How Anxiety Is Messing Up Your Sex Life
Getting in the mood, being honest about what turns you on, and enjoying super pleasurable orgasms all suffer when you're gripped by panic and worry. Here's how to dial back those crazy-anxious feelings.
Anxiety can hold you back in your career and crank up your stress level during social situations. So it makes sense that the worry, apprehension, and fear that are hallmarks of the condition will also make a huge dent between the sheets.
“All anxiety is a distraction that limits sexual success,” says Laurel Steinberg, PhD, a New York–based sex and relationship therapist and professor of psychology at Columbia University. Whether your anxious feelings come and go or you have a diagnosed condition such as general anxiety disorder, it can be a huge buzzkill when it comes to connecting with your partner and experiencing pleasure.
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Most of the issues anxiety can cause in the bedroom can be worked through, especially with the help of a therapist. But first you have to recognize just how the emotions it brings on are sapping your sex life. Sex should be fun, pleasurable, and stress-relieving. If it’s not, read on to see how anxiety could be playing a role.
Anxiety can lower your libido
Anxious feelings can sink your sex drive in a number of ways. That overwhelmed feeling you get when anxiety kicks in can railroad sexy thoughts out of your brain, preventing you from being in the mood even if you were raring to go earlier in the day.
Panic and worry also have a physical effect on your body, ramping up the production of stress hormones like adrenaline that make you feel on edge. When your body can't physically relax, reveling in sexual sensations and getting close to a big O is going to be a lot more difficult.
And then there's the libido-lowering side effect of certain medications used to treat anxiety, says Steinberg. She calls it an unfortunate catch-22: the drugs which help keep the condition from getting worse also tend to decrease your interest in getting it on.
It keeps you from being body confident
Getting naked in front of someone for the first time is nerve-racking for everyone. But when you have anxiety, you're more likely to feel intensely self-conscious, and you're more apt to obsess about so-called body flaws. “Women can be self-conscious about their body shape in general, or about a particular part, like their breasts, or about the way they smell, taste or perhaps move,” says Steinberg. When you have anxiety, that self-consciousness is heightened.
“If women are continually being self-critical of themselves due to body shame, they shut down the ability to receive sexual pleasure fully and are unable to be fully present emotionally and physically during sexual scenarios,” says Sari Cooper, director of Center for Love and Sex in New York City.
Anxiety holds you back from intimacy
When you're seized by fear and panic, you may not want to be physically or emotionally close to your partner. And for women who have anxiety from past trauma, sexual touching and sex itself can be scary. “If a woman is triggered by past trauma, it can cause her whole body to go into shutdown mode, unable to experience enough arousal to tip her over the edge to a climax,” says Cooper. Without realizing it, you might avoid sex or any foreplay, and that can create a strain on your relationship.
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It can keep you from asking for what you want
It’s often difficult even for close partners to share their preferences and fantasies. But anxiety can increase that challenge. Thing is, being honest will only make your sex life better, and it can be a relief to get any bottled up feelings off your chest.
“Whatever you want in bed is 100% normal and okay, and you will have a better relationship when you feel that you can be completely transparent with a partner,” says Steinberg. It's hard to process that, though, when adrenaline is coursing through your body and making you feel as if danger is ahead.
Anxiety makes it more difficult to orgasm
Clenched muscles, shallow breathing, goose bumps—these and other physical symptoms of anxiety block you from letting go and reaching climax. The condition "can raise your 'orgasmic threshold,'" says Steinberg, which is another term for how long it takes or how much stimulation you need to reach orgasm.
It can also put the brakes on lubrication, make flexing and bending your body uncomfortable, and even trigger vaginismus, a disorder that makes your vaginal muscles so tense and contracted, penetration is impossible. These physical changes, coupled with anxious thoughts, can further mess with your awareness of physical sexual stimulation, says Cooper, which inhibits orgasm.