How to Shut Down Anxiety + Intrusive Thoughts During Sex
By Allison Danish, MPH
Ahhhh, anxiety and intrusive thoughts. The spice of life. And if we learned anything from Part 1, How Anxiety and Intrusive Thoughts Affect Sex, anxiety and intrusive thoughts are often not the spice of the bedroom (not in a good way, at least). So what can we do about it?
We talked to Dr. Erica Marchand, PhD and Leighanna Nordstrom, MA, MFT-C to help us understand how we can banish those thoughts and feelings—or, more realistically, learn how to cope with them when they do come up.
What can you do if you experience anxiety and intrusive thoughts during sex?
So by now we know that anxiety and intrusive thoughts can be distracting, not super sexy, and might make your partner feel bad. Don’t love that. What can we do to turn things around?
1. Talk about what revs your engine and what pumps your brakes
We love a good car analogy. Nordstrom says, “To start, I'd recommend partners have conversations outside of sex about "gas pedals" and "brake pedals". Gas pedals are things that rev your engines, so to speak. Brake pedals are things that prevent the "car" from going.” Some examples of gas pedals might be: feeling connected after a great date, seeing your partner in a scandalous outfit, or smooching juuuust the way you like it. Brake pedals on the other hand might be: unbrushed teeth, a messy environment, or not feeling good about your body.
“If there are a lot of external things on the brake pedal, those things need to be addressed before the idea of sex might be appealing. Otherwise there is a distinct likelihood that these things will crop up during sex and create anxiety,” explains Nordstrom. And this, my friends, is called the dual model of sexual response. This means that during a sexual experience, we’re usually using both pedals; some things are sexy and some things are not-so-sexy—how hard you push down on the gas or the brakes will determine how jazzed you are about having sex.
“If partners have a lot of brake pedal issues, there is a book called Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski, where partners can explore these issues in depth and begin to communicate things better and pick up signals from their partner about their brake pedals,” Nordstrom recommends.
2. Find ways to communicate about pain
We totally get it, this isn’t a lot of fun, but it’s a really important step if you or your partner experiences pain during sex. Take a moment to think: if pain comes up during sex, do you or your partner know what to do or say? If not, Dr. Marchand recommends “establish[ing] for yourself what boundaries or language you need to communicate about pain if it happens. If you have that already, remind yourself that you do, so you can take care of yourself and change course if something is painful.”
3. Start with a couple’s meditation
Sometimes just getting in the mood can be tough—let alone everything that follows.
Nordstrom says, “If partners want to set the mood before sex starts, a couple's meditation is a great opportunity to connect and pour "into each other" before moving towards sex. These can be found on Spotify and are generally free.”
Feels a little woo-woo for you? No prob! Try throwing on some saucy or relaxing tunes, and sit/lay down together. If you feel like there’s pressure to get jiggy with it before you’re ready, feel free to set a timer and then check in when the time is up. Still need more time? Keep playing that music. Not into it at all? Take a rain check!
4. Bring yourself back to the present moment
Like we said before, anxious and intrusive thoughts can be really distracting and can take you away from the present moment. Luckily, there are some great techniques you can start using to help bring you back into the now.
Dr. Marchand says, “Kind of like in meditation or yoga when you notice that your mind has wandered, take a deep breath and bring your focus back to your present experience, and specifically to what feels good or gives you pleasure about what you're doing.”
Bringing your awareness gently back to the present can be done in lots of ways! Here’re a few examples:
- Leaf floating on a river: You have a thought, you acknowledge the thought, then you place it on a cute little leaf in a river and it just floats away. You don’t need to engage with the thought, don’t need to judge or understand it. It can just float on by.
- Physical reminders: Nordstrom recommends, “For the individuals with anxious thoughts, having some sort of symbol that is indicative of their deservingness of an anxiety free sexual moment can be a helpful way to draw them back to the experience. For example, if the partners have a photo they put up on the wall, or a pillow they put on the bed that they can glance at if anxious thoughts come up, it could serve as a quick "trigger" to remind them to stay focused and present.”
- Use a mantra: Dr. Marchand says, “My mantra is "focus on the pleasure." Whenever your mind wanders or you get "in your head" during sex, you can always come back to what feels good.”
- Talk back: If you’re having a really tough time ushering those thoughts from your brain, treat them like they’re an entity completely outside of you. Give your anxiety a name or an animal form. Then if that anxiety comes up, you can mentally shout something like, “get outta here, Christine” or “scram, ya filthy possum." (I apologize if your name is Christine, and I would also like to apologize to all of possum-kind).
If some of these techniques are tough to integrate into your bedroom, you’re not alone! It’s hard learning to be present, and it’s not a linear journey. Something that can really help is practicing mindfulness outside of sex with apps like Headspace.
5. Unlearn your inherited sexual “hang-ups”
OOF, we’re ending on a doozy. We live in a society, so naturally a lot of our thoughts and feelings about sex come from what other people think. From our family and friends to the media to our social institutions like schools and places of worship.
Nordstrom says, “A lot of times, the "hang-ups" we have about sex are stories and narratives that are passed down to us from the people who teach us how to be adults. The problem is that most parents are only doing the best they can with the information that they have, and sometimes that information is wrong.
“I generally advise individuals to look at the stories they were told or the overt or covert messages they got about sex (ie. penis size matters, your pleasure is for a man, sex is only for people married or in love, kink is for people who are mentall ill, etc.) and see if these messages fit the way that they would like to conduct their own sexuality. If not, what would they change or choose to try out if those rules weren't there.? These dialogues are VITAL to a healthy sexual relationship, which means that by nature, these conversations can be uncomfortable. If it's too much, a certified sex therapist can be a fantastic resource for navigating these conversations.”
What can partners do to help?
Are you the partner of someone who experiences anxiety and intrusive thoughts during sex? Maybe you experience those thoughts and feelings too? Here’s how you can support them/each other!
1. Talk about it and ask questions
Curiosity and a willingness to learn is always the best policy when it comes to sex—particularly if your partner is having a tough time. Not talking about it certainly won’t make any problems go away, and your partner might feel alone or resentful if they feel like they’re taking on the sole responsibility of working through their anxiety without your support.
Dr. Marchand says, “Try to be understanding about it. Ask your partner what's going on for them and what they might need from you. Also express, in a kind way, if you have any needs or boundaries when it comes to sex.”
Nordstrom says, “If someone checks out during sex, I encourage clients to use a strategy called co-regulation to stay present and connected during sex. If someone appears zoned out, the other person can pull their face towards them and make eye contact or share a deep kiss. The other partner can say things like "breathe with me" or "come back to me" as a reminder that they desire to be present and enjoy the moment.”
This is a really great strategy for a couple of reasons: 1) It involves both of you!; 2) It reminds the partner who’s experiencing anxiety that they don’t have to face it alone; 3) It sounds like dirty talk from a high fantasy romance novel, and honestly who doesn’t love that?
3. Avoid the shame train
Shame in general doesn’t really have a place in the bedroom (unless that’s your thing—no judgment here). Buuuut when it comes to anxiety, Nordstrom says, “I think it's important to avoid shaming the person with anxious thoughts, or making the assumption that they would rather be addressing anxiety than being present in sex. It is more helpful to address the thoughts than it is to be angry about them.”
If you feel frustrated, that’s understandable! Your partner who’s experiencing anxious and intrusive thoughts is probably frustrated too. That’s why it’s important to tackle them together!
When you experience anxiety and intrusive thoughts during sex, it can feel like they’re here to stay forever and you’ll never be able to just relax—but with these tools and some understanding (and a sex therapist/counselor!), it’s fully possible to get in the moment and stay in the moment.
Got any tips or tricks that have been helpful for managing your or a partner’s anxiety or intrusive thoughts during sex? Drop ‘em in the comments below! We’d love to hear :)