By Lindsay Curtis
Racing heart, shallow breathing, tensed muscles, and goosebumps. Sounds pretty sexy, right? Not always.
If we look closely, the physical symptoms of anxiety can overlap with some things we experience during sex and arousal. Though they share these physical experiences, anxiety and sex are not happy bedfellows. “Anxiety is a major contributor to diminishing frequency of sex and diminishing capacity for enjoyment of sex,” says Colorado-based certified sex therapist Indigo Stray Conger.
Let’s explore some of the more common ways anxiety can impact your sex life (and some tips to enjoy sex again!).
Anxiety and sex drive
Many of us living with anxiety know that it can tank your sex drive. It’s difficult to get “in the mood” when you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Even if you were horny moments before, your desire for sex can disappear when anxiety hits. There’s a physiological reason for this.
“When you’re stressed and anxious, your body has engaged its fight-or-flight defense system, interpreting harmless situations as potentially dangerous. This releases the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which can decrease sex hormones and suppress your desire and sexual arousal,” says sociologist & clinical sexologist Sarah Melancon.
Anxiety may hold you back from asking what you want
Sharing your sexual preferences and fantasies with your partner can make even the calmest person’s heart race. Anxiety — particularly social anxiety — can make verbalizing your sexual needs and desires even more challenging, which is linked with lower levels of sexual satisfaction.
“In the last few months, I’ve gained upwards of 15 pounds, with the stress of the pandemic,” says Hannah H., a Florida-based teacher. “Sex was on my mind a lot, but I’d been riddled with anxiety, and too self-conscious to initiate sex with my partner due to my added weight.”
Hannah is not alone. “People with social anxiety struggle with being vulnerable out of fear of judgment, but vulnerability is necessary for intimacy,” advises Melancon. For Hannah, it took an honest conversation with her partner to get comfortable with sharing her feelings around sex and asking for what she needs.
“After we had a heart-to-heart, we’re having more sex and are both getting our needs met.”
Anxiety can make sex more physically challenging
In order for sex to feel reallygood, you need some lubrication. We typically get wet after a little foreplay with our partner (or ourselves), but anxiety can decrease our natural lubrication (a good lube can help!). Anxiety-caused tension in your muscles may make bending and flexing for more creative sexual positions more uncomfortable, too.
Long-term anxiety may lead to poor erections in men and reduce blood flow to the clitoris in women, making sex less pleasurable. It can even lead to chronic pain, such as vaginismus, which tightens the muscles of the pelvic floor, making penetration extremely painful if not impossible.
Anxiety can be distracting
Picture this: you’re making out with your sexy lover, getting hot and bothered, and then - wham! - worry and stress flood your brain, and you’ve lost all desire for sex.
Anxious thoughts can be a big distraction and prevent you from getting in the mood and enjoying the moment with your partner. “When I was experiencing massive anxiety while engaging in sexual activity, my to-do list would get in the way of my experience,” says relationship coach and sex expert Gabi Levi. “Sex is one of the most in-the-moment things you can do, and yet I would be anxious about the amount of laundry I had to do later.”
5 Tips to manage anxiety and improve your sex life
For sex to be enjoyable and arousal to be easily accessible, you need to be able to focus and relax, which anxiety can interfere with. “For a positive sex experience, it’s important both the mind and body be present in the moment,” says Stray Conger.
So, what to do about anxiety that’s impacting your sex life? Here are five tips to ensure anxiety doesn’t completely derail your sex life.
Feeling too anxious to have sex with a partner? Masturbation may help release some tension without the added pressure of pleasuring your partner. “I tell people to explore masturbation as a form of stress release. Directing your anxiety into a sexual space can make sex more enjoyable and calm your nerves,” says Levi.
Studies showthat masturbation can protect the brain from the negative effects of stress hormones. Orgasm releases many hormones — such as endorphins — that can relax your body and offer many health benefits, including stress release.
Find professional support
If you’re really struggling, consider finding professional support to help manage your anxiety. A therapist can help you uncover the underlying reasons for your anxiety, and teach you coping skills that will help you both in and out of the bedroom.
Self-care and healthy routines
Getting plenty of sleep, eating a balanced diet, engaging in hobbies and pastimes that you like, and activities that boost your mood are all forms of self-care that can help reduce anxiety.
The next time you find yourself anxious and tense either before or during a sexual situation, try breathwork. There are lots of breathing techniques available to help release tension, and they’ve been proven to reduce stress and improve mental well-being.
Mix it up
Want sex with your partner but feeling the jitters? Try re-focusing your intimate time on pleasure rather than orgasm and performing. This could mean going slowly and exploring each other through kissing and gentle touch. Or it could mean mixing things up and trying new positions and places to have sex. The experience of exploring together — and each other — can help you relax and bring out your natural desire for sex.
If you struggle with anxiety that’s affecting your sex life, know you’re not alone. Reach out for support if you need it, talk with your partner, and be gentle with yourself.
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