How to Cope With Sexual Anxiety

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Whether you're dating someone new or you have a long-term partner, sexual anxiety is real, and it can impact relationships at any stage. That said, there are plenty of ways to recognize it as it starts to happen and work on moving past it.

Verywell Mind spoke with Candice Cooper-Lovett, LMFT, a licensed sex therapist based in Atlanta, to find out how individuals and couples can address these concerns and move into a healthy sexual relationship. First, let's talk about what sexual anxiety is, how to tell if you're experiencing it, and some of its causes.

What Is Sexual Anxiety?

Also sometimes referred to as sexual performance anxiety, sexual anxiety is defined as "fear, worry, or anxiety related to sexual activity." These feelings can be a result of negative experiences from the past, sexual dysfunctions, stress, or a variety of other factors.

Sexual performance anxiety is normal in that it is one of the most common sexual complaints, affecting as many as 25% of men and 16% of women. It can cause people to feel extreme anxiety and potentially even lead to sexual avoidance.

That said, the most important factor to consider is the importance of communication. Communication can not only make you more comfortable, but it can also help you identify the root of your sexual anxiety and help you work toward a more fulfilling sex life.

It has even been found that communication is the secret to keeping passion alive in long-term relationships.

Symptoms of Sexual Anxiety

The symptoms of sexual anxiety may seem obvious, but it can be hard to tell if you're dealing with sexual anxiety if you're in the middle of dealing with something else that might also be anxiety-inducing.

So, start to notice when your mood changes—is it a result of a partner initiating physical contact? Is it because you're anticipating sexual activity in the immediate future? If so, these are signs that you may be experiencing anxiety surrounding sex.

Causes of Sexual Anxiety

There are many reasons why someone might struggle with sexual anxiety, and it could be something that the person struggling with it doesn't yet understand about themselves.

Below are some common reasons why someone might experience sexual anxiety:

  • Body image issues: If someone is self-conscious about certain aspects of their body, it can be hard to feel confident with sexual partners, especially newer sexual partners.
  • Sexual dysfunctions for either partner: While it can be difficult for partners experiencing sexual dysfunctions (like erectile dysfunction or low libido), it can also be hard for the partner that's worried about the other person's dysfunctions.
  • Past sexual abuse: People who have experienced sexual abuse often have a difficult time thinking about sex in healthy ways, and it can take a while to take back their own image of what sex should look like for them.
  • Relationship issues: This includes fighting, arguing, microaggressions, or just the general inability to be open and honest with your partner.
  • Fear of intimacy: It can be hard for people with a fear of intimacy to trust others, which is a big component of good sexual experiences.
  • Partner compatibility:If someone doesn't feel comfortable or attracted to their partner, it can put a huge damper on their desire to have sex and increase their anxiety at the thought of it.

How to Identify Sexual Anxiety Triggers

Especially for people who have experienced sexual trauma, feeling safe and in control can be critically important. Past traumas can lead to triggers like a stressful day at work or plans falling through. Take notice if these types of experiences begin to carry over into the intimacy you share with your partner.

It can be helpful to make a mental or even physical note of moments when you noticed a mental shift—even if it happened earlier in the day or as a result of something that had nothing to do with sex.

That said, if your sexual anxiety stems from something that your partner says or does, it's important to take note of that as well and to bring it up to them in a non-accusatory manner.

Cooper-Lovett says that she works with patients to recognize and understand their individual triggers and that it's common for people to need some time away from sexual behaviors as they're working through this mental load.

What's most important, according to Cooper-Lovett, is that they "get to a place where they have a positive, healthy sexual self-concept by reframing how they see themselves as a sexual being."

Coping With Sexual Anxiety

After identifying your triggers, it's important to determine why these triggers exist and when they started. Oftentimes, learning to recognize triggers can take away their power.

It's more important than ever to be open and honest with your partner about what you're feeling and how you're working through your emotions.

Let them know if they've said or done something to cause you to feel sexual anxiety in the past, and be honest with them about why their action made you feel the way it did.

Tips to Reduce Sexual Anxiety

Cooper-Lovett shared some of the exercises that she often recommends to her clients:

  • Deep breathing and meditation before engaging in sexual experiences.
  • Focus on what feels good and what doesn't through self-touch and masturbation.
  • Focus on non-sexual touch with your partner.
  • Prioritize connection with your partner over sexual acts.
  • Focus on exploring erogenous zones with your partner without the pressure of it leading to sex.
  • Cooper-Lovett encourages her patients to focus on the experience instead of orgasm or performance.

How to Support Someone With Sexual Anxiety

While it's always important to maintain a good line of communication with your partner when it comes to sex, it's especially important if you have experienced, or if you are currently experiencing, any amount of sexual anxiety.

"A partner should try their best to be patient and seek to understand what is going on for their partner," says Cooper-Lovett. "Partners should be mindful that they're never discouraging or making them feel guilty for being anxious about sex. They should be supportive and make them feel emotionally and physically safe."

Some ways to do this are to initiate conversation openly when your partner is in a good place mentally. It can also be helpful to find other pathways to intimacy.

"For couples, I would suggest that they engage in non-sexual touches such as hugs, hand-holding, back or foot rubs," says Cooper-Lovett. "I also introduce sensate focus, which is a technique that refocuses the participants on their own perceptions and sensuality, instead of goal-oriented behavior focused on genitalia and penetrative sex."

Cooper-Lovett reminds her patients that it can take work to overcome sexual anxiety. However, partners should act as supporters and encouragers through the process.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Brittany Loggins
Brittany is a health and lifestyle writer and former staffer at TODAY on NBC and CBS News. She's also contributed to dozens of magazines.