What Is Sex Like When You Have Anxiety? 8 People Share Their Experiences

Our society already doesn't allow us a whole lot of room (if any room at all, actually) to openly discuss our mental health in a safe, empathetic, and helpful way. Mental illness is "invisible," so it is considered secondary, if not outright imaginary, when compared to physical ailments. We may not often talk about mental health struggles such as anxiety, but pretending the disorders aren't real doesn't prevent them from happening. Combine the silence and stigmatization surrounding mental health with our overwhelmingly sex-negative, shaming culture, and it's no wonder that we never really honestly speak about how anxiety affects sexuality and relationships. And this silence remains despite the extremely large number of people dealing with some form of anxiety, and the fact that anxiety can permeate every aspect of our lives.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 18.1 percent of the adult population in this country are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. That comes out to approximately 40 million adults between the ages of 18 to 54. Anxiety disorders are broken down into several types of disorders, including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, phobias, and generalized anxiety disorder. As you will read in the accounts shared by numerous people below, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is extremely common among survivors of sexual assault and sexual abuse. As a result, sexual activity, even when it is consensual, can trigger flashbacks and panic attacks. In fact, studies show that survivors are "6.2 times more likely to develop PTSD" than women who have not experienced rape.

Anxiety can be treated through counseling, medication, therapy, open communication, a combination of all of the above, and lots of other methods. When we are afraid to discuss our anxiety and the role it plays in our sex lives, it is hard to develop trust and boundaries, so it's hard to achieve the healthy pleasure that we deserve. Let's combat the stigma by talking openly about what it's like to be in sexual relationships while managing anxiety. Here is what eight people had to say:

1. Medication Can Dull Sensation, But It Is Often Worth It

2. Becoming Comfortable With Your Sexuality Is A Gradual Process Helped By Supportive Partners

“Sometimes I still have to make a conscious effort to try to love and appreciate my body and all of its capabilities. I have a partner now who loves everything about my body, but it took a while before I was able to be totally comfortable with him seeing every part of me. Every encounter with my boyfriend has always been consensual, but there have definitely been times where I've felt the need to disassociate because the experience is so overwhelming. This caused some early encounters to be painful and embarrassing. There have definitely been tears — both happy and sad. Like, I cried the first time I had an orgasm. I just have a lot of feelings, and a lot of the time they're unpredictable!

As our relationship has grown (it's been almost five years), my boyfriend and I have learned to be completely open with each other. I'm able to say straight up, 'hey, I just don't know if I can handle this right now. I'm feeling way too anxious' and he'll just get it. He's become more in touch with his own emotions, and can recognize anxiety within himself... We're also both on depression and anxiety medications that have made a world of difference in stabilizing our emotions and allowing communication to flow more freely. Even if there's a chance that these meds lower both of our libidos (I honestly wouldn't know since I've been on meds since I was 14), they've still allowed us to have a completely fulfilling sex life. We don't do it as often as we might like, but when we do, it's almost a spiritual experience where I feel like we're the only two people in the world. It's awesome.” - Violet, 25

3. It Can Feel Like You Don't Deserve Love

"I'm pretty well-regulated now (shout out to DBT therapy and finally figuring out a good medication regimen!) But there have been lots of times where I've been totally overwhelmed by my mental sh*t. This has obviously affected my relationship to my boyfriend. He is the person I'm around the most, so the person my disorders affect the most (apart from me, obviously) is him. And a lot of my anxiety is in relation to my body, which obviously affects my sex life. There have been times when I haven't been able to be touched because I hate how I look or because any physical contact brings up rape-related trauma feelings. And there have been times when I've started crying because I'm not getting enough physical contact and therefore feel like [my boyfriend] doesn't love me at all, that I'm ugly and worthless and unlovable. Depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder do this thing where they convince you that you have no value, that every aspect of your being is garbage. I've had this thing a lot in my 'sexual history' where I've been so convinced that I'm worthless/ugly/unlovable that I trust people more who seem to hate me, because their hatred confirms my own self-loathing and vice versa.

My current boyfriend of almost two years genuinely loves, values, and respects me and makes me feel safe... But I still have trouble believing that he really likes me, and that is all so much based in anxiety and depression and my sense of worthlessness and emptiness... Our sex life is really good the majority of the time, like kinda mind-blowing and close and special. But when the tentacles of anxiety wrap around me, it's like I'm not even in my body anymore. I'm way more in control of this than I used to be... I [no longer] seek out degradation from strangers who I hate and who put me in unsafe situations." - Tori, 22

4. You Can Achieve Fulfilling Relationships And Struggle With Mental Health Simultaneously

5. Illness-Related PTSD Makes It Hard To Trust Your Body

7. Casual Sex Is Difficult And Communication Is Key

8. Intimacy Between Long-Term Partners Can Change Throughout The Years

Want more of Bustle's Sex and Relationships coverage? Check out our new podcast, I Want It That Way, which delves into the difficult and downright dirty parts of a relationship, and find more on our Soundcloud page.

Images: Porsche Brosseau/Flickr; Giphy (8)