5 Tips for Overcoming Sexual Anxiety

Taylor Kravitz, MA, LMFT on Aug 10, 2022 in Mood and Feelings

Are you exhausted by trying to figure out how to overcome sexual anxiety on your own?

In this post, I’ll share five tips from a sex therapist that can help you overcome sexual anxiety.

Does any of this sound familiar? You want to have a fulfilling sex life, but anxiety is getting in the way. You get stuck in your head, spiral into a place of self-doubt and shame, and this leaves you frozen. Your body isn’t doing what you want it to do, you don’t feel present during sex, and sex isn’t feeling satisfying. Your partner(s) feels rejected and you feel incapable of fulfilling them. You’re afraid that if you don’t figure out how to feel more at ease with sex, your relationship or sense of self will continue to suffer. You’ve tried to address this but can’t seem to figure it out on your own. I want you to know that you are not alone, and there is hope! Let’s get into the tips!

Tip 1: Identify your sexual anxiety cycle.

An anxiety cycle is the loop you get stuck in when you’re anxious. It includes your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Your sexual anxiety cycle essentially includes what you’re afraid of, how you’re emotionally impacted by this fear, how your body responds to this fear, and how you react to these challenges overall. It’s important to map out your anxiety cycle because the better you understand what you’re going through, the better you’ll be able to manage it. Here are questions you can use to map out your anxiety cycle:

What specific fears or worries pop into your head about sex? (Example: "I’m afraid that my partner won’t be satisfied, I won’t be able to perform, I’ll be rejected, and I’ll feel ashamed.")

What do you worry will happen or could go wrong? (Example: “I won’t be able to get an erection.”)

If this fear comes true, what do you worry would happen then? And after that? (Example: “If I can’t get an erection, my partner will be unsatisfied. If my parter is unsatisfied, they could leave me.”)

What are the messages you tell yourself about you or your body before, during, and after sex? (Example: “Before sex, I tell myself it’s inevitable I’m not going to get an erection. During sex, I tell myself this is how it will always be. After sex, I tell myself I’m a disappointment and failure.”)

How do you respond to these messages? (Example: “I get stuck in my head and then end up not being present. Then sex isn’t pleasurable.”)

How do you react to this negative cycle overall? (Example: “I avoid sex altogether. I try to change subject if it comes up or go to sleep before my partner can initiate.”)

Now you can start to interrupt the anxiety cycle sooner. For example, when you first begin to worry “I’m afraid that my partner won’t be satisfied, I won’t be able to perform, I’ll be rejected, and I’ll feel ashamed," you can try to offer yourself some compassion, such as: “It’s okay that I’m feeling worried. It’s understandable to want my partner to be satisfied. I deserve to have a positive sexual experience.” This small shift can really make a big difference!

Tip 2: Work on identifying why you are struggling with sexual anxiety.

One of the first parts of overcoming sexual anxiety is understanding why you’re struggling with it. If you can address the why, you get to the root of the problem. Many people get too stuck on addressing their anxiety behaviors around sex. While that is important, sexual anxiety is complex and is often rooted in deeper feelings or experiences that need to be addressed.

Let’s walk through an example of someone who has sexual anxiety:

Bill struggles with sexual anxiety. When he thinks sex may happen with his partner, he starts to get really anxious. He begins to worry he won’t be able to perform, that he won’t satisfy his partner, that his body won’t do what he wants it to do, and that he’ll ultimately be rejected and his partner will be hurt. As soon as sex comes up, he begins to have thoughts like “I won’t be able to get hard. I’m going to let her down." His heart begins racing, he tries to avoid his partner so that they won’t have sex, and he feels guilty.

Bill grew up in a family that didn’t emotionally attune to him. The message he got growing up is that he needs to deal with his emotions on his own and that he shouldn’t express them. He was told not to cry, to toughen up, and would get in trouble if he had big expressions of emotions. He learned to keep his feelings to himself and to disconnect from his emotions all together. His family didn’t talk openly about sex, and he didn’t get much in the way of sex education from school. 

In high school, when he had sex for the first time, he was super nervous and insecure. He didn’t know what he was doing, understandably so, as someone who had never had sex before and didn’t get any supportive sex education. He struggled to get an erection, and his girlfriend at the time got upset with him. She felt unwanted (though she wasn’t able to express that to him) and said “What’s wrong with you?!” Bill internalized this and believed there was something wrong with him. He didn’t have anyone to talk to about this experience and about how it made him feel insecure and sad. He suppressed his feelings about it just like he learned to do his whole life. From then on, every time he was going to be sexual with someone, the thought of something being wrong with him would pop into his head. This turned into a self-fulfilling cycle. He’d worry something would go wrong, which meant he would be anxious and stuck in his head, which meant he wasn’t in his body and able to experience his natural arousal, which meant his fear would come true and the anxiety would get worse.

For Bill to truly address his performance anxiety around sex, he really needs to work on how he’s been suppressing his emotions for his whole life, how he didn’t get what he needed emotionally from his family, and the negative first sexual experience he had. If he only focused on taking a pill or a technique for getting and maintaining erections, he wouldn’t actually be addressing the root of the issue. If Bill is able to identify his emotions (like fear of losing his partner if she isn’t sexually satisfied), process his feelings and self-soothe, communicate about them with those who care about him, and invite self-compassion around his current and past fears, then he is going to transform his emotional and sexual life.

As you read Bill’s story, what comes up for you about the root of your own sexual anxiety? If you aren’t sure, that’s okay! This is when working with a professional sex therapist can make a huge difference.

Tip 3: Practice mindfulness.

Because anxiety results in being stuck in your head and focused on your fears about the future, it’s important to have tools for getting into your body and into the present moment. Mindfulness is the practice of slowing down to focus on being present. There are many ways to practice mindfulness, so I suggest focusing on doing so in whatever way works best for you. For some examples of mindfulness, check out this article.

Try to keep in mind that mindfulness is called a practice for a reason. It really does take practice to get the hang of it. Humans have pretty busy minds, and anxiety turns that up a notch (or many notches), so it’s really hard to actually slow down and be present.

Remember to be kind to yourself if you struggle. If your mind wanders or you get pulled back to the anxiety, know that’s totally normal and okay and then compassionately try to redirect yourself back to the present.

If you’re able to practice mindfulness in your daily life, you can start to integrate mindfulness into sexual situations. I recommend starting with solo sex (masturbation or other kinds of solo sexual exploration/activities) because it’s much lower stakes when no one is there to judge you or that you may feel worried about disappointing. After you’ve gotten the hang of integrating mindfulness into solo sex, you can start to try some bringing mindfulness into sex with a partner.

Here’s an example of incorporating mindfulness into sex based on our earlier story of Bill: Bill begins to feel anxious while having sex with his partner. He starts getting stuck in his head again and is struggling to be in his body. He decides to try some mindfulness. He tries to focus on the sensations he’s experiencing in this moment. He notices the smell of his partner’s shampoo, the softness of her skin, the warmth of her chest, and the tingling in his body as he is close to her. He tries to really focus on these sensations and his distracted thoughts then get replaced with just soaking in all the good sensations that are happening in the moment. He’s able to experience the pleasure available to him in this moment and his body is able to respond the way it wants to (He’s able to get an erection!).

Tip 4. Explore your solo sexuality.

As I mentioned earlier, solo sexuality can be a more comfortable space to explore because you don’t have to worry about someone else being satisfied or being judged by another person. Because of this, I really encourage folks with sexual anxiety to build a solid connection with their sexuality on their own, as this allows you to have some positive associations with sexuality and pleasure (as always, this is only if you’re open to this and is not necessary if you have no desire for solo sex or just don’t want to explore it).

There’s no one way or right way to engage in solo sex. It’s really up to you and based on what feels pleasurable for you! Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • reading or listening to erotic stories
  • watching erotic material (like porn)
  • attending sexuality workshops to learn more about your sexuality
  • masturbating* (with your hand or toys) *You don’t have to have an erection to masturbate, and you don’t have to experience an orgasm! There’s no right or wrong way to masturbate.
  • shopping for or trying out new sex toys
  • engaging in individual sex therapy

As you explore solo sex, you can work on incorporating mindfulness into it, learning about sexuality, noticing what you like and what you don’t, and expanding what can be pleasurable for you.

Tip 5: Get clear on your sexual wants and needs and communicate these with your partner(s).

As challenging as this can feel, it is super important to be able to communicate with your partner about your sexual wants, needs, and boundaries. If you don’t feel comfortable expressing these to a sexual partner, this is a sign that you aren’t feeling comfortable in general. And we really need to feel comfortable in order to be present in our bodies and connected to pleasure during sex.

Wants are things you would enjoy or would be nice to have as a part of your sexual experiences. Needs are things that are necessary for you to be comfortable engaging in sex with someone else. Boundaries are your limitations based on your own capacity and someone else’s behaviors (i.e. “I am not able to engage in sex if you are not willing to practice safer sex because I will feel uncomfortable."). It’s important to note that boundaries are not rules for someone else’s behaviors.

I recommend taking some time to write out what your sexual and relational wants, needs, and boundaries are. This can take some time to figure out, so be patient with yourself when you’re unsure. If you need some guidance, I highly recommend checking out the Yes, No, Maybe Inventory as a starting point and potentially working with a sex therapist who is trained to help you with this.

I hope this post has is helpful for you so that you can begin to work towards relief from sexuality anxiety. I promise this can get better for you. To summarize, here are the the five tips I shared for overcoming sexual anxiety:

Tip 1: Identify your sexual anxiety cycle.

Tip 2: Work on identifying why you are struggling with sexual anxiety.

Tip 3: Practice mindfulness.

Tip 3: Expand your solo sexuality.

Tip 5: Get clear on your sexual wants and needs and communicate these with your partner(s).

Taylor Kravitz is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in Portland, OR.

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