Tips For Dealing With Anxiety in Sexual Relationships
Guest post by: Mariella Hudson
Figuring out sexual relationships is an activity fraught with emotion, what with the excitement, nerves and intense chemical reactions sparking neurons all over the place. If you have anxiety issues, the natural ups and downs can trigger distressing fight-or-flight responses – the last thing you want when you’re trying to get it on! As someone who has experienced her fair share of sexual anxiety and a variety of issues in tandem – depression, vaginismus, vulvodynia and mild PTSD – I’d like to offer a few tips for those uncertain how to manage their anxiety within the context of sexual relationships. It can be hard, but it’s never impossible.
Groundwork: The Right Support
Your anxiety is not going to go away without proper treatment. Do make sure you’re in consultation with your doctor and, if possible, a qualified therapist. If you think your anxiety primarily arises from sexual situations, or if you have had negative sexual experiences in the past, you may want a psychosexual therapist. Without these key resources, all the tips in the world can only go so far before you hit a dead end. Also, make sure you get checked out by a gynaecologist or urologist if you think something could be physically wrong; it’s always good to rule these things out.
A note about partners: a relationship typically involves two people (though if you can handle more, go you!). That means that you bear exactly 50% of the responsibility for the health and happiness of any sexual relationship you have, whether it’s a long-term commitment or a one-time encounter. You’re going to need a supportive partner: someone who is mature enough to be honest and sensitive to your needs as well as their own, and you’ll need to do the same. A supportive partner is not someone who blames you, pressures you or expects you to deal with your issues alone; on the other hand, they are also not someone who pushes their own needs aside in order to focus all emotional labour exclusively upon you. It’s a tricky balancing act, but hopefully these tips can help. So get your partner to read them too!
Disclosing To Your Partner
It’s totally up to you how much of your mental health issues you disclose to a new partner, but bear in mind that it will crop up at some point, so ‘sooner rather than later’ is a good rule of thumb. Roughly figure out what you want to say and when – for example, you might feel fine mentioning that you have anxiety on Date One, but perhaps you’d rather not use that time to add, ‘And consequently, if we have sex later, I may not be able to do X and Y.’ If you’re cool with that, go for it, but if not, maybe leave that for when you’re making out in bed and it’s clear that you’re getting sexual, but maybe not so late that you’re right in the middle of coitus – you get the idea.
Ultimately, there’s no right or wrong, but it’s worth reflecting beforehand about what you’ll be comfortable with so you don’t panic in the moment. In talking about these things you will be making yourself vulnerable, and nerves are natural. If they’re a decent person, they’ll be understanding. Be open to their questions, but set boundaries if need be: ‘There are more things I’d like to tell you, but I can’t just yet. I will let you know when.’ In my own experience, I’ve found it’s most useful – and a relief – to just lay it all out on the table when the right moment arrives. The more they know, the more they can help.
Figure Out The Boundaries
A wonderful tool that I discovered through the brilliant Sexplanations is the following: make a chart with three columns, ‘Yes’, ‘Maybe’ and ‘No’. Beneath each column, write down a variety sexual activities in their appropriate place. They may change places over time, of course – but be honest about what feels right now, not what you think you should be saying ‘yes’, ‘maybe’ or ‘no’ too. Forget ideas of what’s ‘normal’ or expected – it’s your body and no one else’s.
This tool gives you a framework with which you can establish your sexual boundaries, something that often becomes difficult or impossible when you suffer an anxiety episode. When you’re ready, share it with your partner and encourage them to fill out their own chart, so you can see where you overlap and where you need to manage your expectations. (This is a good idea for all couples, anxiety issues or no!)
This way, you can avoid triggering anxiety with sudden surprises when you’re getting sexual. You can also avoid falling into the trap of consenting to something you don’t really want to consent to because your anxiety is stopping you from expressing your feelings and bad voices are telling you you’re a bad partner if you don’t (you’re not). You can’t plan for all the surprises that sex brings, and anxious moments will still happen – but this tool could be more helpful than you think, especially if you find it difficult to spell out to your partner what you want and don’t want in bed.
Let Them Know What Helps and What Doesn’t Help When You’re Feeling Anxious
As a general rule, if you’re doing something sexual and it stops feeling nice – STOP! And if you’re doing something sexual and you start to feel anxious – STOP!
Let your partner know beforehand that this might happen and figure out a protocol. You know how lots of couples use ‘safe words’? You could establish one that is particular to an anxiety situation, like ‘Anxious’ or ‘Trouble’. Anxiety can make clearly verbalizing your feelings very difficult, so a special safe word allows you to quickly communicate, ‘I’m feeling anxious and we need to stop.’ Just ‘stop’ on its own could mean ‘stop, I don’t like that’ rather than ‘stop, I’m feeling anxious’ – and while in either case your partner should stop immediately, it’s helpful if they then know what to do next, such as ‘lie next to me stroking my arm until I let you know I’m okay again’ or ‘get me a glass of water and my favourite jumper’, or whatever you decide together beforehand.
It’s helpful to apply this concept to non-sexual scenarios as well. I figured out that when I’m feeling anxious, a simple physical touch – a hand on my hand, for example – is better than verbal communication. That’s just me, and you’ll have your own way.
If you’re not sure exactly what is helpful for you when you’re feeling anxious, that’s fine, let them know you’re still figuring it out. But always stop any activity that’s making you anxious, and try mindfulness, grounding techniques or whatever helps you get out of the anxiety in that moment. It’s good to talk to your partner about why and how you were triggered, but afterwards (see number 6).
Listen To Your Body and Don’t Pressure Yourself
Yes, you want to have a sexual relationship, and it can be frustrating as all hell trying to get it on with all these anxious feelings bombarding you from all sides. However, it’s vital you stay in touch with what your body wants in that given moment rather than what you, as a person, want in general. Example: ‘In general, I want to enjoy oral sex. But does my vulva feel like oral sex right now? Hmm…no. Let’s try something else for now and see how she feels after a bit of that!’ Remember that no one particular act is necessary in order to ‘have sex’. I think sex is anything that makes you feel good and turns you on.
Anxiety can be a signal from your body that something is wrong, so pay attention to it (see number 3). If you feel yourself dissociating, or that it’s hard to focus in the moment and hear what your body is saying to you, and not in a ‘I’m in such sexual bliss that I’m transcending to another plane of consciousness’ way – that’s could be a sign that things may not be right. Stop and try some grounding techniques.
Accept and Embrace All The Feelings
Despite what the movies would have you believe, the satisfaction of a relationship arises not only from the moments of joy, but also from the surmounting of difficulties, be they dramatic falling-outs of epic proportions or humdrum bothers and bickering. It’s the ups and the downs, not just the ups. Unfortunately, when you suffer from anxiety, even small annoyances can trigger anxiety attacks. My anxiety often arises in an unconscious effort to divert my feelings away from anger, but anger is a necessary and healthy component of both life and a relationship – without it, you can’t stick up for yourself when people cross red lines (which everyone will do at some point, because nobody’s perfect). So don’t beat yourself up about the things you feel and try your best to just sit with them and let them out. If you don’t, anxiety is likely to surface instead.
Feel Now, Talk Later
Let’s say your partner does something that pisses you off, and you get triggered into anxiety. You may become confused and overwhelmed; you may start thinking about all the other times people have made you feel crappy, and then that starts making you even more anxious, and by the time your partner asks you what’s wrong, you’re in danger of screaming at them for what may be a relatively minor offence.
Take yourself away from the situation for a moment to calm down and try some of Ruth’s top tips for ‘anxiety-anger’. Then try to identify what your partner has done to upset you, and separate it from the past events that are upsetting you further. Then talk to them about the stuff that directly relates to them only.
BUT – don’t hide the other stuff forever. Just wait until you are out of the anxiety and back in a safe space where you can talk about it. That could be hours later when you’re both cuddling on the sofa, or weeks later, when the emotional sting is well and truly calmed. It might help to bring it up with a therapist in the meantime, so that they can help you identify exactly what was going on inside your head. Then, when you’re ready, you can say to your partner, ‘Hey, remember when I got anxious about that thing last week? Well, I think what was going on was this…’
That way, you’re keeping them in the loop and you’re not isolating yourself, but neither are you reacting disproportionately and punishing them for more than they are responsible for. It’s a tricky balance and you may not always get it right, but you’re human! After all, even people without anxiety can take a bad day out on someone who doesn’t deserve it. Just apologise, explain, and keep working at it. They’ll probably do the same thing someday.
Share All The Small Things
Every tiny discovery you make as you negotiate a sexual relationship is worth sharing, as it consolidates your progress together and ensures you both keep building on the good stuff and fine-tuning the rest. The same is true of your progression through anxiety. ‘Hey, I really liked it when we…’ ‘It really helped me when you…’ ‘I think it would be better for me if we didn’t…’ And so on. I don’t believe there is such a thing as TMI (too much information).
Yes, sometimes embarrassing things can happen that totally kill the sexy mood, and they may even make you panic. Beat this: the first time I queefed, it was an epic queef, and it happened while I was receiving oral sex. Even for the most confident of lovers amongst us, oral sex is ripe ground for anxiety: how not to feel self-conscious? How to just get out of your head and into your body, to just relax, and I QUEEFED IN HIS FACE. Twice. And lo, the sky did not come crashing down. I could recover from that and laugh about it – and impressively, he could too! So roll with it, and embrace the fact that you’re not dolls. You are humans with bodies, and bodies are wonderful, messy and hilarious.
Plus, I have found that nothing kills anxiety quicker than laughter.
Don’t Feel Guilty About Asking For What You Need
Everyone has needs, and all parties in a relationship should give and take in accordance with everyone’s needs. There is a danger in over-pathologising your situation, as it can lead to self-attack. Examine the following thought pattern: ‘I’ve got a problem à I’m abnormal à I’m a hassle to be with à They must be so frustrated and fed up with me à This is never going to work’ etc etc. Once these thought patterns settle into unconscious routine, they are very hard to undo.
Instead, remember that everyone, absolutely everyone has difficulties and problems in their sex lives, and anxiety probably won’t be the only snag you come across in yours. It may even help you address problems you would have otherwise ignored. Treat it therefore as you treat the other obstacles: as challenges that can be exhausting and difficult, but that can ultimately be overcome through teamwork with your partner, who themselves will be bringing their own baggage and problems to the relationship, after all.
Be A Team
Replace ‘I have a problem that affects my sex life’ with ‘we have a problem in our sex lives right now’. The former ties you down to an identity that you don’t want; the latter puts the problem into perspective and defines it as a joint challenge, one that needn’t be all-encompassing. Consider your sexual relationship as a project that is work-in-progress, as all relationships are and never stop being, since people and their sexual natures change over time.
I’ve found it really helps my morale to talk to my partner in terms of our thing rather than my thing, things we can try rather than things I need to do. This will allow you to inspect the underlying issues with greater clarity, since the sting of shame and self-attack is removed, and view the situation with some objectivity. It also invites your partner to help you. Sex is teamwork! And when things go well, you can both celebrate as a team – ‘We did it!’
It may help you to include your partner in other aspects of your self-care. For example, you could do research together about sexual activities that go beyond your regular practices, giving you more tools at your disposal to experiment with. Or, you can get in the habit of sharing texts when things are tough – ‘I tried masturbating today but my anxiety got in the way’ – as well as when there are signs of progress – ‘I’ve been getting aroused more and more easily this week!’ Be sure to establish boundaries on both sides first; it needs to work for them and you. If your partner is not interested at all, however, that’s not a good sign, and I encourage you to let them know that they need to change their attitude or get out of your life. Hopefully, the two of you can support each other as caring, responsible equals.
To Conclude: One Step At A Time
Sorting through this stuff can take a long, long time. If you get frustrated, impatient or begin to despair, don’t give up. Remember how far you have already come – if you’re reading this, you’re already on the right path, and way ahead of many others in your position. Also, recovery doesn’t often happen in a linear fashion. There will be ups and downs, progressions and regressions, and that’s okay. You’ll get there when you get there.
Perhaps, like me, a small voice in the back of your head sometimes wonders, ‘But what if this lovely person I’m with doesn’t stick around long enough to see me get there?’ In the past, this subconscious thought terrified me so much that I jeopardized my recovery by completely sweeping my own needs aside in a misguided attempt to keep my then-partner interested. It will only damage your health, and a good partner won’t want you to do that.
Now, I say this: ‘We will get to wherever we get to. If we’re already having fun and caring for each other, then we’ve already achieved the things I most want from a relationship, and it is already a success. Even if, one day, I have to go back to dealing with my stuff alone, I’ll be wiser and stronger. Ultimately, my health depends upon me, and no one else.’ A caring partner is a great resource, but you can do it without one and still be happy and healthy. So love yourself, first and foremost! And good luck.
If you’ve found this article helpful, or have anything to add, please comment below and share with all your friends! Together we can make sex great for everyone, anxiety be damned.
Mariella Hudson is an Irish-Peruvian writer from London. She is currently creating a podcast exploring the gaps in sexual education through conversations with people from all walks of life. To take part, you can take this short survey and follow her on Twitter via @mariella_hudson. You can find her other work on her blog, Strange Wild Birds.