Sexual performance anxiety – or also commonly called SPA, is one of the most common sexual anxieties and complaints you could ever think of. It can happen to both men and women, so it doesn’t choose genders, although according to one study it’s a bit more frequent in men.
According to a very recent article published in the Sexual Medicine Reviews in April 2020, SPA affects approximately 9-25% of men, sometimes even causing premature ejaculation and psychogenic erectile dysfunction (aka erectile dysfunction caused by psychological factors rather than biological). In comparison, SPA seems to affect about 6-16% of women, sometimes severely inhibiting their sexual desire.
Sex nowadays is often viewed as something that needs to be played out, “performed”
To be honest, no wonder there’s anxiety in the whole picture regarding sex. I mean, sure; if we look at sex as ‘performance’ or something to be performed, then we’ll definitely have something to worry about because we’re never gonna live up to our own perfect images that we have stuck in our heads.
Unfortunately, though, that is the reality for a lot of men, and women, out there (myself included). In large part influenced by porn, we behave as if our sex life has an audience like it’s being evaluated at every corner.
And guys have a hard time, especially because sex and pleasure are largely defined through intercourse and this definition depends a lot on male erections. However, women don’t have it much easier either. I mean they often battle with pain during sex (due to various medical or psychological conditions) and also sometimes have trouble getting wet.
Too many men struggle with their self-image
And you saw the reality of it – about a quarter of men and a fifth of women are struggling with self-image when it comes to sex. That’s too much, folks, just the pressure we put on ourselves is too much.
This is why I chose to talk about this topic in the first place. SPA is still pretty much neglected by the scientific community. And that’s also the reason why there’s not much research into how to properly treat it. Or to at least address it in the right ways, you know.
So here I want to focus on all things concerning sexual performance anxiety or SPA. And yeah, for lack of a better term, I will just have to stick with this one for now, although it’s not my favorite.
I will be talking about what SPA actually is and how it’s defined, what causes it, how it feels for guys and gals. And what I will be talking about most is actually strategies on how to overcome sexual performance anxiety with your long-term partner.
So let’s get on it, shall we?
What is Sexual Performance Anxiety?
Sexual performance anxiety (SPA) is a range of negative emotions, feelings, and mental states, that can also manifest physically, that men and women experience before they have sex or during the act of having sex. Stress, anxiety, nervousness, shame, frustration can all be a part of what SPA is and how it’s defined.
SPA is connected to our sense of sexual/erotic self – how we view each other in the bedroom and how we relate to our partners during sex.
What Causes Sexual Performance Anxiety? How Does SPA Manifest?
SPA manifests in lots of ways and has a number of potential causes. Some of those causes might be:
- Fearing that you’re a bad lover, that you will be unable to satisfy your partner sexually.
- Low self-confidence, weight concerns, poor body image, or the more extreme body dysmorphia, a mental health disorder in which you’re obsessed with a supposed flaw on your body (something that usually isn’t perceived as such from your surroundings).
- Worries about the length of your penis, not being content with the length or shape of your penis. Worrying about how your penis measures up compared to previous partners of your current one.
- Fears about experiencing premature ejaculation (PE). If you’ve already had an episode or episodes of PE, fear that you’ll experience them every time you have sex.
- Or the opposite – worrying that you’re taking too long to orgasm.
- If you’re anorgasmic, aka incapable of achieving an orgasm, whether it’s occasional, frequent, or lifelong/all the time, worrying about this and worrying that you and your partner won’t be able to enjoy having sex.
- Relationship issues – unresolved issues, whether they have to do with your sex life or not can also turn into a reason behind SPA.
As you can see, most of these are psychological factors. SPA has a lot to do with how we experience sex, how we see each other as sexual beings and our capabilities as people who engage in sexual activity.
How Does Sexual Performance Anxiety Feel?
Well, even though it’s primarily a psychological thing, SPA implies a range of physiological responses in the body as well.
So, when you become anxious or stressed out, your fight-or-flight reflexes kick in. What does this mean? Well, first of all, it means that your body will start to release stress hormones like adrenaline and noradrenaline. And one of the ways these hormones affect your body is that they constrict or narrow your blood vessels. This means that less blood goes into your penis, and that makes it all the more difficult to achieve or sustain an erection.
After all, you’re preparing for a fight, aren’t you? You will need all that blood for something else. Yeah, like worrying for example.
I mean this thing is the devil. Even guys who’ve never had an issue with erections or premature ejaculation before, as soon as they get stressed and anxious enough, it becomes overwhelming and suddenly they find themselves experiencing some sort of acute, psychogenic erectile dysfunction, and with that some more SPA on the way.
There’s actually a really good report in The Guardian about how more and more people in their 20s and 30s are reporting recycle dysfunction although probably the cause of their performance woes has more to do with SPA than it has to do with any “real” erectile dysfunction.
And in women, it’s even less recognized than in men. As I mentioned earlier, lots of women who experience sexual performance anxiety aren’t able to release enough lubrication or their vaginal muscles get too tight. And then stress hormones kick in again and all is lost – their desire for sex has disappeared as well.
Strategies on How to Overcome Sexual Performance Anxiety
Even if you have by your side the best girl in the world – the smartest, sexiest, most beautiful woman for you, it still doesn’t mean you’ll be free of anxiety. Heck, that might even be the cause of it, since you’re constantly gonna wonder whether you’re good enough for her.
When we’re at a certain point in our lives when we’re particularly vulnerable or fragile, it often reflects in our psychological state as well and our sex life.
Work on Your Attitude Towards Your SPA
Think about the problem you have and try to make an attitude adjustment or an attitude change. This is also called cognitive behavior therapy or CBT. You can do it with a partner, with a friend, with a licensed therapist, and with just yourself. But the first thing you gotta do is actually to identify the main belief you have about your sexual problem.
So if it’s something in the line of “My partner/wife won’t enjoy herself if I don’t keep an erection, or if I come too fast, or if I don’t have an orgasm”, try counteracting it with something else. Like what, you’d ask?
Well, you have to write an alternative to the issue(s) at hand. It doesn’t have to mean that it’ll work 100% the first time, but think about it rationally, so it makes sense.
So, something that would counteract the previous claim would be: “If my wife and I focus on pleasant sensations, rather than strictly chasing an orgasm, then it wouldn’t really matter much what’s going on with my penis. We can still enjoy sex and feel fulfilled even if I have troubles with erection or premature ejaculation, or not being able to orgasm at all.
Focus on Being in the Moment (Being Mindful)
You might’ve already heard the term ‘mindfulness’, a buzzword hailed by life and wellness coaches like there’s no tomorrow. While some people may find it annoying by now, there’s actually a really good side to it.
Mindfulness basically means being in the moment, concentrating on what you’re doing right, now, while concentrating on what your body does as well. You notice your breathing patterns, your heartbeat, even the most minuscule details that surround you, but not in any distracting way. Rather, you notice your place in the world and your interconnectedness. That’s what mindfulness is all about. And all with the good intention of calming you down and putting you in a nice, relaxed state of mind.
I mean, as we saw so far, one of the major causes of sexual performance anxiety is excessive self-monitoring. So when you’ve got loads of it, why not use it to your own advantage?
If you wanna feel pleasure and joy out of sex, then you definitely have to be in the moment. Otherwise, the magic of the whole experience simply disappears.
Yet often the opposite happens. When the time to have sex comes, we’re plagued with worries and anxieties from the day and from our own expectations. Well, all of this, my friend, you will need to delegate to mere background noise if you wanna have an enjoyable sex life again.
It means throwing yourself into what you’re doing wholeheartedly, leaving the evaluation for later.
But how would I set out to do this, you wonder? Sounds so easy on paper but it’s actually almost impossible to do in real life!
Well, it’s actually very doable. You just gotta learn some tricks and deceive your mind a little bit so it leaves you alone.
How can you practice mindfulness during sex?
There are a couple of steps you can take to practice being in the moment before and during sex.
Focus on the pleasure you’re feeling in the moment
Once you start to become flirty or sexual with your partner, focus all your attention on the sensations of pleasure you’re experiencing at that moment. Whatever it is – a particular smell, the softness and texture of your partner’s skin, or the way she’s touching you (her movements, her pressure), the way she looks under a particular light, the sounds she’s producing while you’re making out, or while you’re sliding down your hand under her jeans.
Also, focus on the pleasant emotions you’re experiencing. It can be excitement, or strong feelings of joy, love, affection, closeness, intimacy, pleasure – whatever it is, notice the feeling and keep it close at bay.
Detach yourself from negative emotions and thoughts
But being present also means sort of distancing from the negative emotions and thoughts that had previously plagued you and sucked all the joy from sex. So next time that self-conscious or self-judgmental thought comes, try counteracting it and pushing it away with those pleasurable sensations and emotions you also noticed and experienced!
Focus on your breathing
Take notice of your breathing patterns. Everything begins with breathing. When you start to notice the way you breathe, you also start noticing your whole body, as well as your heartbeat. This is because breathing and your heart beating happen all the time, and they always happen in the present, so their rhythm is a good way to ground you in the now. And focusing on your breathing also helps you notice if you breathe too fast and if your heart is pounding, which is your bodily reaction to anxiety. If this is the case, then you need to calm your body down. Which brings me to the next step – taking a break.
Take a break
Yeah, taking a break is important, even if you’re in the middle of foreplay or sex. If you’re overwhelmed and on the edge of losing your cool or your mojo, then I absolutely recommend taking a short break. How can you do this? Well, if you’re in the middle of intercourse or sexual activity, try switching the pose or doing another sexual activity, like oral sex, or fingering, or breast play. Or if you’re in the middle of foreplay, you can do it more slowly, more sensually, you can set up the mood (background music, candles, low light, etc.)
Don’t expect immediate results
Of course, all of this most likely won’t happen 100% successfully the first time you try it. I mean I don’t want you to expect you can do all of this at once the next time you have sex and suddenly get rid of your SPA. But you also can’t wait for mindfulness to come by itself. Which means you gotta practice it. Step by step, sometimes you’re gonna do just one, or a couple of the things recommended here. And sometimes all of them, and as time goes by it’s gonna get easier and you’re gonna feel more relaxed, more confident in your ability to be present and focus on the moment.
Practice Masturbating Mindfully
Okay, so this is easier than it sounds.
Before you set out to do a session of mindful masturbation, remember that change of attitude I mentioned to you before.
And now let’s take a look at the steps for better, more focused, and more mindful meditation:
- Notice your breathing. Your breathing will show your state even if you don’t immediately notice it yourself. Make sure you take your breaths deeply and slowly. Maintain a slow breathing pattern.
- Look for any signs of muscle tension in your body. As soon as you notice one, loosen up. You can even do a mini-massage on the area by yourself. Work area by area, don’t set out to relax all at once. Take small bites, they’re always easier to swallow.
- Next come the sexual or romantic image(s) or situations that you should imagine having with your partner. Start to slowly masturbate all the while focusing on these images. Also, try to touch not only your penis but other areas of the body as well.
- Give yourself time while you’re doing this. Avoid doing it in a rush. If you have a tight schedule, set a reasonable amount of time for it so you don’t rush yourself. It’s really important you feel relaxed and unpressured in these moments.
- Focus on the pleasurable sensations that you’re experiencing while you’re masturbating. How does touching your penis and other parts of your body feel? How does your body feel lying on your bed, or propped on the couch, in the shower while warm water is pouring all over you? What smells can you recognize? What sounds can you discern from your activity that you like? And then there are also pleasurable emotions. Do you feel excited enough? Notice when. When do you feel a particular spur of joy? Or affection for your partner or your own body? Notice when these emotions are the strongest and remember the timing for next time.
Don’t limit your fantasies and relax before sessions
Try to do this kind of masturbating session often, especially if you continually struggle with SPA. Also, I wanna remind you not to limit yourself and your fantasies.
What you should also do is imagine yourself in scenarios when you’re not always in this mainstream role of the perfect sexual performer, that lasts for ages and is super hard for as long as he wants.
Instead, include fantasies in which you also won’t always have a (fully) erect penis, but you’ll still be enjoying yourself, or fantasies where you either ejaculate too fast or you don’t at all. And it doesn’t matter in what state your penis is while you’re having these fantasies. Forget about that.
Keep going even if you imagine not ejaculating or not having an erection at all. Let the fantasy roll. Imagine yourself giving and receiving pleasure without holding anything back, without anxieties or shame and embarrassment, without constantly apologizing. All of that now is mere background noise, something unintelligible. Focus on the pleasurable sensations and emotions you’re experiencing in your body and mind right now.
You can do some relaxing exercises or short meditation before you start masturbating (and also before you have sex if you can). Practice slow and deep breathing, relax all the muscles in your body and locate the tension. And remember not to forget doing this while you’re masturbating as well!
For those of you struggling with PE (premature ejaculation)
If you have trouble controlling PE, then once you set off to masturbate (slowly), pay good attention to the physical sensations you’re going through. Train yourself to recognize the sensation immediately preceding the ejaculation. It will help you make a slight change of course when you realize you’re really close to coming.
Also, don’t use techniques of distraction in order to delay your ejaculation. Keep your attention intact, focus on your pleasurable sensations, and say goodbye to critical and undermining thoughts.
Communicate Your Sexual Performance Anxiety to Your Partner
I know that some guys simply dread this idea, but I don’t know how many times I’ve said this: communication is the cornerstone to any good relationship. There’s no doubt about that. And when setting out to overcome SPA, doing it together with your partner is better than doing it by yourself alone.
Sure, there is some stuff you can do on your own, like edging during masturbation or working on your attitude during sex. You can do this with a therapist or by yourself. But another key thing is to talk with your partner/wife about it too.
And I understand many guys just don’t know where to start. They’re embarrassed, they feel like it’s some sort of weakness and they feel somehow “less men” about it. Well, I’m here to tell you that nothing can be further from the truth.
Whether she’s already noticed it or not, you can start by just telling her you’ve recently become too self-conscious during sex. Then you can go on and explain to her that you want to work on it. Tell her you wanna go slow and that it’s important for you not to pressure each other. And this goes for foreplay and actual intercourse, but also when it comes to experiencing pleasure in general. If you’ve never talked about sex before in an open and more elaborate, more honest way, well, now’s the time, isn’t it?
Okay, and what about when actual physical intimacy ensues? What happens then? Well, let’s see, shall we?
Feeling pleasure with no genitals included
So, as I mentioned earlier, it’s important to leave pressure off the table. Whether it’s conscious, unconscious, or semi-conscious, you gotta work on it. And one of the ways to do that when you start touching each other again is not to focus immediately on the genitals.
Yeah, that’s right, the first time or the first couple of times you set out to practice more mindful sex and foreplay, you can start by simply touching each other. It’s that simple, just putting all your energy and focus into sensual touch, but leaving your genitals temporarily out of the picture. That way you won’t feel any pressure about getting an erection and trying to maintain it. The focus is solely on the touching and how that makes you feel, which spots you really want to be touched, which you don’t, etc. I mean you can look at it as a sort of edging, I bet you’ll be dying to touch each other’s genitals after a few sessions!
Let’s see what you can do, step by step:
- First, you can give each other some very pleasurable minutes! Try with 15 minutes, give or take, at first to touch each other the way you like to be touched. No special expectations, no pressure, just listening to each other’s preferences and desires. Don’t criticize your partner or doubt their choice of touch or pressure or whatever it is during this time, and encourage them to do the same. You’re both very vulnerable in those moments, and it’s very easy to spoil the mood and, with that, enhance your anxiety even more.
- This is also the time when you can focus your attention entirely on pleasurable sensations. Appreciate each other’s touch and notice how the other senses are being stimulated as well. And, whenever your penis pops up in your head or intrudes your thoughts, remind yourself that it doesn’t matter what it’s currently doing.
- Any critical or worrying thoughts are not allowed in those minutes of pleasurable sensations and careful touch. It’s just background noise. Imagine a boundary that you create with your partner – a thin but powerful circle that can’t be probed or entered by unnecessary and unnerving thoughts.
- Keep your attention to what you’re currently experiencing. This also means monitoring your breath – try to breathe slowly, evenly, and deeply. Also, if you notice any tense muscles in your body, try to loosen them up. We often don’t notice how tense our muscles are almost all of the time.
Remember these steps as you become more sexual with your partner again
After a few sessions, you and your partner can continue to become more sexual with each other. Follow the steps from the beginning – they’ll provide structure and make you feel less anxious. I know that words like “structure” sound very unsexy when you put them in the context of sex. But in the case of sexual performance anxiety, structure is a very welcomed thing.
This is because it doesn’t really allow for any unexpected, unwanted situations or reactions. Whatever happens, you’re always prepared. Even if you experience premature ejaculation again, or go through another episode of erectile dysfunction, you will know they’re just words buzzing like a cloud in and around you. And they’re momentary. You can always try again – nobody can take that away from you.
Share your feelings and focus on pleasure, not the orgasm
In any event, it’s always a good idea to talk with your wife or partner between these “sessions” of mindful sex. Don’t be afraid to share your feelings. Whether it has to do with your joint sex life, or your own thoughts about your capabilities, fears, desires, needs as individual sexual beings, just do it. I know for a fact that a lot of guys are probably hearing the “share your feelings” phrase for the first time. Well, yeah, now it’s time to be a bit of a less of a tough guy and more of a guy that isn’t afraid to admit when something’s wrong, when they feel vulnerable and when they need help.
The key thing is to remember that sex almost never goes smoothly or perfectly. Sex is messy and often unpredictable (although, as we saw, there are ways to control it), and that’s part of its charm. And it doesn’t mean that sex can’t be enjoyable because of its imperfection. As long as your main goal is pleasure and not constant monitoring of one’s “performance”, then you’re on the right path to enjoying sex again and getting rid of the fear uncertainty brings.
When it comes to sexual performance, it’s sometimes really easy to fall into the trap of self-doubt, self-consciousness, and self-criticism. I mean sometimes even a couple of words are enough to ruin the night.
And it becomes a loophole – you’re stuck in the loop. You end up living the very thing you were fearing all along – premature ejaculation, erectile dysfunction, and troubles climaxing.
And while, yes, a lot of us fall into this trap sometime in our lives, it doesn’t mean we need to keep doing it to ourselves. As you can see there is a way out, you can definitely beat that notorious circle of anxiety.
All you have to do is make the first step and ask for help. You can even ask yourself for help, or another person, whatever feels more comfortable at first. But I urge you to just do it. Do it without much hesitation and take back your sex life into your own hands.