What to do if anxiety takes the fun out of sex

By Louise Head

Feeling anxious during sex can bring things to a grinding halt in the bedroom. It’s pretty hard to focus on how good you feel when you’re worrying about how badly things could go. Unfortunately, having anxiety is super common. About 1 in 5 people has an anxiety disorder making it the most common mental health issue in the U.S.

When it comes to sex, people have anxiety about tons of things. Some of the most common worries are getting an STI, the condom breaking, how your body looks during sex, whether you will orgasm, whether your partner will orgasm, and whether you seem experienced in bed, just to name a few. 

Regardless of how common these anxieties are, they can still feel really personal when they’re happening to you. If it seems like your anxiety is preventing you from feeling pleasure during sex, you’re not imagining things. 

Anxiety impacts your body and mind during sex 

A 2010 study found that feeling extremely anxious during a sexual experience was correlated with lower blood flow to the vagina. So anxiety could actually be related to suppressed physical arousal.  People who were more anxious also reported that they did not feel as turned on during a sexual experience even if their body was showing arousal responses. 

Anxiety during sex often results in spectatoring. Spectatoring is when you find yourself judgmentally watching your every move during sex instead of enjoying the physical pleasure of it. It tends to show up as a stream of self-critical thoughts. You might catch yourself thinking, Does he hate being down on me? Do I smell weird? Omg, I’m taking way too long to orgasm. Is this even fun for her? Does my stomach look weird when I’m on top?

Spectatoring is any thought that takes you out of the in-the-moment experience of sex. It’s being too in your head to feel what’s really going on. The good news is that, if this happens to you a lot, there’s actually something you can do to change it. 

Refocus your attention 

A 2013 study showed that practicing mindfulness helped women increase their sex drive and arousal. Anxiety takes you out of the present while mindfulness keeps you in it. Anxiety typically means you are focusing on a negative future outcome (I won’t be able to orgasm) or on something that you can’t control (my partner might think I’m bad at blow jobs). Since humans can’t really multitask, when you occupy your brain with the sexy sensations happening in real time, you have less space for anxious thoughts. Becoming a sexually mindful guru is not necessarily easy, but luckily practice does make you better at staying in the moment.

The easiest way to be more present during sex is to start focusing on what is physically happening in neutral, non-judgmental terms. Pay attention to the sensations you are feeling. Try narrating this in your head. His hands are on my thighs or I can feel her tongue on my clit. 

Don’t worry if you’re pretty imperfect at staying in the moment. When you find yourself getting distracted by an unhelpful thought, just redirect your attention back to what’s going on physically. 

Tap into your turn-ons 

From masturbation to one night stands to mental fantasies, every person is going to have diverse experiences with sex. Some will be more positive and some will be more negative. Anxiety tends to tap into our negative narratives about sex. We focus on the ways sex has gone wrong or has been embarrassing. 

To counteract this, spend some time getting in touch with your most positive sexual self. Reflect on your favorite sexual experiences and ask yourself what made them so enjoyable. Identify the times you felt most turned on. What was going on and how can you tap into that the next time you’re having sex?

We all want and enjoy sex in different ways. You may love when sex is rough and sweaty with someone new who you’re excited about. Or you may get really turned on by wearing fancy lingerie, feeling sexy and beautiful, and making yourself come. Getting more in touch with how you specifically enjoy sex won’t erase anxiety, but it will create more space for sex to be about your pleasure than for it to be about worrying. 

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