The Pandemic May Make Your Sexual Anxiety Worse

How to Safely Overcome Sexual Anxiety During the Pandemic

Posted Aug 10, 2020

"Cannie Wong" by wkc.1 (Chen) is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Source: "Cannie Wong" by wkc.1 (Chen) is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Sexual anxiety arises when a person feels uncertain about the outcome of sex with another person. Often, the anxiety arises prior to the sexual encounter and continues during it.  Like all anxiety, sexual anxiety self-talk is characterized by “What if?” catastrophizing, “What if I can’t have an erection?” "What if I can't have an orgasm?" “What is she going to think of me if I can’t get hard!” The images evoked by such future possibilities may (and typically do) include self-damning feelings/thoughts of inadequacy and undesirability.  "What kind of woman am I?"  "I feel like such a loser."

At the top of this thinking hierarchy on sexual anxiety is a form of performance perfectionism in which the sex partner demands that he or she perform perfectly, or at least not ever fail at the sexual act. From this self-imposed demand, the projected “horror” of failure and self-degradation of inadequacy is deduced. 

Unfortunately, if you suffer from sexual anxiety, the pandemic has created new obstacles for you that can exacerbate the anxiety. Because people with sexual anxiety often have other forms of anxiety, you may also experience anxiety about the safety of the sexual encounter. “What if he has COVID? If I have sex with him, he could infect me?” Indeed, such imagined consequences, while not unrealistic, can further exacerbate the already intense anxiety associated with failure to bring the sexual act to climax. 

Under such self-imposed pressure, you may feel inclined to resolve the challenge of your sexual anxiety by restricting your sexual activity to solitary sex (masturbation) whereby you no longer confront the imagined horrors of not performing up to par and can escape the possibility of infection. However, the decision to restrict sexual activity to masturbation can have lasting effects, even after the pandemic ends. 

This is because you would be reinforcing a habit of unhealthily dealing with your sexual anxiety by avoiding partner sex altogether. The thoughts and feelings that self-defeatingly disturbed your sex life prior to the pandemic, combined with other negative feelings and thoughts associated with the pandemic, would be allowed to fester, while the temporary comfort of avoidance would harden the habit.

While dedicating yourself exclusively to masturbation might be the safe thing to do at this precarious point in history, it can also have significant negative consequences for your future sex life. 

What Can You Safely Do About Your Problem Now?

What I do not recommend is engaging in unsafe sexual practices to overcome your sexual anxiety. On the other hand, if you have a sex partner whom you reasonably believe to be safe from COVID, I would not recommend using the pandemic as an excuse for avoiding sex. Instead, you could benefit by working cognitively and behaviorally on your sexual anxiety to improve your sex life. While socially distancing from others, there may be even more occasion to enjoy sex with your partner; and it would be too bad if you let your sexual anxiety spoil this potentially wonderful opportunity for building greater intimacy with your partner.   

However, if you have sexual anxiety and have been accustomed to meeting potential sex partners through internet dating services or social encounters, it is quite reasonable to postpone partner sex until it is reasonably safe to resume your sexual activity. But this should not be seen as a way to escape having to deal with your sexual anxiety issue nowThe good news is that, in the interim, you can still work on overcoming your sexual anxiety even if you are not presently having partner sex.

Work on Performance Anxiety Outside the Sexual Context 

As mentioned, your anxiety may also be manifested in other performance contexts besides the sexual context. For example, you may experience anxiety about participating in an online meeting or class. You may demand that you not mess up and be inclined to self-damn if you do. As such, there are probably other contexts besides sexual ones in which you can practice cognitive-behavioral skills associated with overcoming performance anxiety.

These skills consist of a sequence of steps: 

  1. Admit that you are making a performance demand.
  2. Show yourself that it is irrational.
  3. Change your goal to the positive one of being secure in an imperfect world, what I call Metaphysical Security.
  4. Choose a philosophical world view that makes you feel metaphysically secure (secure about reality being imperfect).
  5. Apply this philosophy by changing your behavior.

Let me give you an example, which you can adjust to your own circumstances.

Suppose you are taking a class online and you have anxiety about speaking up during the class. Your thinking would likely be along the following lines:

“I must not say anything stupid. What if I spoke up, made an ass of myself, and proved just how unworthy I really am. I had better say nothing.” 

To work cognitively and behaviorally on this you could first focus on your demand and refute it: 

“Where is it written that I mustn’t say anything stupid?” Answer: “Nowhere, except in my head. But supposing I did screw up, would that make me a screw up?” Answer: “No. That would be to confuse the deed with the doer.”

Now, feeling metaphysically secure can be quite useful in counteracting this irrational demand. This means being comfortable inhabiting a world in which messing up is part of the fabric of reality. However, there are different philosophical spins that can be put on this idea about reality being imperfect.  Western religious perspectives (Christianity, Judaism, etc.), for example, point to God as the only perfect being; therefore, demanding to be perfect like God amounts to vanity.

In the Eastern tradition, reality is one cosmic unity of impermanent, interconnected being. For instance, on the Buddhist conception, reality is ever-changing and, therefore, nothing in this universe is a “must.” So this means going with the flow of reality. 

“I will stop clinging to my demand, and let myself (and reality) be as it truly is:  Imperfect and Ever-Changing.” 

I have found the latter conception of reality to be quite useful for many of my clients who have performance anxiety. It also underlies mindfulness meditation that works on focusing on an object such as one’s breathing, and gently pushing negative thoughts aside, especially perfectionist demands, as they enter conscious awareness. But if this does not align with your way of thinking, you are encouraged to try out a different philosophy—one from the West, or even an atheistic worldview; whatever resonates bests with you. 

What Would the Buddha Do?

What would the Buddha tell you to do about your performance anxiety? Answer:  Let go of your performance demand and speak up in class. Thus, you can proclaim along with the Buddha:

“If I screw up, then it is what it is, yet another example of reality being what it is, imperfect. I will let go of this delusional demand for perfection and join the rest of reality.”

The Upshot:  Performance anxiety, whether in the bedroom, the classroom, or anywhere else, is cut from the same cloth; you can work on the one while working on the other.  It may not matter whether partner sex is temporarily off your table. You can still work on overcoming your sexual anxiety even when you are not presently having partner sex.

Practice Sexual Anxiety Imagery Too

We now know that when you imagine doing things, the same brain processes are active as when you actually do them.  You can work on your sexual anxiety by imagining failing to perform in bed. 

Imagine you are about to have sex with someone you really would like to have as your partner and get yourself to feel that “I mustn’t mess up” feeling you get when you have sexual anxiety. This feeling will be the same feeling in your brain as the real deal.

Work it through the same way you worked through the possibility of messing up in class. Refute your “must”; and reflect on your Buddhist philosophy.

“This ‘must’ is just in my head; let it go, it's illusory; nothing really but self-deception. How serene to clear my mind of this feeling; let it pass. No need to cling to it.”

The pandemic need not hold you captive to self-destructive tendencies. Let go of your performance demand, and it too shall pass.