Fight, Flight Or Freezing In Bed: What To Do When You Get Sexual Anxiety

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Fight, Flight Or Freezing In Bed: What To Do When You Get Sexual Anxiety

If you’ve ever dealt with sexual anxiety, you’ll know it's the last thing you want in bed. Even if the lighting is just right and the music is sultry, you’re hit with this immediate sense of panic and hypersensitivity, and all things sexy just start to feel wrong.

Much like generalized anxiety or panic attacks, sexual anxiety is the triggering of your survival instincts during sexual activity — otherwise known as your fight, flight or freeze response. It can happen for a number of reasons and sometimes, for no reason at all.


Encompassing a variety of reactions, ranging from physical to mental, sexual anxiety can be a barrier not just to your sex life but also to your general wellbeing. If anxiety during sex is impacting your relationships with others or with yourself, you’ll have more than one reason to want to get it under control. The good news is, there are practical ways to cope with sexual anxiety. Here’s what you need to know about navigating anxiety during sex.



Why can sex trigger flight or freeze responses?

“The flight or freeze response is a really common reaction to perceived threats and describes the idea that some people will stay and navigate the situation while others naturally want to remove themselves from it,” AASECT-certified sex therapist Melissa Cook tells us. “While you might not immediately think of sex as a threat, for some people who suffer from sexual anxiety or poor sexual body image, subconsciously sexual activity is perceived as a threat.” 
Sex is an immensely intimate activity, so it makes sense that it could be very anxiety-inducing for some. “It’s probably a time when we’re at our most vulnerable, physically, mentally and emotionally,” Cook says. “For many, it’s a battle to try and ignore the self-critical talk in their head and just be fully in the moment. And of course, it’s not uncommon for past traumas to resurface, which naturally result in the flight or freeze response.”

What causes sexual anxiety?

There are many reasons why someone might feel anxiety during sex. As Cook explains, some common factors are rooted in self-perception, or being hyper-aware and critical of oneself during sexual activity. “Sexual body image is a common cause of sexual anxiety, as being self-conscious either about your body or sexual performance can easily make someone feel very stressed or anxious,” she says.
Relatedly, sexual anxiety can be linked to performance. “Performance anxiety is feeling fearful or anxious about anything surrounding sex, some of which include your sexual skills, your attractiveness, whether you're ‘good in bed,’ whether you'll be able to orgasm, able to please a partner or whether you'll be able to get aroused or erect,” Dr. Carol Queen, PhD, a sexologist, explains. A lack of sexual experience, in particular, can trigger anxiety. “This might make someone scared of making mistakes or the fact that it might be obvious that they haven’t had many partners,” Cook says.
Fear, in general, plays a large role in causing sexual anxiety, and it could be caused by any number of things. One example is the fear of intimacy — not just physical, but emotional intimacy, too. “In fact, both the physical and mental aspects of being close to someone can be really daunting for some people especially if you’ve been hurt before or you don’t have much experience of healthy relationships,” Cook explains. Other fears that could come up during sex are STIs, pregnancy and pain. 
Another possible reason for anxiety is that you just don’t want to have sex, or a specific kind of sex, with the person or people you are with. This could be for any number of reasons, as Queen explains, “including not trusting them, feeling anger towards them [and] sexual orientation questions.”
And finally, having a history of abuse or trauma can provoke anxiety during sex. “We can’t ignore the fact that past traumas can resurface during intimacy — either sexual trauma or physical and emotional,” Cook says. “This is because the act of being close to someone and trusting them can make the brain think about similar and dissimilar things, and being in a vulnerable position can be triggering for some individuals.”
And any traumatic or abusive experiences can cause anxiety during sex, regardless what those experiences are. “It's important to remember that emotional trauma counts even if it didn't happen in a sexual context,” Queen says, “and that some survivors of trauma may not remember or read their history as traumatic even if it has left them with anxiety/freeze responses.”

How do you overcome sexual anxiety?

The process of overcoming sexual anxiety (and it truly is a process, as we can’t rush healing) will look different for everyone. Sometimes, our bodies just don’t respond to sexual stimuli the way we want them to. Our sex lives are ultimately informed by our situations outside the bedroom, no matter how much we wish we could switch them off. “We push our bodies to be busy and productive all day, and then put all this extra pressure on ourselves within those few minutes of sexual activity to suddenly be present and relaxed — which is so challenging,” certified sex coach Georgia Grace tells us.
Grace explains that to get ahead of sexual anxiety, we need to be practicing mindfulness and calm outside of sex. “We do this so we can learn and recognize the times that anxiety is incoming, and then develop some tools so that it’s easier to apply during sex,” Grace explains. This includes (but isn’t limited to) yoga, breathing practice, and mindful meditation. One helpful way might be to practice meditation techniques while masturbating as a way to practice regulating your sexual anxiety in private.
Additionally, there are small things you can do before or during sex that might help. “Trying to stay present is important, too, as it stops the mind from wandering during sexual activities and thinking about things that cause you stress and anxiety, although this is easier said than done,” Cook says. “The right atmosphere in the bedroom can help — think candles, lighting and music — as can breathwork.”
Communication between sexual partners is also key. “It’s important to create a safe space where you both feel comfortable to talk about desires, needs, preferences and boundaries,” Cook says. “Be sure to listen actively, don’t judge and be there for each other.
Grace also recommends co-regulation, which means making your sexual partners aware of the best ways they can help you if you start getting anxious mid-sex. If you need to take a break, this could mean making sure your sexual partner either gives you space or doesn’t touch you at all until you’re ready to try again.
But what if you’d rather stop altogether? One of the things that we might grapple with when experiencing sexual anxiety is our innate desire to people-please. Whether you’re with a regular partner or a total stranger, or even a group of people, asking to stop sex half-way through can bring up feelings of guilt or embarrassment. Maybe you’re worried about what your partner/s will think, or you’re concerned about interrupting their pleasure with your panic.
According to Grace, this is extremely common. For all the rhetoric we have around “asking for what we want in sex," what if we don’t know what we want or if what we want changes? “We need to normalize the fact that our desires change all the time, and it’s normal,” she says. “You can ask for something and it just doesn’t live up to your expectations — or you can go into sex thinking you want it and then your anxiety changes your mind.”
First and foremost, we don’t owe sex to anyone if we don’t feel like it — even if we’ve already started. Continuing sexual activity if there’s even the tiniest part of you that doesn’t want to anymore can become an issue of consent, so it’s important to vocalize what you’re feeling straight away to avoid damage to yourself and/or your relationship. Ultimately, it’s a process of claiming not just your right to say a firm ‘no’ or a resounding 'yes,' but having the freedom to change your answer at any given time.
“Sex is about pleasure,” Grace concludes. “It’s not about enduring it to make sure your sexual partner is having a good time. If you continue to ignore your sexual anxiety and start to ‘push through’ sex, you can start to dread it. What you need to do is redefine sex and find new ways in. Find things that make sex feel safe and accessible for you.”
Written by: Claire Fox and Nina Miyashita on Refinery29