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I slip my dress off one shoulder, then the other. The cold air gives me goosebumps. I catch a glimpse of my naked back in the bedroom mirror. As I hear my partner’s footsteps climb the stairs and approach from behind me, I drop the dress to the floor with a naughty smirk. He wraps his arms around me. I turn in his embrace to kiss him.
As soon as our lips touch, a pit forms in my stomach. I try and ignore it but it grows and grows, consuming me. I push him away and tears fall down my cheeks as I stand naked at the foot of the bed. Huge, ugly sobs rock through my body and I collapse to the ground. He tries to hug me and I fight to escape the weight of his love.
Sense and reason have fled my body. My ability to communicate is reduced to a dozen simple phrases that all roughly mean the same thing: “I can’t do this.” The ‘this’ I’m referring to is everything from having sex to taking the next breath. I can’t understand what’s happening and I can’t stop crying.
This isn’t my first panic attack and I know it won’t be my last.
I was diagnosed with anxiety four years ago, but I’d been struggling for much longer. It took years to realise that the way I was feeling wasn’t normal and to accept that I needed help dealing with it. When I finally went to see my doctor, she recommended antidepressants and gave me the details of the local talking therapy service.
“My anxiety is worst in situations where I don’t know what will happen or what someone else is thinking.”
A side effect of those antidepressants, like many, is reduced sexual desire and difficulty having an orgasm. These are also symptoms of anxiety and depression, so you won’t be surprised to hear many people with mental health problems have trouble with sex.
My anxiety is worst in situations where I don’t know what will happen or what someone else is thinking. Sex, which is rarely planned out in advance and involves reading someone’s nonverbal cues to guess whether they’re having a good time, often triggers my anxiety.
Not knowing how my body will react during sex, as well as remembering previous panic attacks during sex, makes me anxious. Feeling anxious makes my body less likely to become physically aroused, which in turn only makes me more anxious. This vicious cycle is a perfect example of what makes dealing with mental health problems so difficult – treating anxiety is about breaking this pattern and training the brain to know there’s nothing to be scared of.
I have to give myself time to work through these feelings during sex: taking everything slowly, backing off when I’m starting to feel anxious and giving myself time to breathe and calm down. My logical brain knows there’s nothing to fear, but my subconscious is very willing to wrest charge of my emotions.
Having sex like this requires a lot of co-operation from a partner. Dealing with my anxiety would be harder still if I was single – if my anxiety around sex didn’t scare people off as much as I fear, it’d still be more difficult to have frequent sex, the regular exposure I need to get past this fear. Thankfully, my partner is understanding and patient with my anxiety. His complete acceptance of how I’m feeling and what I need has helped me to start to feel the same.
“My favourite intimate activities are the ones that are the most intense so they fill my head and I can’t focus on anything else”
Sometimes, I’m able to defeat my anxiety completely and start to wonder why we’re taking things so sensitively. Let’s stop worrying about having sex and just have sex! This sounds easy but it takes a lot of work deconstructing fears and accepting whatever may happen to be able to finally push it aside.
When I don’t have the time or energy to do this, I go to the other extreme: jumping in quickly so I don’t have enough time for the thoughts to get into my head before I start enjoying myself. Some of my favourite intimate activities are the ones that are the most intense so they fill my head and I can’t focus on anything else; when my whole body is involved or multiple things are happening at once, it’s harder for my mind to wander.
When I’m struggling to escape my anxious thoughts, sometimes I just concentrate on my partner and his enjoyment. If my only aim is to make him feel good, I don’t have to worry about my own feelings and how anxiety is affecting them.
My anxiety has forced me to redefine what having sex – and what ‘failing’ to have sex – means. All I want from sex is to feel connected to my partner – through intimacy, vulnerability and, perhaps, pleasure. Anxiety may make certain types of sex more difficult but, even on my worst days, we can still feel connected by lying together naked on a bed and cuddling.
That might not be everyone’s definition of sex, but I’m learning to accept that.
Kim Barrett is a freelance writer. Follow them on Twitter at @kimbarrett92