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The Facts About Anxiety Disorders

Find out how anxiety disorders affect your sexual health.

A pink light shines behind a woman who holds her head in her hands.

Anxiety is necessary at times, but too much of anything can become a hindrance. Whether you've felt your palms get sweaty, had butterflies in your stomach, or experienced racing thoughts or a rapid heartbeat, it's likely you've experienced anxiety to some degree.

It's a familiar feeling that can be beneficial if it prompts us into action or alerts us to a dangerous situation, but in severe or long-term scenarios, anxiety can be a crippling condition that makes it difficult to engage socially or fulfill daily responsibilities.

Anxiety can also negatively affect your sex life, often leading to issues with erectile dysfunction (ED), libido, sexual performance and confidence.

What are anxiety disorders?

Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental illness in the United States. They affect more than 40 million adults each year.

Common symptoms of anxiety disorders include nervousness, feelings of panic or fear, a persistent sense of impending danger, an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating, difficulty concentrating, trouble sleeping, gastrointestinal problems and a constant feeling of weakness or fatigue.

Often, these symptoms are severe enough that they impede a person's quality of life to a significant degree, sometimes manifesting as panic attacks, which can themselves be traumatic.

Types of anxiety disorders

There are numerous types of anxiety disorders, all of varying degrees. Commonly, many people experience generalized anxiety, which as the name suggests is a form of anxiety that exhibits multiple symptoms, though the severity of those symptoms can differ greatly from person to person.

Another common form of anxiety is social anxiety, which means a person feels highly nervous in social settings, particularly when large crowds of people are involved.

Many people also suffer from separation anxiety, although this is more common in children and reflects an intense fear of being separated from another person, usually a caregiver.

Also under the classification of anxiety disorders are obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The risk factors of anxiety disorders

The numerous risk factors associated with anxiety disorders include trauma, stress buildup, other mental disorders, genetic factors, misuse of drugs or alcohol and, broadly, personality. Anxiety can also develop postpartum or as a result of pregnancy and hormonal changes, as well as other medical conditions such as hyperthyroidism.

Anxiety disorders commonly stem from a combination of multiple risk factors and a predisposition to feeling anxious. For example, someone who suffered abuse as a child and has a high-intensity job as an adult would likely be more at risk for developing an anxiety disorder than someone from a stable home who enjoys a low-key workplace.

That said, the person in the latter example may have had a parent who suffered from an anxiety disorder and had been shy and nervous their whole life. Just because they were in a better situation doesn't mean they are any more or less anxious; their anxiety simply stems from different sources and triggers.

Anxiety disorders and sexual health

Anxiety disorders can affect all areas of your life, but when it comes to sexual health, they can be particularly problematic. There is, naturally, the mental barrier that anxiety disorders put up, but there are also physical symptoms of anxiety that can impair your sex life.

How to manage sexual dysfunction and anxiety disorders

One of the most common sexual dysfunctions attributed to anxiety is erectile dysfunction. In fact, nearly 25 percent of men with ED also suffer from anxiety disorders, likely because stressors such as depression and anxiety can cause a release of cortisol, the hormone that constricts blood vessels. As a result, it may be difficult to get erections.

Treating anxiety on a general level often helps to reduce the risk of sexual dysfunction, but additional medications, such as those used to treat ED, can help promote blood flow to the penis. Furthermore, having open communication with a sexual partner can help to dispel some fears about sexual performance, body image and self-criticism, all of which can lead to a healthier sex life.

Diagnosis and testing for anxiety disorders

Some anxiety and stress are relatively common experiences, but when that anxiety is constant or interferes with your life by impacting relationships, work or general happiness, it's a good idea to see a doctor.

Testing for anxiety often comes down to a physical exam, questions related to your symptoms and usually a blood test to rule out any other potential underlying issues that may be causing similar symptoms of anxiety, such as hypothyroidism.

Depending on the severity of your symptoms, a mental health professional can work out a diagnosis and treatment plan.

Anxiety disorder prevention

While a lot of factors that contribute to the development of anxiety disorders may be out of your control—for example, family history or traumatic situations—there are certain steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing anxiety disorders.

Recognizing your thought patterns, making a schedule to manage your work/life balance, practicing mindfulness, spending time with friends and family, going outside, and avoiding stressful situations can all help with anxiety and help to prevent it from surfacing.

Treatment options for anxiety disorders

Usually, anxiety is treated through some form of medication and cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT), also known as talk therapy. Benzodiazepines, such as diazepam, clonazepam, nitrazepam and lorazepam, are short-term use anxiolytics prescribed to manage severe levels of anxiety by slowing down brain activity. They can also be used to treat insomnia and seizures.

Therapists and psychiatrists can also help patients develop coping skills and provide an outlet to talk about their worries in a safe environment, which can often be beneficial for getting some of those anxious thoughts out of your head.

Anxiety disorders vs. stress

Anxiety and stress have a lot of overlap and can often be used interchangeably in casual conversation, but there are a few glaring medical differences between the two. Namely, stress is typically brought on by short-term triggers, such as an upcoming deadline or a fight with a loved one, or long-term triggers, such as chronic illness or financial issues.

Anxiety can similarly have a variety of triggers, but the most notable difference between it and stress is that stress tends to dissipate once the stressor itself has gone. For example, completing the project before the deadline or resolving a personal dispute can mean any related stress simply goes away.

Anxiety, however, lingers in spite of an actual stressor. Or, in some cases, perhaps a thing that would not normally be considered a stressor becomes one. A house party, to exemplify the point, can be a fun event for those who don't suffer from anxiety, but for a person suffering from social anxiety, the idea of being in a loud environment with a crowd of people can be cripplingly terrifying.

Living with anxiety

Living with anxiety can be difficult, but it is possible to do if you take the steps to seek out professional help and work with a doctor to develop a treatment plan, whether that be medication, consistent talk therapy or a combination of both. It's likely that some lifestyle changes can also help keep you grounded and out of your own head.

There are many long-term strategies that can make living with an anxiety disorder more manageable, including developing a support system to lean on, exercise, breathing techniques, mindfulness practices and accepting that your anxiety doesn't define you.


What causes anxiety?

Anxiety can be the result of external stressors, genetics, trauma or having a personality predisposed to worrying. It can also be brought about by other conditions, such as depression, ADHD, bipolar disorder, heart disease, diabetes, drug or alcohol abuse and hormonal changes.

Can food help treat anxiety?

Yes. In fact, research has shown that what we eat greatly impacts how we feel. Like depression, anxiety can be fueled by processed foods and foods that are high in sugar and unhealthy fats. This is because these foods frequently lack the nutrients and micronutrients that contribute to other functions such as sleep, which can then further affect the likelihood of developing anxiety.

In short, eating a healthy, balanced diet consisting of fruits, vegetables and whole grains will help your overall health and reduce your risk of developing mental health complications.