I received a blog topic request about how to balance the desire to be more sexually adventurous with the anxiety that comes when exploring something new. The reader was kind enough to share a study done by Superdrug where they surveyed over 1,000 Europeans and Americans to find out how the pandemic has shifted sex habits. It seems that spending more time at home has people feeling more sexually adventurous but also intimidated. When I reflected on this, I realized that anxiety in the bedroom isn’t limited to when couples want to try something new or not.
Anxiety in the bedroom can take all kinds of forms and can occur at all different stages of relationships. Anxiety might look like feeling self-conscious about how your body looks, worrying about sexual performance, feeling insecure about saying no, feeling insecure about saying yes, worrying about how you will be perceived, experiencing fear of being judged, feeling anxious about pleasing your partner, concern about normal body odor. The list is unending. Humans can get very creative with their anxiety.
So first of all, I want to normalize anxiety in general and regarding sex in particular. Anxiety is a normal human experience and anxiety around sex is extremely common. In Angus’s and my conversations with couples, it crops up all the time. Fortunately, although anxiety around sex may seem like a unique form of anxiety, anxiety, no matter what the subject it is related to, always works the same way. When understood, this makes navigating anxiety easier.
Understanding What Anxiety Is
The experience of anxiety is a physiological response to our fearful thoughts. These thoughts may be conscious or unconscious. The physiological response is normal and healthy. There is nothing wrong with us experiencing it. It is a signal that our nervous system is working. That doesn’t mean that anxiety feels pleasant. It doesn’t and that is part of the health of the design. The feeling of anxiety is meant to get our attention. Either we need to take action and avoid danger or we need to take care of ourselves and let our nervous system settle.
Understanding that anxiety is healthy and temporary is extremely beneficial. It is an experience that tells us we are identifying with anxious thoughts in our minds. Because thought naturally moves through our awareness, anxiety will naturally dissipate. When we understand this we don’t need to worry about feeling anxious. We can be reassured that our nervous system is functioning, and if there is no danger to be avoided we can focus on taking care of ourselves in the moment.
Recently, I had the experience of feeling a panic attack coming on. I was wearing a new outfit that felt tight. I was sitting between two people in cramped quarters. The room was hot. I had chosen to let myself sleep in since I had got in late the previous night so I hadn’t eaten breakfast. As I noticed my heart begin to race and my body feeling flushed. I realized adrenaline was starting to run through my system. I didn’t need to know what the precipitating thought was. It wasn’t in my conscious awareness. I just needed to know this was a temporary experience that was going to pass and decide how to take care of myself while I was experiencing it. This is what is needed in any experience of anxiety whether it is in the bedroom or not, whether it is intense or mild. Fortunately for me, my suffering didn’t last very long. It occurred to me to loosen my neck scarf and to take some long deep breaths. That was enough for my nervous system to settle down and realize I was okay, but if I had needed to leave the room that would have been fine too. So if I was in the bedroom and experiencing anxiety, my first responsibility is to listen to my wisdom. If I understand the experience is temporary and know I don’t need to intervene because I will naturally stabilize, then I can focus on how to be kind and supportive with myself while I am having an anxious experience. Knowing we are okay even while we feel anxious is liberating.
When we understand that anxiety is a healthy signal it is easier to stay attuned to it. Often we become desensitized to how anxious we are. Keeping busy and not being connected with our internal experience allows us to live at an unhealthy normal. Then when it comes time to be physically intimate that unhealthy normal becomes very apparent. Sexual arousal and orgasm, especially for women, happen in a relaxed comfortable state. If we have a lot on our minds, slowing down and getting present with our bodies during sex can make our busy minds very apparent. Our thoughts can seem to get very loud, but they haven’t changed. We have just gotten quieter so we notice how noisy our thoughts are. One of the things that I have found helpful pre-foreplay is taking time to relax. This helps to settle the mind and to connect with the body. This makes it easier to be receptive to sexual intimacy and pleasure.
How to Get to Better Sex
When anxiety is understood as a normal part of the human condition, getting to better sex doesn’t have to be difficult. This helps anxiety to shrink down to size so it becomes more manageable or disappears completely.
Get out of your mind and into your body
Sexual difficulties are usually related to being disconnected from our body and our emotions. In Western culture, we tend to focus on our intellect and can easily lose touch with being relaxed and in the present moment. Arousal requires us to be in the now. We can’t be off in our head thinking about something and have the body become aroused. Arousal results from us being present to the sensations we are experiencing. And just as they say foreplay starts long before the bedroom so does presence. To experience better sex, it is helpful to live life with more presence in general. It is important to be present in our bodies and to our emotions. We don’t need to do anything to fix or change them. Presence is pleasurable and healing in and of itself. Being present to ourselves allows us to connect with our wisdom so we can experience who we are and embody the truth of that. This allows us to disidentify with the noise of our busy minds so we can feel the truth of our potential and experience intimacy, sensuality, and sexuality in real time.
Open Honest Communication
It is very helpful to the enjoyment of sexual experiences to have open communication. Being able to share concerns helps the mind to settle, and if you are not with someone who can tolerate this, and you feel anxious participating in sex with them, I would encourage you to reflect on his or her appropriateness as a sexual partner. Being able to verbalize what is on your mind, helps you to get perspective on it. Saying, “I’m feeling anxious about trying this new position. I’m worried it might hurt.” can stop the thought looping in your mind and help your mind settle. With a settled mind it is easier to explore solutions for addressing your concern. A statement like, “I’m worried that I won’t be able to last long enough so you can have an orgasm.” allows for open honest communication that creates a space to work things out. This helps to promote a caring, sensitive exploration to find what is mutually satisfying. There is no one solution to either of the comments above, but it will be easier to find the solution that works for you and your partner with open dialogue.
Fear around transparent communication usually revolves around fear of rejection. We don’t want to feel the pain of feeling unworthy so we compromise what works for us as a coping mechanism to try and avoid being rejected by another. What is so important to see here is that the experience of feeling unworthy does not come from the other person. It comes from our self-created meaning. If someone doesn’t want to be with us, it doesn’t mean anything about who we are or about our worth as human beings. Even if someone says it in a rude or unkind way. That says everything about their level of emotional maturity and state of mind and nothing about the person on the receiving end. Bottom line: our worthiness is never in question. No matter what happens to us, we are worthy. Our value is innate and cannot be taken away from us. That doesn’t mean we won’t grieve if someone ends a relationship with us, but it has nothing to do with our value and worth as human beings.
For me, I don’t want to be in a relationship where I can’t have open, honest communication, and if you don’t feel comfortable enough to have open, honest communication with your sexual partner and anxiety is an issue for you, I would start there before thinking about trying to get more comfortable in the bedroom. Sex plus intimacy is a beautiful combination. Sex minus intimacy can be fun, but not usually when anxiety is involved. Increasing emotional intimacy is the best way to get more comfortable exploring new ground in the bedroom.
Trust the Feedback
And we mustn’t dismiss the healthy feedback of anxiety. Sometimes we feel uneasy because we know on a deeper level we aren’t engaging in behavior that is right for us. Trust your gut instincts. If you need to slow things down to feel more comfortable that is okay. If you don’t want to have sex with your partner even though you initially agreed to that is okay. You can change your mind. Don’t override your intuition and inner knowing. It is a powerful guide for us all. It is important to trust innate knowing.
Putting It Together
Anxiety is a normal part of the human experience. It is temporary and provides valuable feedback about the state of our nervous system and potential danger. We want to pay attention to it as a signal. If there is no danger, we simply need to focus on taking care of ourselves to get comfortable within our experience of anxiety and relax. This is helpful in all situations of anxiety including anxiety related to sex. Knowing how to support yourself will also help to settle your mind. It is very difficult to experience sexual arousal if your mind isn’t settled. Single focus is very helpful in this area. Taking time to let yourself get settled physically, mentally, and emotionally before engaging in sexual activity is very helpful for allowing room for arousal to emerge. This is often not difficult in new relationships, but once the novelty of our partner wears off, especially for women, arousal is often the result of sexual engagement rather than the precursor to sex.
Understanding how to take care of ourselves when experiencing anxiety in general also makes it easier to take care of ourselves if we experience anxiety with a sexual partner. Feeling more comfortable with our own emotional experience makes open, honest communication a common-sense choice. This kind of communication helps to create emotional safety and is always going to be beneficial for creating an environment that is conducive for exploring new or even old sexual behaviors.
Remember the key to anxiety, in general, is to remember that anxiety is not a problem. It is healthy. Trying to fix anxiety only makes it worse. Instead, we can learn to relax into our anxiety and learn how to take care of ourselves while feeling anxious. This is liberating. Then if we happen to experience anxiety in the bedroom it is no different than any other time. It doesn’t have to get in the way of the fun and can bring couples closer together as they navigate the experience.
Rohini Ross is co-founder of “The Rewilders.” Listen to her podcast, with her partner Angus Ross, Rewilding Love. They believe too many good relationships fall apart because couples give up thinking their relationship problems can’t be solved. In this season of the Rewilding Love Podcast, Rohini and Angus help a couple on the brink of divorce due to conflict. Angus and Rohini also co-facilitate private couples' intensives that rewild relationships back to their natural state of love. Rohini is also the author of the ebook Marriage, and she and Angus are co-founders of The 29-Day Rewilding Experience and The Rewilding Community. You can follow Rohini on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. To learn more about her work and subscribe to her blog visit: TheRewilders.org.