If you’ve ever dealt with sexual anxiety, you’ll know it's the last thing you want in bed. Even though the lighting is just right and the music is sultry, you’re hit with this immediate sense of panic and hypersensitivity, and all things sexy just start to feel wrong. Much like generalised anxiety or panic attacks, sexual anxiety is the triggering of your survival instincts during sexual activity — otherwise known as your fight, flight or freeze response. It can happen for a number of reasons and sometimes, for no reason at all.
Encompassing a variety of reactions, ranging from physical to mental, sexual anxiety can be a barrier not just to your sex life but also to your general wellbeing. If anxiety during sex is impacting your relationships with others or with yourself, you’ll have more than one reason to want to get it under control.
The good news is, there are practical ways we can cope with sexual anxiety. Certified sex coach Georgia Grace explains that to get ahead of sexual anxiety, we need to be practising mindfulness and calm outside of sex. “We do this so we can learn and recognise the times that anxiety is incoming, and then develop some tools so that it’s easier to apply during sex,” Georgia explains. This includes (but isn’t limited to) yoga, breathing practice, and mindful meditation. One helpful way might be to practise meditation techniques while masturbating as a way to practise regulating your sexual anxiety in private.
Amongst the many different reasons someone can experience sexual anxiety, whether it’s due to trauma or linked to general mental wellbeing, is that it can be linked to performance. You may feel worried about your lack of experience or your partner’s comparative wealth of it. And sometimes, our bodies just don’t respond to sexual stimuli the way we want them to. Our sex life is ultimately informed by our situations outside the bedroom, no matter how much we wish we could switch them off.
“We push our bodies to be busy and productive all day, and then put all this extra pressure on ourselves within those few minutes of sexual activity to suddenly be present and relaxed — which is so challenging,” Georgia says.
This process of overcoming sexual anxiety (and it truly is a process, as we can’t rush healing) will look different for everyone. Whether you incorporate specific breathing techniques or get up from the bed and use movement to regulate your nervous system, it will be up to you to find what works best. Georgia also recommends co-regulation, which means making your sexual partners aware of the best ways they can help you if you start getting anxious mid-sex. If you need to take a break, this could mean making sure your sexual partner either gives you space or doesn’t touch you at all until you’re ready to try again.
But what if you’d rather stop altogether? One of the things that we might grapple with when experiencing sexual anxiety is our innate desire to people-please. Whether you’re with a regular partner or a total stranger, or even a group of people, asking to stop sex half-way through can bring up feelings of guilt or embarrassment. Maybe you’re worried about what your partner/s will think, or you’re concerned about interrupting their pleasure with your panic.
According to Georgia, this is extremely common. For all the rhetoric we have around ‘asking for what we want in sex’, what if we don’t know what we want or if what we want changes? “We need to normalise the fact that our desires change all the time, and it’s normal,” she says. “You can ask for something and it just doesn’t live up to your expectations — or you can go into sex thinking you want it and then your anxiety changes your mind.”
First and foremost, we don’t owe sex to anyone if we don’t feel like it — even if we’ve already started. Continuing sexual activity if there’s even the tiniest part of you that doesn’t want to anymore can become an issue of consent, so it’s important to vocalise what you’re feeling straight away to avoid damage to yourself and/or your relationship. Ultimately, it’s a process of claiming not just your right to say a firm ‘no’ or a resounding ‘yes’, but having the freedom to change your answer at any given time.
“Sex is about pleasure,” Georgia concludes. “It’s not about enduring it to make sure your sexual partner is having a good time. If you continue to ignore your sexual anxiety and start to ‘push through’ sex, you can start to dread it. What you need to do is redefine sex and find new ways in. Find things that make sex feel safe and accessible for you.”