Anyone who’s tried to feel themselves while stressed out likely knows that nerves and sexual pleasure can operate like oil and water: They typically do not mix. Nervous thoughts can manifest in different ways, but whether whatever is on your mind has to do with sex or not, experts say the effect can be decidedly negative on a sexual experience. In fact, those swirling voices inside your head can roadblock the neural pathways that lead to the big-O.

“An orgasm happens in the brain,” says licensed sex therapist Rachel Wright, LMFT. “Just as we feel pain via brain pathways, we feel pleasure this way, too. So, in order to get your brain on board for an orgasm to happen physiologically, you’ll need pure focus and relaxation.” The good news? It’s possible to learn how to stay calm during sex and be present enough to keep those pleasure-killing nerves at bay.

That said, if the source of nerves during sex is pain, Wright says to stop and seek the help of a health-care provider like an OB/GYN, who can help you pinpoint any underlying issues. And, as always, ongoing consent is the first priority of any partnered sex act. If you are experiencing nerves related to being uncomfortable or feeling unsafe, remove yourself from the situation and seek safety. If you are not in pain and do feel safe in the situation, but still experience nervousness, keep reading for three common explanations for why nerves can get in the way of pleasure, and then get expert tips for how to stay calm during sex.

3 common reasons nerves can compromise sex play

1. A result of fear-based sex-ed

Many sex-education programs in this country are centered around what not to do, says Wright. “We’re told about how not to get pregnant and how not to get an STI, and we’re made to feel afraid of sex at the get-go.” The lack of education about how to enjoy ourselves during sex breeds all sorts of uncertainty and sexual shame, which can trigger nerves in any sexual setting.

2. Performance anxiety as a result of pornography

Many folks, especially those who did not receive pleasure-informed sex education, turn to porn for education, rather than for pure entertainment, which is what Wright says it is intended for. When porn is viewed through the lens of education, it can create unrealistic expectations for sex and resulting performance anxiety, she says.

3. Generalized performance anxiety

Essentially, when we worry about things like sexual performance or how we look or whether we’ll be able to achieve orgasm, we’re directing negative energy toward those outcomes. “Whatever we focus on expands and enlarges,” says Wright, “so, the possibility of a negative result increases.” The first step for learning how to stay calm during sex and banish performance anxiety, then, is to identify the source of nervous thoughts and then actively address it.

“Our feelings just want to be acknowledged. If we ignore them or push them away, they’ll get louder until we address them. But once we acknowledge them, it’s much easier to dismiss them.” —Rachel Wright, LMFT

“Our feelings just want to be acknowledged,” says Wright. “If we ignore them or push them away, they’ll get louder until we address them. But once we acknowledge them, it’s much easier to dismiss them.”

Here are 4 ideas for how to stay calm during sex and keep nervous thoughts from interfering with pleasure, according to a sex therapist

1. Take a beat.

When nervous thoughts start swirling mid-sex, pause what you’re doing to address and dismiss them. It may actually be helpful to step out of the room for a few seconds, says Wright. “You can tell your partner, ‘Hey, I’m going to go pee,’ and then head to the bathroom.” Once you’re there, consider what it is that you are nervous about. If you feel safe in the situation, are not in pain, and want to continue having sex, address the nerves and try to visualize their exit.

2. Breathe, breathe, and breathe some more.

Breathing returns your focus to the physicality of your body—and in doing so, directs it away from the little voices in your head, says Wright. So, try taking long, smooth inhales and exhales, which can also help you achieve a fuller orgasm by allowing you to remain present.

3. Communicate with your partner.

It’s very possible that your partner is experiencing some nervous thoughts, as well. Speaking up about what you’re feeling and being heard or even reciprocated could be just what you need to put those nerves to rest. And even if your partner doesn’t feel nervous in the same way you do, sharing your nerves can feel like a weight lifted. “For example, before you begin, if you know that it takes a lot for you to orgasm, you could volunteer that to your partner, and that way, the pressure is off from the start,” says Wright.

And even when you’re not actively having sex, communicating openly about what you feel during sex with your partner or with friends, if you’re comfortable doing so, can be validating, Wright says. “You could say something like, ‘Hey, do you ever get these types of thoughts during sex?’ And if they say yes, you could ask them what they do,” she adds. Just the act of vocalizing your nerves will help normalize them, which can also make it less likely that these thoughts will throw you off in the heat of the moment.

4. Practice on your own—and visualize your partner while doing so.

Exploring self-pleasure is a prime way to figure out what works best for you—especially if you struggle with orgasming—so you can effectively communicate that to a partner, sans nerves. “If you envision your partner while you’re masturbating, it’ll strengthen those neural pathways involved in orgasm ahead of the next time you engage in partnered sex,” says Wright. So, if you already know that you’ll orgasm easier in a certain position, for example, it’s simpler to add a partner into that framework and achieve the same result than to start completely from scratch.

Not to mention, masturbating itself can help reduce stress and anxiety, helping you feel more confident before you even enter the bedroom. Sounds like a win-win.

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