Whether you’ve got an anxiety-related diagnosis or you simply spend a lot of time worrying, feeling anxious can put a major damper on the enjoyment you reap from your sex life. Some anxiety is situational, and some has deeper roots. Maybe your body image makes you want to hide rather than get undressed. Maybe past sexual experiences cause you to shrink from your partner. Maybe worries about your performance make it hard for you to stay in the moment. Unless you’ve managed to compartmentalize or fetishize those worrisome feelings, they could interfere with your ability to feel arousal or even reach orgasm.
What to do? As a shy overachiever who struggles with social anxiety, I’ve worried and worried about what people think of me (in and out of bed). Sometimes I feel torn between two extremes - should I bottle it all up or let it all loose? As you might imagine, neither of these things leads to particularly sexy behavior.
I think of these two extremes as anxiety coping mechanisms - the Scylla and Charybdis of sex and relationship communication, if you will. For those blanking on Greek mythology, Scylla was a multi-snake-headed monster and Charybdis was a giant destructive whirlpool. Both were positioned by a narrow stretch of water that Odysseus had to traverse in "The Odyssey," meaning that sailors would have to try to steer a course between the two monsters without getting too close to either of them. Think of it as the mythological equivalent of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. This is what anxiety feels like for many sufferers.
For me, focusing on how I frame my expectations and my emotional experience is a really good way to avoid anxiety-induced breakdowns (the one extreme) or bottle-ups (the other). Here are some tips for how to manage experiences of anxiety and still have fun in bed.
Keep Things in PerspectiveLet’s say you’re worried about your performance or the way you look or smell when you’re with someone in bed. Rather than beating yourself up for worrying too much, try to keep things in perspective. Anxiety tends to distort our sense of reality. Here are a few questions to help put things in perspective.
- Will you care about this in five years' time? If you do or say something that feels dumb or embarrassing, your first reaction may be to start beating yourself up. But is this little interaction really going to matter when it comes to the big picture? Chances are the answer is no, and you can move on with your fun sexy experience.
- What are you really afraid of? Figure out what you’re afraid of and find a way to release it. You could give yourself five minutes to speak out loud and rant about your fears, or you could give yourself 10 minutes to furiously scribble about your fears and worries in a notebook. When you’re done ranting, let go of the fear. Physically put it aside if you’ve written in a notebook (you could even tear up the page!). Or, if you’ve ranted out loud, change the mood by shaking out your whole body or taking a series of deep breaths.
Let Go of ExpectationsHaving expectations or assumptions can bog you down in bed. Rather than digging in to the sexy fun that's right there in front of you, you'll be worrying about fulfilling those expectations, or getting your (uncommunicated) needs met. Instead, you can identity those expectations and assumptions and let go of them before you do the deed.
Spend time talking or writing about your expectations regarding sexual encounters so that you can be clear about the ideas you’re carrying around in your head. If you decide to write, give yourself permission to write whatever you feel without needing to show it to anyone. If you decide to talk it out, try to do it as a monologue or confide in someone who isn’t the partner in question. Once you’ve reached these insights on your own, you’ll have an easier time thinking through their implications and sharing them.
You can also practice letting go of expectations by playing a game with your partner to get comfortable stating and releasing these feelings. You can be silly or serious when you do this. A silly example might be telling your partner, "I expect you to bring more cephalopods to bed." My partner could then tell me that it might be healthy to let go of this particular expectation. As a more serious example, you may tell your partner, "I expect you to listen to me in bed," and they may respond by saying, "I will always honor that expectation. Let’s make it a relationship agreement now that you’ve communicated about it." You can play with phrasing until you find something that resonates with you.
Communicate, Communicate, CommunicateIf you’re in an open relationship or into kink, you’ve probably already figured out how crucial communication is, but I still recommend upping your communication, regardless of how you play.
Make time to talk about your sex-related anxieties outside of the bedroom. Yeah, it can be awkward, but it's worth it. This way, there’s no pressure to talk it through and find a solution quickly in order to get it on. Plus, talking about sex not only builds confidence, but can also help with setting limits and establishing what safe sex means to each party.
So, use your anxiety as a conversation-starter. Try telling your partner, or a sympathetic friend, "I am feeling really ashamed and anxious about this new fantasy I've been having. Can I talk to you about it a little?" Sometimes just giving a voice to these fears can help us acknowledge them and move past them.