How to Cope When Social Anxiety is Hurting Your Sex Life

Mental health and sexual enjoyment are very much linked.

Social anxiety is supposed to turn off when you leave the party, right?

Wrong.

If you experience social anxiety and find it follows you into more, um, private parts of your life, you aren’t alone.

Both men and women with social anxiety disorder are more prone to sexual dysfunction and dissatisfaction, according to recent studies.

Here’s why the two are often correlated and what you can do to address them.

Sex often draws out the fears that go along with social anxiety

For those who experience this kind of anxiety on the regular, social interactions usually go hand-in-hand with a few specific fears: being negatively judged and evaluated by others, being the center of attention and disappointing others.

Illustration of friends taking a selfie together. Social Anxiety pbs rewireCredit: Adobe
Making and developing strong, affirming, intimate friendships and relationships can help to mitigate feelings of anxiety.

Take a look at the most common fears people have during sex, and you’ll see some serious commonalities. For both men and women, “your partner will find your naked body unattractive,” “you are bad at sex” and “your partner won’t have an orgasm or be satisfied” made the list.

The inherent vulnerability and interactional focus of sex can leave anyone feeling nervous — especially if you’re already prone to experiencing those fears.

Anxiety is a chemical mood-killer

If you look at sex and anxiety from a neurological perspective, the chemicals released when you feel anxious can lower your libido and make it more difficult to orgasm.

When panic and worry ramp up the production of stress hormones like adrenaline, your body has a difficult time physically relaxing (think: clenched muscles, shallow breathing, difficult time lubricating), sometimes making climaxing nearly impossible.

The really annoying part? Many medications used to treat anxiety can also affect your sex drive and your sexual function.

Laurel Steinberg, a New York-based sex and relationship therapist and professor of psychology at Columbia University, called it “an unfortunate Catch-22: the drugs which help keep the condition from getting worse also tend to decrease your interest in getting it on.”

Anxiety makes you less likely to speak up for yourself in bed

Because social anxiety often decreases your overall confidence and leaves you feeling vulnerable to judgement, it can decrease the likelihood that you’ll speak up for yourself — whether that means asking for a condom or voicing your preferences.

In his research, Alvin Akibar, associate professor of behavioral science at the University of North Texas, found that social anxiety and unprotected sex can be correlated. And while social anxiety doesn’t explain the whole picture, it can be an additional barrier to stating your needs.

“If you start to get into your own head and that anxiety can start to spiral, it can make it more and more difficult to make decisions that you’d make in a non-stressed environment,” Akibar said.

One woman with social anxiety agreed: “I’ve been in pain or someone has done something I haven’t liked, and I haven’t been able to vocalize it.”

Men and women respond differently

Social anxiety doesn’t affect men and women’s sex lives the same way. According to one study of men and women with social anxiety disorder, men with social anxiety experienced “moderate impairment” to sexual arousal, orgasm, enjoyment and satisfaction.

Women experienced severe impairment.

According to Jenni Skyler, director of The Intimacy Institute for sex and relationship therapy in Boulder, Colorado, this could be because men and women have physically different responses to anxiety. Men tend to have performance issues, while women often experience sexual pain or struggle to orgasm with a partner in the room.

Addressing it in healthy ways

People will often try to cope with anxiety and sex struggles that go with it by distracting themselves or trying to “fix” the symptoms of the problem rather than the root, Skyler said. That could come in the form of compulsively exercising to address body image issues or drinking heavily to avoid feelings of inadequacy.

If social anxiety is quelling your sex drive, addressing your insecurities at the root might be more effective than treating the symptoms.

“Try and deconstruct it,” Skyler said. “Is this anxiety actually rational? Is it serving me? Or, is it irrational, archaic and not helping me be a resilient, functioning person in the world?”

She also suggests taking a closer look at your body’s response to anxiety.

“What is my nervous system doing? Is it spinning wheels? What can I do to breathe and regulate myself so I can be in a more grounded, calm, enjoyable place?”

Find a therapist to talk to about your anxiety. Practice positive self-talk before swiping left or right on Tinder. Get more in touch with who you are and what you’re into, and be OK with those things.

“I imagine if you become comfortable with your sexuality, you become more comfortable with how you dress, how you carry your posture, who you talk to, how you talk to them, how you respond to flirting,” Skyler said. “All of this is our sexuality, and it’s incredibly social.”

Cultivate strong relationships

Akibar believes having strong friendships and other relationships can help.

“In psychology, we generally find that social support is a pretty strong predictor of positive outcomes across a variety of things, and that includes social anxiety.”

Making and developing strong, affirming, intimate friendships and relationships can help to mitigate feelings of anxiety, he said.

“When we really trust someone…, their opinion, their word…, we get to a place where we can receive positive judgement” from them and start to believe more positive things about ourselves.

When developed, these attitudes can eventually translate into the bedroom.

Featured image courtesy of The Gender Spectrum Collection.

Kelsey Yandura

Kelsey Yandura is a freelance writer and journalist based out of wherever the nearest library is (usually Denver). Though her first love is fiction (namely sci-fi and anything influenced by folklore), she’s also a big fan of writing about social groups, technology and relationships. Follow her on social media (@kelseyyan) for vaguely humorous tidbits, as well as updates on her creative writing projects.