Whenever I try to masturbate, I get a rush of intrusive thoughts. Thoughts of people in my life that don’t turn me on AT ALL come to mind — people I definitely don’t want to be thinking about while touching myself. Because of this, I often feel a great deal of shame about masturbating. I also can’t stop thinking about all the shit I need to get done (as a new freelancer, work thoughts tend to seep into every part of my life). Recently, I realized that the anxiety of having anxiety while masturbating was stopping me from doing the deed, and keeping me from enjoying this very normal and healthy act of self-love. As someone with an anxiety disorder, anxiety is a routine part of my everyday life, but I decided it was time to speak to some experts about this and see if there’s anything I can do to establish a more mindful sex life.
Myisha Battle, a sex therapist based in the Bay Area, says anxiety around masturbation is incredibly common and not just for folks with anxiety disorders. In fact, it looks just like anxiety in any other situation, which can include ruminating thoughts, distraction, increased heart rate, a feeling of discomfort, stress or panic. And this is something she sees frequently in her sex and dating coaching clients. “It has a huge impact on how people are able to connect sexually with themselves and others, but it isn’t insurmountable,” she says.
According to Myisha, “Your body sends you pleasure sensations as a result of sexual stimulation, but if your attention is elsewhere (say for instance, your attention is on how many emails you need to get through tomorrow) you won’t be able to receive this pleasure information as easily.” Anxiety can thus take someone out of the present moment, creating a massive roadblock to experiencing sexual pleasure.
It makes sense that anxiety can manifest at such a vulnerable time, says Emily Roberts, a New York-based psychotherapist, especially if someone regularly experiences anxiety. This is because anxiety can peak when we’re not distracted and are alone with our thoughts before bed, or in an intimate setting with a partner.
Still, Myisha says that others who don’t have a history of anxiety can experience it for a number of reasons: “One is the guilt or shame that a lot of us grow up with around masturbation and sex in general. It’s seen as wrong, immoral, or self-indulgent. Another reason someone might experience anxiety during masturbation is that we have very unrealistic ideas about why types of bodies are sexy and deserving of sexual pleasure.” If you have a complicated relationship with your body, which many of us do, this can also manifest as anxiety during sex.
It’s important to keep in mind that it’s normal to think about other things during sex, whether it’s by yourself or with a partner, as our brains are complex machines that are usually multitasking. “This can result in you being fully turned on, but also trying to figure out how to deal with something your mom said to you earlier that pissed you off. See? Complicated. But that doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong,” believes Myisha.
Myisha says that the key here is to actively work on moving through the thoughts using mindfulness techniques. “Recognize that they are there, but that they are unhelpful in the current moment, then redirect your thoughts to the pleasure you’re feeling.” While this might seem hard at first, practicing mindfulness throughout the day can help out tremendously in the bedroom as it requires a great deal of practice.
When we become more conscious of our anxious thoughts in our everyday lives, we strengthen the mind’s ability to focus on one thing at a time. In order for these strategies to work in the bedroom, which may find stress-inducing, we have to exercise these skills in other scenarios so we can grow accustomed to tapping into them.
“I used to think that mindfulness would make me think of all the scary or bad things in my life, but it’s actually just the practice of doing one thing at a time and becoming aware of when our mind gets distracted by another thought, then bringing it back to the present moment,” Emily told Dame.
Guided meditations and breathwork can also help, as we can all benefit from taking time to breathe and connect with ourselves in the present moment. “You can do something as simple as count your inhales from one to ten or you can download an app like Headspace which provides guided meditations that include breath work,” says Myisha.
Emily recommends doing a meditation or controlled breathing exercise once a day for 2-3 minutes and seeing how it feels. Keep in mind, these shouldn’t be “thought-less” activities — it’s more about noticing your thoughts, which helps you cultivate a deeper awareness practice. These simple exercises can help bring you back to your body and the present moment, which will make it easier to focus on one thing: self-pleasure.
Beyond this, it’s a good idea to speak to a doctor, therapist or coach if anxiety during masturbation is becoming problematic. Emily says it could be an indicator of female sexual arousal disorder, which includes signs such as a limited sexual interest or sexual arousal, lack of or minimal sexual fantasies, no initiation of sex or no receptivity to attempts by a partner to initiate sexual behavior. This can be lifelong or acquired, generalized or situational.
Hearing that anxiety during masturbation is common and that there are tangible things I can do to work through it is all the reassurance I need to give it another go. While my anxiety will likely always be a part of my life, I feel better knowing there are ways to move past it and that I’m not alone in what I’m experiencing.
Sara R. Radin is a writer and journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her writing has been published by outlets such as The New York Times, Buzzfeed, and Vice.