How to Handle Performance Anxiety

Young woman hugging a pillow on the bed

Ever felt the pressure to be amazing in bed? 

Whatever “amazing” means to you… Whether that means staying hard, or looking hot, or feeling like you have to be the best they’ve ever had – we’ve all been there. But I’m here to tell you: this is performance anxiety. And it will absolutely get in the way of your pleasure. 

What is performance anxiety?

Most people use this phrase to describe the pressure penis owners feel to get erect and stay erect. But age, hormone levels, blood flow issues and other factors can cause unpredictable erections. It’s very, very common.

Another aspect of performance anxiety, though, is performative sex. This affects people of all genders, but I’ve noticed that people with vulvas feel this pressure pretty acutely. They write me saying they have a hard time relaxing into sex, because they don’t feel great about their body. Or, they don’t know how to orgasm during sex, so they detach from their own pleasure, and focus more on tossing their hair around / moaning / acting like a hot lover for their partner. 

Both situations are stressful in their own ways. And both take you out of the present moment, further distancing you from authentic pleasure.  

How can I alleviate performance anxiety?

Let’s talk about the erection concern first.

Getting to the root cause of unpredictable erections is nuanced, but I would start here, to see what lifestyle changes can be made. Physiologically, getting an erection is all about blood flowing into the penis. Often this comes down to fitness, which is good news. That’s a factor you can control.

For erection challenges: 

During intercourse, I recommend a penis ring, which will help keep blood trapped inside the penis. That’s going to help you stay erect. LELO makes a vibrating penis ring called the TOR 3*, which fits on the base of the shaft and can be used during intercourse. TOR 3 offers eight different vibration patterns, varying in intensity from a teasing murmur to a satisfying pulse. It’s an excellent toy for couples, since its vibrating motor stimulates the clitoris (or sphincter muscles) – resulting in way more mutual satisfaction. 

If you’ve got a vulva, you probably have a hard time orgasming during intercourse. This isn’t a personal flaw, it’s near universal. People with vulvas need clitoral stimulation to orgasm, and intercourse alone typically doesn’t cut it. That’s why the TOR 3 is a godsend, since it basically turns the penis into a vibrator. More orgasmic intercourse for all!

For relaxation challenges

First, get to know your arousal style. This is going to give you a lot of info about the conditions you need for good sex, something I describe in great detail in Smart Sex

Relaxation and arousal work hand-in-hand, since many people have a hard time getting out of their heads. When you hone in on the specific activities that quiet down intrusive thoughts, you can start applying them to dates. My colleague Ian Kerner describes this as an “arousal runway:” things we can do to soothe the mind, then excite the body.

You can also try working with your mind on a neurotransmitter level. I personally am not a big drinker, but on dates, I sometimes use THC for a mood and arousal boost. One of my favorite cannabis brands is VIIA Hemp Co.**, whose products are legal in all 50 states. They also do rigorous testing on their products to assess psychoactivity levels. VIIA Hemp Co’s High Love gummies fall on the low end of psychoactivity, making them a nice choice for newer users, and are infused with damiana and other herbs to increase blood flow all over your body. The combined effect is an uplifted mood, a body that’s more sensitive to touch, and increased pleasure during foreplay and intercourse. 

What else can I do to become more present in bed? 

Increase your mindfulness with small, sustainable habits. A daily meditation and breathwork practice of 10 minutes a day can go a long way towards self-acceptance. It can also rewire your neural pathways towards more calm and pleasure. I challenge you to try it for two weeks, and see how you feel.

Building on this, you can practice meditate / masturbate / manifest. It’s my personal ritual for body love, soothing my spirit, and getting clear on my goals. Neurologically, orgasm releases a cocktail of feel-good chemicals, like oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine and endorphins. In this way, it’s a self-care practice that is literally good for your brain and mood. 

Finally, remember that performance anxiety goes down the more you communicate with your partner. You don’t have to put on a show for anyone, but you can collaborate with one another, to make sure you’re both having an awesome time. If you’ve never talked about sex before, my Yes / No / Maybe list is a great place to start. It’s a menu of sex acts designed to inspire you, and get you both talking about new sex things you’d like to try.

I hope these tips empower you! Remember: sex is a lifelong journey. With mindfulness, self-knowledge, and a few tricks in your back pocket, you can definitely increase your confidence – and everyone’s satisfaction. 

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*Use code “SEXWITHEMILY for 25% off at LELO.

**Use code “EMILY” for 15% off sitewide + free sample pack of High Love Libido Gummies from VIIA Hemp Co.