After a year of keeping away from each other, social distancing measures are relaxing, meaning dating and sex are very much back on the cards.
But for two thirds of people, the thought of getting intimate with someone new is causing all kinds of anxiety.
A survey by dating website Badoo found 63% of single people feel anxious at the thought of getting physically intimate after a year in and out of lockdown.
Two in five (43%) respondents said they feel out of practice and just aren’t used to physical touch, while 41% say their intimacy anxiety stems from not knowing enough about their date’s lifestyle and worrying about the risk of Covid-19.
Sex therapist Charlene Douglas says it’s actually pretty normal for people to feel this way given all that’s happened this past year. “If you think about normal non-romantic relationships, it’s been quite difficult for us to get back out there again and engage with people just on that level, in terms of having conversations and going to social events,” she tells HuffPost UK.
“So you can imagine how much more difficult it would be to be physically naked with somebody – not just in terms of all that usually goes along with that in terms of the anxiety, but when you add Covid into the mix as well.”
Knowing the signs of intimacy anxiety
A person with intimacy anxiety might feel the need to drink more than their usual level when meeting up with a new romantic interest, says Douglas, or they might use distraction techniques such as talking a lot throughout the date so the conversation doesn’t ultimately lead towards physical closeness and sex.
Another sign is avoidance, in other words completely avoiding meeting new people or responding to messages from prospective partners.
And then there are the physical manifestations of anxiety to watch out for like a racing heart or sweaty palms. Douglas notes it’s about noticing the difference between those casual pre-date butterflies in your stomach and that feeling of real dread.
So how can you start to tackle this kind of anxiety?
First up, psychosexual and relationship therapist Aoife Drury urges people to really consider whether they’re ready to get back out there or not. Ask yourself: are you doing it because you want to, or are you doing it because of societal pressure or pressure from others? If you’re not ready just yet, that’s totally fine.
A bit of self-awareness can also help you figure out exactly what it is that’s making you feel so anxious about dating. “Ask yourself what you need to feel comfortable,” says Drury. “If there is anxiety, create some space to look at why that may be.” Is it because you’re not used to being touched and you’re out of practice, are you worried about catching the virus, or do you not really know what you’re looking for?
“Self-awareness is a powerful tool, but equally an important aspect of dating and relationships,” she says. “Take time to discover what you are looking for in a sexual partner, and what you may need to feel more comfortable. Even try writing it down – it may help you be able to communicate these fears if you need to.”
Self-touch might just help you overcome the lack of physical intimacy from the past year, as if you’ve lacked touch since before Covid-19, “it inevitably could be triggering anxiety,” says Drury. “This step forward may not be an easy journey to begin with, so a lovely way to start is with yourself. There are a few things that you could do to help ease back into physical touch that may help you feel more at ease.”
Give yourself hand and foot massages, or spend more time in the bath or shower, recognising the fall and feel of the water on your skin. It might also be helpful to invest in a weighted blanket, a human-sized pillow, or heated eye masks, Drury suggests. And don’t forget to carve out some time for sensual touch too. “Draw on some mindful masturbation or a sex toy to get you reacquainted and in tune with your body and pleasure,” she says.
Slow things down
You’re ready to date again and you’ve found someone you like – now you need to take things at snail pace. Badoo’s survey found that of those who feel anxious about getting back out there, two thirds (62%) want to spend more time getting to know someone before being physically intimate.
Charlene Douglas is a firm believer in taking the pressure off yourself to have sex by focusing on taking things slowly and building emotional intimacy first. “To expect our bodies and our minds to just connect with someone after not being out for a year may be quite unrealistic,” she says. “We may need some time to adjust to that.”
She recommends building emotional intimacy first, before you head down the physically intimate route. This could mean having a conversation on the phone first until you feel comfortable meeting up, and maybe doing some video calls so you can really get a sense of somebody before you meet with them.
Talk about your worries
Before you do physically meet with your new love interest, it might be useful to have a frank conversation about your concerns. It’s totally ok to ask how they’ve been keeping themselves safe from Covid-19. You might also both agree to take a lateral flow test before going on your date for peace of mind.
“What’s really important for people to think about is: can you have the conversation with your new partner about some of these anxieties?” says Douglas, “because I think what we find is with a lot of things we’re anxious about, when we can talk about it, it does release some of that anxiety. So communication is really key.”
Remember, it’s very likely your date feels the same. “Our experiences may have been different and the way we feel might be different, but we’ve all been through this [pandemic] so it might feel a bit strange for the other person to meet with us,” she continues. “If you can have a conversation openly about these worries, I think that really helps. And then it takes away the pressure and you can have a bit of fun together and see where it goes from there.”
Plan a fun date
Now that you’ve communicated how you’re feeling, plan your date and try to ensure it’s activity-filled if you’re not quite ready for sexy time.
“If you can plan a date where you’re going bowling or ice skating, where you just have fun together and a laugh, it takes away the pressure of that dinner date or coffee date where you’re sitting opposite each other and you’re having to think of conversations and the sexual tension’s building and then the anxiety builds as well,” says Douglas.
“If you can build some emotional intimacy activities in there, that could hopefully help when it comes to going down that route of the physical intimacy.”
And if you do have sex...
Enjoy it! “Although sex is daunting and can feel very anxiety provoking when it’s been off the table for a while, it can be incredibly beneficial for our mental health,” says Drury. “With dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin flying around it can help give your mood a boost.
“Try to frame it as an opportunity to meet somebody new, and to learn about yourself. Enjoy the added benefits that it can bring to both physical and mental wellbeing.”