Sex and Anxiety
If you have some anxiety surrounding sex - whether it's how you are in bed or if you want to be in bed at all - that is a normal, valid feeling.
A lot of the rhetoric around positive sexual experiences preaches that we should be confident in our sexuality. And while that’s great, having sexual confidence is often easier said than done. So if you have some anxiety surrounding sex—whether it’s how you are in bed or if you want to be in bed at all—that’s normal.
Sex is both very simple and very complicated. And it’s ok if your feelings match that nuance.
We’ve compiled a short summary of different causes of sexual anxiety and have some suggestions on how to combat these anxieties.
Pre-show jitters are more common than you think.
Performance anxiety often stems from unrealistic expectations and standards. TV and film, especially adult entertainment, have helped to warp what people think good sex looks like or how a sexual encounter should go. Unfortunately, most people don’t have a mental switch they can flip. Just because you’re in the mood doesn’t mean you suddenly feel confident in your body or ability.
It’s important to remember that sex is a skill. You don’t have to be perfect at it the first time, the fifth time, or ever. You’ll have off-days, and you’ll have days where you’re at the top of your game. You can’t be perfect all the time.
And what is perfect anyway? The so-called “perfect” sexual experience is subjective. What matters is that you and your partner are having safe and consensual fun. It matters if you’re doing what you like, not doing what you think you’re supposed to like.
Plain ole anxiety can also have a profound effect on your sex life. When your mood is low, or you’re feeling stressed, that can take a toll on you mentally. And even though it’s in your head, it’s not just something you’re imagining. The chemistry of the human brain can be fickle, and if it’s off, it’s bound to affect all areas of your mental real estate. Moreover, your sexuality isn’t an isolated part of your mind and body. It is ingrained in you. So if you’re experiencing anxiety about something, or anxiety in general, it can bleed into other parts of your life.
According to PubMed,
“Pathological anxiety and chronic stress lead to structural degeneration and impaired functioning of the hippocampus and the PFC, which may account for the increased risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders, including depression and dementia.”
Seeking help from your primary healthcare provider is the best place to start. Anxiety can be treated through psychotherapy, pharmacologically, or a combination of the two. A healthcare provider will have a better idea about the best course of action.
Sex can awaken a lot of mental blocks. Maybe you struggle with body image, or maybe you grew up in a sexually repressed environment.
How you feel in your body plays a huge role in your ability to enjoy sex. When we don’t want to be perceived, it can be challenging to connect with other people. Sex is an emotional act, but it’s also physical. And feeling disconnected from your physical body is sure to influence your connection to your body.
Learning to love your body is a long journey, but it is so rewarding.
If you have lingering shame about your sexuality from how you grew up, it’s normal to have complicated feelings about sex. It would be nice if the embarrassment we learned at a young age just faded as we got older; unfortunately, it tends to linger. Not learning to see sex as normal can damage the adult psyche and make it hard to see sex as good or even neutral.
What children learn about their body and bodily autonomy, gender, and sexual orientation sticks with them. Maybe you were taught as a child that only men and women could marry. Perhaps you were told as a teenager that masturbation is wrong. When you experience that kind of shaming and are programmed with beliefs that directly contradict everything we know about normal human sexuality, it can be hard to overcome that.
Unpacking your feelings of shame is a daunting task, but it’s a task many have already undertaken. There are books and podcasts on the subject, so you’re not starting from square one.
There’s a whole subsection of therapy dedicated to sexuality: sex therapy. These licensed professionals provide holistic mental health care to help individuals and couples address medical, psychological, personal, or interpersonal factors impacting sexual satisfaction.
In this context, we don’t mean asexual people, voluntarily celibate people, or those who are happily single. However, if you find that you’re avoiding sex because you have no interest in sex, it’s worth considering if you might be asexual. To be asexual is simply not to experience feelings of sexual desire. It does not necessarily correlate to a desire for emotional or physical intimacy.
But if you’re not someone who doesn’t care about sex, and you’re someone who is actively avoiding it, what could be causing that?
Sexual Aversion Disorder refers to people who have a phobia of sexual contact. It can range from a disdain for sexual intimacy to an outright disgust of genitalia, both other people’s and your own. This is usually classified as an anxiety disorder rather than a sexual disorder. However, those with Sexual Aversion Disorder might have experienced sexual-related trauma earlier in their lives, making it hard for them to enjoy sex.
If you have experienced major sexual trauma in your life, the best course of action is likely to attend therapy, especially for someone with specialized training in sexual trauma. A therapist will be your best starting place towards healing your relationship with sex.
But not all sexual avoidance comes from trauma. For example, some people choose to avoid sex out of fear of pregnancy or contracting an STI. While these are valid concerns, if they keep you from living the life you want to live, they might be worth addressing. Odds are, these fears exist separately from a fear of sex. Fears of STIs or pregnancy are their own issues that deserve individualized attention.
Warnings about contracting an STI or becoming pregnant because of sex are often emotional manipulation tactics to influence your sexual autonomy. Sex goes from being a neutral act to a dangerous one with potentially extreme consequences. Unpacking how you see sex will help you realize that sex isn’t an act that deserves punishment.
Tips For Combating Sex Anxiety
The time to tackle this is not right before—or during—the act. That can put even more pressure on yourself or your partner to perform.
If your sexual anxiety stems from other deep-rooted anxieties, those need to be critically addressed. While we hope you find this blog post helpful, this is not a replacement for therapy. If you need professional help sorting out your anxiety, we strongly encourage you to take charge of your sexual anxiety.
Giving yourself permission to be nervous can also help your overall anxiety. Sex is a wonderful thing, but it is also deeply personal. Sexual encounters mean inviting someone into what is typically a very private part of yourself, both physically and mentally. Fear of rejection or judgment is normal, and it's valid to want to protect that part of yourself. Honor your hesitation because therein lies your self-respect.
The trouble comes from being too protective of ourselves. While you can mitigate every potential embarrassment or awkward situation, in doing so, you might deny yourself wonderful experiences. So instead, understand where your anxiety comes from, prioritize your mental health, and permit yourself to have awkward, “cringey” moments. It’s from those moments that we grow. Or, at the very least, how we learn that our anxieties aren’t so scary after all.