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Anxious Physical Tension when Holding Partner

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From a man in the UK: As long as I can remember, I’ve had an issue where if I am holding a partner for more than 5-10 minutes, I get really physically tense. It builds in intensity, to the point where I just have to break away into my own space for a while. It can happen sat on the sofa, or when going to sleep. I don’t feel emotionally distressed, just a build of muscular tension where I really need to tense muscles as the tension builds to unbearable levels. It does feel like I need to escape/run, but I’m not at all emotionally panicked, it’s just a physical response to something. It’s rather like a purely physical portion of a fight/flight response.

If I break contact and stay separate from the partner, the tension dissipates within seconds. I find a more comfortable way for me to get to sleep is to turn my back on my partner and sleep on my side at a distance that is far enough away from them to fool my body that I am alone. It is greatly frustrating, as it just results in me having to pull away regularly. It doesn’t occur when I’m being intimate and aroused, just when normal and relaxed.

I’m a trained counsellor myself, and am clear that I’m not aware of any emotional stress or trigger other than being in someone’s arms. There is an aspect which might feel like I’m trapped, and the urgency of the physical need to get away is like a form of panic. I have spoken about this with my therapist before, but we couldn’t come up with anything obvious. I don’t remember any specific events of physical abuse as a child, but do believe I was hit by my father at times, and that it has left elements of distress in parts of my adult life. Though I’m not sure that is part of what I’m experiencing in this physical proximity stress.

Anxious Physical Tension when Holding Partner

Answered by on -


Have you considered the possibility that this is a symptom of a sensory processing disorder? The cause of tactile-defensiveness such as you describe is often not an outcome of trauma but rather is neurological in origin. I suggest you do some research about it and see if it fits. If so, do consider seeing an Occupational Therapist for suggestions for treatment.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

Anxious Physical Tension when Holding Partner

Therapists live, online right now, from BetterHelp:

Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

Dr. Marie is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2018). Anxious Physical Tension when Holding Partner. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 May 2018 (Originally: 11 Jan 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 May 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.