Understanding your sexual anxiety—plus, how to overcome it, according to an expert

Sexual anxiety may be normal but, thankfully, you don't have to live with it forever...

sexual anxiety represented by a heart with pins
(Image credit: Getty Images / Yulia Reznikov)

Many people will experience sexual anxiety at some point in their lives. After all, feeling nervous about starting a new sexual relationship with someone is completely normal. 

But if feelings of sexual nervousness develop after you’re in a long-term relationship and you have sexually active for a long time, or it has reached the point where you avoid sexual interactions altogether, then it’s worth reaching out for expert help. 

While sexual anxiety may be common, you certainly don’t have to live with these feelings forever. "Anxiety during sex, or sexual activity, can be experienced by people of all ages in all sorts of relationships," says experienced therapist Dr. Katherine Hertlein. "Whenever it happens and whoever it happens with, sexual anxiety is often rooted in fear or discomfort of a sexual encounter. Sexual anxiety can be related to both your state of mind and the fear of being unable to please your partner when it comes to being intimate.”

As quickly as these feelings develop, they can often be eased and, thankfully, go away altogether. Sometimes the solution may be as simple as reconnecting with your own body again. Rediscovering how you like to be touched when you're alone is one of the first things you could try at home. Vibrators can help with this and encourage you to focus on your own sexual pleasure. Knowing your likes and dislikes will help you communicate your sexual needs with a partner. Understanding any sexual anxiety and where it's coming from is key to overcoming it. 

Common causes of sexual anxiety

There can be several causes of sexual anxiety, which can differ from person to person. You may have anxiety after sex or anxiety during sex. "Sexual anxiety can be the result of an underlying medical condition," says Dr. Hertlein, expert advisor at Blueheart. "It could also be down to relationship factors, power struggles, fears, mood disorders, and other mental health issues. Cultural or religious factors are also often to blame for women’s sex worries."

The most common causes of sexual anxiety include:

  • Body image issues
    If you are self-conscious about the way you look, it could be causing you sexual anxiety and low self-esteem.
  • Sexual performance anxiety
    This is a feeling of inadequacy when it comes to ‘performing’ in bed. It can sometimes be caused by a previous negative experience, such as a relationship based purely on repeated fighting followed by makeup sex. It may not just be you feeling this, but you could find your partner or boyfriend has performance anxiety too, and it's causing sex avoidance in your relationship.
  • Increased amounts of stress
    Being too stressed for sex can be common. Sex and anxiety is not a great mix. Stress in your daily life, from work, relationships, or general life, can cause you sexual anxiety.
  • Loss of sexual desire
    Low sex drive might be down to stress or even a side-effect of medication. But it can easily lead to a sexless marriage as both parties simply stop trying to make an effort for fear of failure, as well as sexual anxiety issues. 

Woman asking for help with signs, representing sexual anxiety

(Image credit: Getty Images / Malte Mueller)

How to tell if you have sexual anxiety

While many people may experience one or two of the issues above, such as body image concerns or daily stress at work, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have sexual anxiety. This is usually only diagnosed if you also have sexual dysfunction, which often presents itself physically.  

"Feeling anxious about sex can manifest in different ways, but it’s mainly through symptoms of sexual dysfunction,” says Dr. Hertlein. “For example, those who suffer from sexual anxiety can report an inability to climax. And this may still be the case if you find your partner sexually appealing. Sometimes it can also cause complete disinterest in sex, even in happy relationships."

If you are experiencing female sexual dysfunction, you should contact a medical professional, such as your doctor or a sex therapist, for further advice. 

How to overcome sexual anxiety

The good news is, there are things you can do to ease your sexual anxiety and overcome it. Dr. Hertlein shares five ways for getting a handle on your anxiety around sex. 

1. Go slow

Patience is key if you want to make your sexual anxiety a thing of the past, so you need to forget about trying to prioritize your own orgasm for now. "Try to move away from making sex a goal-oriented experience," says Dr. Hertlein. "It’s about taking your time, enjoying each other and finding intimacy and connection. Not only will this take the pressure off yourself and your partner, but it’s also a chance to learn what you find sensual. Think of it as a blank slate. This is a chance to explore what you enjoy without the time pressure or end goal."

2. Improve your lifestyle

Constantly rushing about during the day? It won't be helping things at night. "Our life events can sometimes cause us to feel stressed or anxious, leaving our minds running even when we’re trying to relax," says Dr. Hertlein. "You might experience stress or sexual anxiety because of something that happened at work, an argument with your family, or perhaps something else. Unfortunately, we cannot always take the stress out of our lives, but you can make lifestyle changes to help with how you deal with them."

Luckily, the best ways are the easiest to implement. "Some of my best advice is to make sure you’re getting the advised seven to eight hours sleep every night as you sleep can really affect your sex life. And make sure you're having a healthy balanced diet, and regular exercise even if it’s just an hour of walking per day. These lifestyle changes sound simple, but they enable us to put our best selves forward to deal with whatever life throws at us—and are an easy win if you want to know how to have good sex again," says Dr. Hertlein.

3. Be more mindful

Feelings of panic rising? "Move away from focusing on the anxiety around our body and sex," says Dr. Hertlein. "General anxiety-reducing strategies include mindfulness, breathing, and getting grounded. There are many resources, books, and apps that can help you to become more grounded and less anxious." But make sure you stick with them. "It helps if you do them for a period of time," adds Dr. Hertlein. 

You could also try and join a program or sign up for an app that will lead through techniques to help sexual anxiety and will support your overall sexual wellbeing. We recommend the following sexual health app:


Lover app |  subscription from $9.99/£9.99 A sexual health app with audio and visual guidance to help with sexual anxiety

Sponsored

The Lover app aims to help you build a more pleasurable sex life by helping you diagnose and treat sexual issues–especially ones that stem from mental blocks and anxiety. It also provides expert guidance to help you improve your sex drive and introduces you to techniques to increase your sexual pleasure and reduce sexual anxiety. 

4. Talk to your partner

Never hide the fact that you're feeling anxious around sex—speak up, however embarrassed you feel. "Anxiety in your relationship is likely not a comfortable thing," says Dr. Hertlein. "But, it may be helpful to talk to your partner about your anxieties, especially if your initial reaction is to avoid sex. This will help them understand what you’re experiencing so you can work through it together. The more clarity and communication you have around the topic, the easier it will be for you to work through it together."

5. Get professional help

"Finally, if you're still experiencing issues with your body or sex after trying these techniques, it’s important to talk with your doctor," says Dr. Hertlein. "It might be the result of an underlying health condition or a result of medication you’re taking."

And don't be scared about talking to a sex therapist on your own, or having sex therapy with your partner—both could help deal with sexual anxiety. 

"Seek out help," says Dr. Hertlein. "Therapy for anxiety-reduction or a therapist who specializes in sexual health and couples therapy can be a life-changing method of support. Don’t suffer in silence.

Sexual anxiety represented by a broken heart sweet

(Image credit: Getty Images / Carmen Martínez Torrón)

How to deal with a panic attack during sex

Having a panic attack at any time can be overwhelming. If you have one during sex and don't resolve it, it could lead to sexual nervousness, sexual performance anxiety or sex avoidance further down the line. At times the reason for anxiety attacks during sex can be understood but, at other times, they can be hard to decipher.

"There are many reasons why someone may experience a panic attack during sex, even though the sex may be consensual and with a loving partner," says certified love, sex and relationship therapist Andrea Balboni from Zoe Clews & Associates

"Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), whether diagnosed or not, may be experienced by the survivors of sexual assault or other forms of trauma. Plus generalised anxiety disorder and panic disorder can also lead to panic attacks during sex."

Andrea shares her tips on what to do if you have a panic attack during sex, whatever the cause:

  1. Take care of yourself
    "Move away from sex and explain to your partner what's happening. Let them know you need some space to work through it."
  2. Breathe deeply
    "Before you take an inhale, exhale fully by emptying your lungs completely. Let your lungs inhale air as they will. Then gradually spend a bit longer on the exhale than the inhale. For example, try inhaling for two seconds, then exhale for four. Then inhaling for four and exhaling for six. Do this for two to five minutes or until you feel yourself come back into balance."
  3. Reassure yourself
    "Tell yourself supporting phrases, such as, ‘I am safe, I am protected, It’s going to be OK’. The words you use will depend on what you need to hear to give you a sense of security and calm."
  4. Move around
    "Move your body in any way that feels stabilizing and grounding. This could be a gentle rocking if you are sitting. Or you can stand and shake off the excess energy, wiggling or patting your body in a way that feels soothing. Maybe wrap your arms around yourself in a steady hug. This gives you a sense of containment and control."
  5. Try humming
    "Hum or use the ‘vuuu’ sound to reduce the activation throughout your body by soothing the vagus nerve. This nerve regulates lots of different functions like heart rate and breathing, and activating it through humming allows you to tap into your body’s natural relaxation responses." 
  6. Share your feelings
    "After the panic attack has passed, you can spend some time sharing with your partner what you experienced. They may need to hear that it wasn’t their fault. And will likely want to know what they can do to help, should it happen again."