your skin rise up when you get goosebumps.

As a side note, goosebumps with hair standing up may have served an evolutionary purpose when our ancestors had more hair. The hair would stand up, providing more insulation when we were cold and making us look larger to appear more intimidating to predators.

Thus, it was a safety mechanism, and when it comes to physical touch, it may be a warning sign that we need to look at more closely.

What Are Related Psychological Terms?

In psychology, various clinical terms relate to tension and resistance around being touched even when provided affectionately, including tactile defensiveness, tactile sensitivity, or tactile hypersensitivity.

There is also a phobia around being touched called haphephobia or haptephobia, which can cause severe anxiety, panic attacks, or avoidance behaviors regarding being touched or touching others.

On the other hand, the term "bristle reaction" is typically used to identify something is not going well in one's relationship and the need to encourage connection and intimacy with a partner.

However, because someone may not enjoy being touched for various reasons, I will cover some of those reasons in addition to those surrounding intimacy in partnerships.

What Causes Bristle Reactions?

There are different reasons for bristle reactions; the most general reasons are relationship issues such as underlying tension, a couple's sexual needs are mismatched, or there are sexual inhibitions. However, there are also psychological and neurological reasons this can occur. Let's explore these in more detail.

Relationship Issues

When couples have unresolved issues, resentment, trust issues, and more can cause one or both partners to resist physical touch. If this is the reason for bristle reactions, then it is a good time to sit down with one another and get to the sources of stress in the relationship.

If partners cannot communicate effectively, a couples counselor may be advantageous. This can help in learning how to heal emotional wounds, understand one another better, build trust, and create a stronger foundation.

Sexual Needs Are Mismatched

If a couple's sexual needs are mismatched, where one partner wants sex more often, it may be reflected in how couples touch one another through nonsexual touching.

Partners can use nonsexual touching, such as hugging or holding hands, to express affection. However, when a partner often uses nonsexual affection to express their unmet sexual needs to try and seduce their partner into the bedroom, it can backfire.

Attempts to show affection may begin to be perceived as a way to manipulate that partner into providing sex rather than just a genuine attempt at showing love. When this occurs, honest and open communication must occur around sexual needs as well as the importance of having physical intimacy without the end goal always being sex.

Trauma & Abuse

Recognizing that trauma and abuse often appear as reactions later in life are vital. This means that survivors can be triggered for various reasons and may find themselves having challenging feelings around being touched. In this case, a trigger is anything that causes a challenging emotional or behavioral response due to a past traumatic experience.

Triggers can be expected, or they can come out of nowhere. Examples can include an anniversary of trauma, seeing a social media post, or even smelling a certain scent. There are endless ways someone could be triggered, which may cause reactions to touch even when affectionate.

Trauma can take many forms, is deeply disturbing, and can have long-lasting adverse effects on a person's mental, emotional, and physical well-being. It can be caused by a wide range of events, including but not limited to:

  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Accidents
  • Medical trauma
  • Witnessing violence or death
  • Neglect
  • Emotional or psychological abuse
  • Being the victim of a crime

Many people experience trauma and abuse. For example, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) an estimated 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men have been raped at some point in their lives in the United States.

In addition, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. And according to the National Center for PTSD, about 6 out of every 10 men and 5 out of every 10 women experience at least one trauma in their lives and affects about 7-8% of the U.S. population, or approximately 8 million adults, each year.

For those who have gone through abuse or trauma, it may be helpful to find a therapist specializing in somatic therapy, which focuses on the mind-body connection. It can help to release tension and stress stored in the body due to trauma and includes techniques such as deep breathing, movement, and touch.

Here are some types of therapy specifically helpful for trauma and abuse:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PET)
  • Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT)
  • Somatic Experiencing (SE)
  • Sensorimotor Psychotherapy
  • Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS)
  • Attachment-based Therapy
  • Bottom-Up Approaches, such as yoga, mindfulness, and meditation.
  • Polyvagal theory-informed therapy (PVT)
  • Emotion-focused therapy (EFT)
  • Coherence therapy (CT)

Sexual Inhibitions

Sexual inhibitions are barriers that can prevent someone from fully experiencing and enjoying sexual activity. Feelings of shame, guilt, anxiety, as well as physical discomfort can occur.

General sexual inhibitions may be caused by the following:

  • Cultural or Religious Beliefs
  • Lack of Sexual Education or Experience
  • Performance Anxiety
  • Personal Boundaries
  • Health Concerns
  • Personal Preference

While sexual inhibitions can be a healthy part of the human experience, they can also lead to complex challenges in a relationship. It is important not to see them as a sign of weakness but to proactively address concerns by becoming better educated and communicating them with your partner.

If you seek out a counselor for overcoming these types of sexual inhibitions, look for a therapist who specializes in cognitive-behavioral therapy, mindfulness-based therapy, or sex therapy.

By finding the right therapist, you can explore negative thought patterns, practice relaxation and mindfulness techniques, as well as practice behavioral techniques with your partner to enhance your sexual connection.

Psychological & Neurological Factors

Abuse, trauma, sensory processing difficulties, and tactile sensitivity can also cause sexual inhibitions. Examples of mental health diagnoses of people who may experience challenging reactions to touch are as follows:

  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Complex PTSD (c-PTSD or CPTSD)
  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Schizophrenia
  • Somatoform Disorders
  • Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD)

Feelings Of Rejection

Bristle reactions from a partner can feel like rejection. Which is another reason why it is essential to explore why someone is having them because it may be a sign of trouble in your relationship, or it may have nothing to do with how your partner feels about you, and they are struggling in another way.

If it is a reaction to problems with your relationship or if they are strugglng with something else, it presents the perfect opportunity to address those issues through open, honest, and empathic communication.

How Do You Stop Or Prevent Bristle Reactions?

Preventing or stopping bristle reactions completely depends on the underlying cause of them. It can be helpful to meet with a mental health therapist who specializes in neurodivergent disorders and trauma to rule out underlying mental health issues if the cause is not apparent to you.

Using Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Techniques

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be a beneficial tool for those who experience bristle reactions as they are typically associated with negative thought patterns, unwanted emotions, and undesirable behaviors. Here are some ways you can use CBT for bristle reactions.

Being Mindful

One of the best places to start is to notice when bristle reactions are happening. Ask yourself if they happen all the time or if there are certain times they are happening. Consider what may trigger them and ask yourself questions such as:

  • What type of touch seems to trigger bristle reactions?
  • Are there certain parts of your body that trigger bristle reactions more than others?
  • How do you feel physically when you experience a bristle reaction?
  • How do you feel emotionally when you have a bristle reaction?
  • Are certain environmental conditions, such as sounds, lighting, scents or tactile sensations, triggering them more often?
  • How do you typically react when you have a bristle reaction?
  • How does your partner usually react when you have a bristle reaction? Are they aware it is happening?
  • Have you communicated to your partner what you are experiencing?

By exploring your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations through nonjudgemental observations, you can become more attuned to what triggers a bristle reaction. Once you determine the triggers, you can explore underlying causes and ways to regulate your emotional responses to them more effectively.

Restructuring The Reaction & Allowing For Boundaries

When you become aware of the triggers and causes of bristle reactions, you can learn to reframe your thoughts around them with more positive ones as well as have better boundaries in place with your partner to ensure that they avoid doing things that may cause you distress.

The idea is not to see a bristle reaction as an adverse reaction but rather as a messenger letting you know something needs to be addressed. This can mean working through trauma, relationship issues, and other challenges to more easily receive affection. This can also help you feel more in control about managing your emotional experiences.

However, permitting yourself to distance yourself from undesired physical touch is just as important. If physical contact causes bristle reactions, it is perfectly healthy not to desire contact and indicate that you need physical space from another person. You don't owe people hugs, kisses, etc., even if they are your partner. This is especially important to recognize if you have trauma or are neurodivergent, but it is true of any scenario.

Stress Reduction

Sometimes when we are stressed or overstimulated physical touch can feel unpleasant. If you are experiencing bristle reactions and want to reduce them, using relaxation techniques can be helpful. Using techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization can help to calm your body and mind and assist in decreasing bristle reactions.

Exposure

When we experience negative associations and physical sensations with touch, it can be helpful to expose ourselves to touch mindfully. Allowing our partner to touch us when we are in a safe, controlled environment and are communicating what we want of them may reduce the anxiety or discomfort one feels when they have a bristle reaction. The goal is to reduce sensitivity to these physical triggers over time and become more comfortable with casual and spontaneous touch.

Incorporate More Nonsexual Touch

By connecting with a partner physically through nonsexual touch, we can also help reduce apprehension that it is an expectation of sex. It can allow partners to bond, share affection and be spontaneous and playful with one another in a physical manner.

Ways To Enjoy Nonsexual Touch

  • Use watching TV together or time before bed to spend time cuddling, massaging, or playing with hair.
  • Hug or hold one another's hands during the day may help desensitize bristle reactions by repeating physical interactions more frequently.
  • Participate in physical activities together, such as yoga or exercise, allowing you to touch one another and bond over fun and healthy activities.

Tips For Seeking Therapists

Remember that therapy can take time, and rushing therapy can cause distress. Advocate for the care you want and need and don't hesitate to ask for changes to their therapeutic approach.

Coping mechanisms have allowed you to survive and self-protect. Using therapy techniques to stop using coping mechanisms that have served your survival can cause a lot of unconscious emotional, mental, and even physical resistance. This is why it is essential not to rush ourselves and appreciate the defense mechanisms we've adopted while working toward healthier coping methods.

Also, if you feel that therapy is not working for you or is too overwhelming ask your therapist for changes to your therapy. If your therapist acts like they know what you need better than you do or can't take feedback, they may not be the right fit for you.  Make sure to advocate for the care you want and need.

In Closing

A bristle reaction can be a complex and challenging experience for both partners. The most significant aspects of addressing bristle reactions are respecting boundaries and healthy communication.

Bristle reactions can be an opportunity to learn more about one another, heal wounding, understand one another better, and develop more vital intimacy for a fulfilling relationship.

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