ways to manage performance anxiety in the bedroom
Performance anxiety – chances are you’ve experienced this at least once or twice in your life. It refers to a degree of fear or nervousness that a person can experience when they are expected to perform on a certain task. And this can occur in many areas of life - think public speaking, playing an instrument, presenting to a board room or making love to your partner. While these might seem somewhat similar in that they all require a degree of performance, the latter is in fact significantly different. This is because sex is not a performance.
I’ll say that again. Sex is not a performance.
Sex is actually about idiosyncratic pleasure and sexual satisfaction. It’s about being authentic in how you explore your sexuality. When you throw performance in there, it implies that there is a certain way that sex should be done. Truth is, there’s no right way.
Yet many people can get caught up in their heads about whether they are ‘performing’ the right way during sex. Thoughts such as ‘am I taking too long?’, ‘am I doing this right?’, or ‘does he/she/they think I’m inexperienced?’ are all hallmarks of performance anxiety. Behaviours like faking an orgasm or pretending to be aroused can also indicate performance anxiety.
Traditionally, this was a term used to describe men’s (or penis-owners’) experiences. When they are all ‘up in their heads’, they can struggle to achieve an erection. This has led many to believe that only penis-owners experience it, which isn’t the case. They are simply the ones whose sexual arousal can be more obviously measured. Women and vulva-owners can also experience performance anxiety and be equally unaroused, it’s just harder to notice!
So regardless of your genitals, performance anxiety doesn’t discriminate. And there’s many reasons that might lead someone to experience this phenomenon.
These reasons include general anxiety, life stressors, relationship issues, past trauma, internalised societal messages about sex, gender and sexuality norms, poor body image, goal-directed thinking, past sexual experiences, poor sex education and many more. The list is seriously endless and will be different for each and every person.
And while the degree of each person’s performance anxiety will vary, depending on the underlying reasons, there are a few processes that are very similar for each person that experiences it.
"I'll say that again, Sex is not a performance"
To sum it up - you lose touch with the present moment.
Here’s how. Your conscious mind is called a limited capacity system, meaning you can only fit a certain amount of information in it at one time. Imagine it’s like a bubble. When you have performance anxiety, you fill that bubble with all of those worried thoughts, like the ones I mentioned earlier. This means that you stop consciously perceiving the stimulation, and therefore the pleasure, in your sexual experience.
How do you expect to enjoy your sexual experience if you aren’t even experiencing it to begin with?
If you’ve ever felt like your body or genitals are numb during sex, this is most likely why. Your conscious mind is filled to capacity with anxious thoughts and you stop feeling your body. And this is when sexual dysfunctions can occur, because being preoccupied with your own thoughts leaves you on-edge, which can be amplified by the feeling of detachment from the sexual experience. It all compounds and sex can become a big cloud of anxiety, rather than a time to experience pleasure.
If anxiety puts your body into fight, flight, freeze response, and a sense of safety is crucial for sexual functioning, then you can see why sexual concerns such as an inability to orgasm, erectile dysfunction and a lack of arousal can manifest for people with performance anxiety.
On top of this, people can experience low general and sexual self-esteem, a sense of disconnectedness from their partners, and a feeling of loneliness.
It’s a nasty one, but the good news is, people can overcome it.
There are a few treatment options I often turn to when dealing with sexual anxiety.
- It’s important to understand your thoughts. Spend some making sense of them. What are they and how did they come about? What life experiences lead you to form the beliefs that underlie your thoughts? Think about the significant people throughout your life and the verbal/non-verbal messages they taught you about sex. How has this shaped you? By unpacking the origins of your anxious thoughts, you can make sense of your sexuality and re-write your sexual narrative to establish a more sex-positive view of yourself.
- Communication, surprise surprise, is also a big one in treatment. Talk to your partner about your anxiety. If you are worried about taking too long to cum, tell them. If you want to orgasm but you don’t want them to see your orgasm face, explain this to them. If you aren’t sure whether they are enjoying the way you are touching them, ask them. Communication is key! People can truly overcome years, even decades, of anxious thoughts by simply just voicing them to their partners. Never overlook the power of communication.
- Another great way to work on performance anxiety is to practice mindfulness. Do this outside of sex by getting into a regular routine of meditating. This will strengthen the part of your mind that can disconnect from your thoughts, observe them and then push them away. Rather than being completely consumed by them.
- During sex, you can also try a mindfulness technique that involves naming 5 things in the room you can see, 4 things you can hear and 3 things you can feel. This will fill that bubble up with the items you are naming and conveniently push the anxious thoughts out. Bringing you out of your head and back into the present moment.
While all of these might seem manageable in theory, they can be a little harder to implement in practice. This is where sex therapy comes in. Sex therapy can help you work through the treatment options I’ve discussed, giving you support and a safe place to discuss your concerns as you work through each one. With each set back you have, you can discuss these with your therapist, who can adapt your treatment plan accordingly. It’s a very personalised process.
While performance anxiety can feel debilitating at times, it’s important to remember that there are evidence-based options out there to help you overcome it. Working through sexual issues can be an empowering and life changing process. I encourage you to give it a go!