Intrusive Thoughts During Sex Are There for a Reason—Sometimes
When you're in the throes of passion, the difference between a stray anxious thought and an intrusive one hardly feels relevant. But where one may take you out of it for just a moment, the latter is more like a record player getting stuck on a loop. Not exactly sexy.
Intrusive thoughts are a symptom of formally diagnosable anxiety, but even people who don't suffer from anxiety can experience something similar during sex. Regardless of origins and pathology, these are thoughts that take you away from the present moment and probably stress or upset you.
Is this self-sabotage or is there some purpose for these thoughts?
Arousal is anxiety sympathetic
"Self-protective mechanisms, like intrusive thoughts, give us a little space," said sex therapist and author Martha Kauppi. "If I'm worried about my sexual performance or what my partner thinks about me during sex, it's going to back me out of that situation. I experience less vulnerability and less of an immersive experience and less pleasure. The brain is trying to protect [me] from something negative that happened in the past or something that might happen. Intrusive thoughts are like a sort of loopy warning system."
A detail in the current moment may remind the brain of a similar experience that was negative, even if the person didn't realize they had an adverse reaction at the time. If the brain isn't alerting us to a past experience, these thoughts can arise because we're deeply ambivalent to the situation. Regardless, paranoia and pleasure don't mix.
"Arousal is part of the parasympathetic nervous system," Kauppi added. "I would call anxiety sympathetic. It takes you out of arousal because that [anxiety] is a sign of danger. That certainly takes precedence over pleasure. The distancing isn't just emotional distancing. It pops you into a different physiologic state where it can be difficult to get back to arousal."
The pleasure on a physiologic level simply cannot coexist with anxiety, as the two activate and operate on counterbalancing parts of the nervous system. However, this also means that the two are often linked.
"Orgasm can be thought of as a neurotransmitter dump," said Sheldon Zablow, a psychiatric nutritionist. "Every kind of neurotransmitter the nervous system produces floods out in high amounts during an orgasm. Each has a particular function causing certain behavioral responses, but what they have in common is that they all reduce anxiety. This is how antidepressants work, but [they] do so with a gradual increase in one or two neurotransmitters and not all of them at once. The greater the baseline anxiety, the greater this response will be perceived after solo or partner sex."
What is your body telling you?
This "dump" is why you get that post-orgasm bliss. Your brain is experiencing a massive chemical relief after unloading neurotransmitters. So how do we handle our thoughts on the mental level to facilitate this biological magic moment?
"You definitely don't need to stop having sex," Kauppi said. "You might need to slow down, drop into your center and identify, 'What am I experiencing? Is it pleasant? Is it neutral? What do I want to be experiencing? Is there something I want to ask or something I want to do differently?' Let's imagine nothing negative is happening, except possibly in my thoughts [preventing me from] getting in touch with sensations. So becoming aware of what my body is experiencing rather than engaging with a thought process."
Kauppi suggests checking your assumptions before believing or giving into intrusive thoughts.
A proper check will involve questioning the insecurities your thoughts are repeating, as well as examining when and how often you have said thoughts. Kauppi emphasized balancing the cerebral and emotional in order to allow for the physical.
'The brain is trying to protect [me] from something negative that happened in the past or something that might happen. Intrusive thoughts are like a sort of loopy warning system.'
"The first thing is to recognize what your particular narratives that cycle [are]," Kauppi said. "One person would [say], 'There's something wrong with my body.' Somebody else would be more focused on performative things. Become aware of what is going on inside of your mind and that there is something going on inside of your mind. If you're making an assumption about something that your partner is thinking about you, check that assumption. It's vulnerable. But the alternative is to continue living in our mind, experiencing the negative thing all the time."
Kauppi recommends changing breathing patterns so that an exhale is at least twice as long as the inhale to reduce burgeoning anxiety. All these experiences and potential solutions are internal, but if you're comfortable with it, your partner can aid in co-regulating your anxiety.
What feels like an insurmountable mental barrier may dissipate if you pause and explain what you're thinking and feeling to your partner. If not, excuse yourself for a bathroom break and practice your communication in the mirror. Either way, saying a fear aloud typically takes a bit of the power out of the worry and will definitely ground you in the present.