In women with vaginismus, the body's limbic system sends a signal of alarm that causes the vaginal muscles to tense up involuntarily (without the individual’s conscious control). But why does this occur?
Let’s explore the relationship between vaginismus and a part of the human brain called the limbic system. This important area is the root of the internal alarm that mistakenly alerts the body about danger, causing the vaginal muscles to tighten and, thus, prevent penetration during intercourse.
Comprised of a group of structures in the brain, the limbic system is normally involved with regulating emotions, memories and arousal (stimulation). Also included under its control is the instinctual human “fight-or-flight” response to real or perceived threats.
With vaginismus, when a body's sensory system detects various forms of touch, pelvic vulnerability, or anticipation of potential penetration, the limbic system responds inappropriately and signals the vaginal muscles to constrict.
Understanding the Role of the Limbic System
Normally, an adult female’s vagina easily stretches to accommodate a penis. You might compare it to how a sock stretches when you’re putting it on your foot. The vagina, however, has a set of powerful muscles surrounding its entrance. In fact, these are the same muscles that give you control over urination. When they contract strongly, the opening to the vagina is closed off, blocking penetration.
To help clarify, consider another analogy. Imagine you are trying to ski for the first time. On your initial run down a slope, your limbic system recognizes brain messages tied to fear, injury, and resulting pain. In effect, it hears messages like, “I might fall with this turn. That's going to hurt!” This triggers an internal alarm throughout your body, which automatically causes many of your body's muscles to tense up protectively in anticipation of this occurring. That’s why, at the end of your first day skiing, you may feel sore all over from the constant tightening up of your muscles.
The same thing is happening with vaginismus; only, in this case it’s specifically your vaginal muscles that are being affected. The body is simply reacting naturally to stimulus it perceives as potentially dangerous or painful in some way. The problem is, however, that normal, healthy intercourse is mistakenly associated in the brain with pain or harm.
Why Does this Happen to Me and Not to Other Women?
For most women, vaginismus comes as a complete surprise. They are sexually responsive and deeply desire to make love with their partner. However, their bodies’ involuntary reaction toward potential intercourse prevents them from satisfying this natural drive, resulting in extreme frustration.
Many women with vaginismus wonder why their internal alarm is overreacting when it seems like everyone else is able to have sex without an issue. Considering the fact that the vaginal muscle-tightening is rooted in the area of the brain—the limbic system—which controls some of our most primitive human responses, the answer to this question can be complex.
Every individual has different perceptions about sex resulting from their various experiences, attitudes from their upbringing, and genetics. Generally speaking, in women with vaginismus, there are unhealthy messages related to sex that are interpreted by the limbic system as threatening.
Sometimes, vaginismus can be tied to a combination of apparent experiential and mental/emotional causes. On the other hand, there may seem to be no direct cause. Frequently, contributing factors can be so subtle and numerous that they are never completely identified.
Complete Resolution is Possible, No Matter the Cause
The good news is that full identification of the cause of vaginismus is not necessary for the condition to be successfully treated in most cases. Through a step-by-step, gentle approach, women can gain control over their vaginal muscles and break the limbic system reaction causing the tightening.
Recovery from vaginismus opens the door to building the sexual intimacy and pleasure with your partner you’ve always dreamt of.