Anxiety is an important factor in the development of sexual dysfunctions. Performance anxiety, or fear of performance, is a well known phenomenon, particularly in men who are concerned over their erectile response and durability of erection. Sexual dysfunction is mostly a result of performance anxiety or fear of scrutiny by one’s partner. It is a common problem in which anxiety about engaging in sexual activity becomes an overriding block to the spontaneous flow of sexual feelings and thoughts. Though performance anxiety is more associated with men, women also suffer from it. However, the pressure to perform does lie more heavily on the man.
Typically, performance anxiety produces so much preoccupation with the anxiety itself that the person becomes less fully involved in the sexual interaction. The fear of sexual performance – or, more accurately, the fear of not performing sexually – can affect sexuality in a variety of ways. Performance anxiety can result in avoidance of sexual encounters, lowered self-esteem, relationship discord and ultimately sexual dysfunctions.
Nothing happens in the body without the brain. Worry and nervousness inhibits a person’s ability to have and sustain an erection. However, fear and anxiety affect the body physiologically in the same manner that sex does by increasing heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, and skin sensitivity. In fact, research shows that if an individual is mildly scared or anxious, he or she will have an increased sexual response if a sexual encounter immediately follows the fear or anxiety. The real culprit that interferes with sex is not mild fear or anxiety, but worry. Successful sex involves focusing on the sensations and pleasures of the sexual moment and not worrying about the outcome or being preoccupied by nonsexual thoughts.
In women, sexual performance anxiety is less frequently diagnosed, but its presence may similarly inhibit sexual response. Women feel somewhat pressured to be able to reach orgasm, to be more interested in sex, and to be better lovers. Although experimental studies have revealed that feelings of anxiety may actually be arousing in women, most women with performance anxiety put pressure on themselves to be “good” lovers and in doing so, become preoccupied with their every move. In watching her self-performance – being a spectator – instead of enjoying shared intimacy, performance anxiety shuts down any partner communication, comfort, and relaxed breathing, all of which are crucial elements of orgasm and enjoyment of the sexual relation. Her consideration of her partner’s perceived assessment of whether she is doing it “right”, represses her own spontaneous responses.
Equally, most men also need to know they are satisfying their partner because for a man, sexual performance is a vital part of his perceived self-esteem, sexual longevity and prowess. However, a man’s need to satisfy his partner can sometimes create anxiety and tension in the bedroom – as he feels under pressure to be a “great lover”, his partner may also worry about her having an orgasm to avoid hurting his feelings. The sexual interaction is dissected so deliberately that enjoyment is virtually impossible. Meanwhile, pressure to have orgasm makes having one virtually impossible.
Overcoming Performance Anxiety
Performance anxiety over sex can be a hard thing to overcome as it ranges anywhere from a little case of jitter to being completely afraid of sex. Although anxiety is usually associated with psychological factors, they can ultimately have very real physical effects as sometimes it is the physical problems like premature ejaculation that turn into psychological trauma.
Whichever the situation may be, there are usually a multitude of both mental and bodily elements that needs to be found and conquered.
While recognising that many men would not seek a psychological approach to resolving the condition, an outline of performance anxiety about continued erectile failure and the effect this has on their partner and their relationship, is often appreciated by the man.
Treatment should emphasise “sensate focus exercises” and the reduction of performance anxiety. Sensate focus exercises involves both partner taking turns at giving and receiving stimulation while forbidding genital touching, vaginal penetration and orgasm.
This is advocated because if focus is put on ejaculation or orgasm and skills to improve them, there is the likelihood of failure with such an approach because it feeds into performance anxiety. A more successful approach is to focus on how to generally take pleasure and enjoyment in sexual encounters. Ejaculation and orgasm should be viewed as part of a whole sexual experience. By emphasising psychological satisfaction along with more general sensual pleasure, there is better likelihood of decreased performance anxiety.
The best remedy therefore for “performance anxiety” is not to perform! The following tips will help in reducing performance anxiety and help make sexual encounter more pleasurable and fulfilling.
1. Be open and confide in your partner about the situation. He/she needs reassurance that the problem is not his/her lack of desirability.
2. Stop thinking of sex as a test of personal performance and prowess. You are not on a job interview. Consider substituting the word “lovemaking” for sex. In lovemaking, two people give and receive pleasure in many different ways and there necessarily need not be an erection.
3. Learn to relax. Do not concentrate on the outcome of the sexual experience but rather focus on enjoying, giving and receiving stimulation. Study relaxation techniques. Take up a hobby and get more exercise involving deep breathing to help relax the nerves. Relaxation and calmness are excellent foundations for reducing performance anxiety.
4. Engage in fantasy. Even though one finds his/her partner attractive and desirable, fantasising about other sexual situations can help distract from any performance anxiety that might be felt during lovemaking. Engaging in erotic fantasy does not mean one does not love his/her partner any less.
5. Redefine sex. “Sex” is not serious business and should never be! It is more than just intercourse. Employ more varied forms of stroking, kissing, touching, caressing. Sex is mutual pleasuring. Under this definition, you cannot be a failure as long as you are willing to give and receive love.
6. Add humour to the sex. There is always a place for humour in a healthy sexual relationship. Sex should be a joyful, playful, and on occasion a slapstick comedy. Enjoy the quirks and foibles in the bedroom as they help reduce the impact of self-criticism, performance anxiety, and resentment.
And on a last note, sex can really be a source of great humour and joy – and really it does not have to feel like or be serious business!