It’s natural (and necessary) to go into a sexual encounter with certain expectations. At a minimum, we expect a consensual and agreeable interaction, for all parties. It’s also not uncommon to have expectations surrounding our own performance. We understandably want to satisfy our partners, but sometimes, the pressure of this expectation can lead to performance anxiety.
Performance anxiety can be caused by many factors; fear that you won’t satisfy your partner sexually, poor body image, concerns surrounding the time of orgasm, fear of not orgasming, problems in your relationship, and traumas from past sexual experiences. These feelings may lead your body to release stress hormones like epinephrine and norepinephrine prior to sex. Stress hormones narrow blood vessels, which restricts flow to the genital area, making it difficult to become erect or lubricated during sex. Unsurprisingly, stress and tension also reduce sexual arousal.
So how can we reinforce sex as a way of relieving stress and tension, and not compounding it?
It’s okay if you’re not always “feeling it”.
An important step in overcoming performance anxiety is changing your attitude towards sex. You don’t always have to be super horny, and you don’t have to perform every time. You don’t have to rush into sex with new partners either. Take your time and listen to your own body, as well as your partners’. Sex is best when all parties are present and enjoying themselves, not pressuring themselves.
Be open with your partner
Opening up about performance anxiety can feel really difficult, but as always, honest communication is going to work in your favour. If you’re feeling super tense about sexual intimacy, it’s likely that your partner is already aware of it. They might even be feeling confusion, hurt, or guilt, wondering if it has something to do with them. To avoid hurting each other indirectly, it’s so important that we keep our sexual partners on the same page as us. Being honest about how we’re feeling, setting boundaries, telling each other what we do and don’t like, what we can and can’t do, what makes us aroused and what makes us stressed or nervous. Sharing vulnerable communication with our partners creates a safe space, where they too can unpack their sexual desires and apprehensions. It will feel like a weight off both of your shoulders. If you feel comfortable discussing these things with your partner, it may even alleviate the experience of performance anxiety.
Find alternative sources of intimacy
A huge aspect of open, sexual communication is the shared exploration of alternative forms of intimacy. There is so, so, so much to explore beyond traditional sex. Learning to be sexual in new and unfamiliar ways can get you out of your normal experiences, reactions, and approaches to sex. It can be a super erotic and playful way of interacting with your partner too. Think sexy bath time, sensual massages, sex toys, masturbating together…
This is also a great space to try out mindfulness techniques that can help you get out of your head and into your body. When you are intimate with a partner, try to focus on the moment, and not the thoughts racing through your head. If you feel yourself getting anxious or tense, pay conscious attention to the colour of their eyes, the feeling of their skin and lips. Look at them deeply and closely. Observe the pleasure of their company.
Change your lifestyle
Performance anxiety can develop for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes, the anxiety that is presenting in a sexual scenario is a downstream effect of other stressors in our busy lives. It’s always useful to consider changing aspects of your lifestyle that might be causing you stress. Are there unresolved problems at work? Are you eating well? Are you getting enough exercise and sunshine? Are there stressful people or factors that you could remove from your life?
If performance anxiety is persistent, we recommend talking to a therapist, sex therapist or couple’s counsellor. They can offer you cognitive and behavioural tools or recommend medications to overcome anxiety.
Sex is a remarkably intimate and vulnerable act, often heavily loaded with emotional, interpersonal, and social implications. With that in mind, it’s imperative to recognise that performance anxiety is a natural, understandable and common experience, one that your partner/s will most likely understand. The hottest thing you can do? Start with open communication, and experiment together to see what works for you.