Weird anxiety-like physical reaction to sexual intimacy; what gives?
April 12, 2021 4:23 PM   Subscribe

Last night I slept with someone for the first time in a few years, and found that physical intimacy seems to suddenly to cause me to experience unpleasant waves of intense bodily overwhelm. These waves of feeling were unlike anything I’ve experienced before, and I’d love to know if anyone can relate and/or offer a possible explanation for what might've been going on. Details and additional context after the jump.

So, last night I celebrated my newfound fully-vaccinated status by going out on a date with someone new for the first time since before the start of the pandemic, and something weird began happening to me during the R-rated portion of our evening. She [23F] and I [24F] met on an app a few weeks ago, and began texting back and forth. Eventually, some of our conversations turned sexual, and we established a mutual attraction. We decided that we wanted to meet in person and possibly spend the night together, and made plans for a date.

Fast-forward to last night—our date was going well, and after a few hours of chatting at a bar we decided to get a room (so to speak). At this point, both of us had imbibed two or three drinks over the course of those few hours. While I felt a little tipsy (I was drinking on an empty stomach, which I know is always a bad idea), I was in no way drunk or even feeling particularly out of sorts (save for a mild stomachache, which I chalked up to a combo of nerves and the aforementioned empty-stomach drinks). We made our way to a hotel and soon found ourselves alone in our own room for the night.

This is where things started to get… unusual. First, some context that I think might be relevant: in the past, I’ve dated both men and women (though I currently only date women) and have had some traumatic sexual experiences (including rape by a boyfriend), but only at the hands of men. Back when I was mostly dating men, I would typically need to get pretty drunk in order to have sex, and I would often feel very disconnected from both my physical body and my emotional state(s) during the act itself. I took a few years off from actively pursuing sex and dating in order to try and deal with the issues I was drinking/numbing myself to avoid, and ultimately realized that I didn’t actually want to date men anymore. As a result, prior to last night I hadn’t had sex with anyone in about two years, which was by far the longest period of celibacy in the history of my sexually-active life. I also no longer drink much at all (in the past year I’ve gone from having 7-10 drinks a week to *maybe* 1-3, often even less).

Okay, getting back to what happened last night: After leaving the bar, we walked to the hotel and I stopped to kiss her along the way. When I did, I felt this surge of something that felt like a mix of adrenaline and cold dread (akin to that pre-panic attack feeling) bubbling up inside me. We continued walking after that, and the feeling gradually subsided. I didn’t think much of it initially, but unfortunately this was a pattern/phenomenon that ended up continuing into the rest of our evening. When we made it to our room and began fooling around, I noticed that same feeling rising up in my body again—it was a lot like the physical sensation of the “butterflies in your stomach” feeling, but exponentially more intense and unpleasant. I have (diagnosed) ADHD and anxiety, and have a history of panic attacks, but this felt somatically distinct from my past experiences with anxiety issues and panic.

Much to my embarrassment, I actually had to pull away from her and explain that I was feeling weird/vulnerable and needed to take a break for a minute. I was actually worried that I was going to pass out or throw up, that’s how strange and intense these waves felt. Thankfully, she was understanding, and we kept trying again to be intimate over the course of the evening, but that weird feeling kept returning in surges which seemed connected to her physical touch on my body (and the accompanying feelings of arousal that her touch created in me). I had to keep apologetically breaking away from her as things progressed, in order to to take a few deep breaths and sit still for a moment (at which point I would quickly feel better again). Each time I tried to bridge the gap and return to hooking up, though, within minutes I would again start feeling flushed, nauseous, overheated, tingly (in that “I think I’m about to have a panic attack and I can feel my skin buzzing with dread” kind of way), and slightly dizzy. After a few hours of this, we took a long break to watch TV and cuddle a bit (honestly, even being held nonsexually caused me to feel it again). After that, the waves of feeling FINALLY died down, and we proceeded to have sex without incident before eventually falling asleep.

The reason I included my dating history and experiences with trauma as context is that the only other time I’ve felt something physically similar to this sensation has been during moments of deep emotional intimacy, the intensity of which can sometimes make me feel viscerally scared and unsafe/panicky. I was in therapy for years and have plans to return at some point, btw. I’m wondering whether what happened last night could have been a more-intense version of this “intimacy intolerance.” Could the severe isolation and anxiety of the past year or so have lowered my tolerance for human touch and closeness to the point that too much of it became physically unbearable? Could my weird reaction have been caused by the drinks somehow? Am I doomed to feel weird and panicky during very-much-wanted sex now?

Disclaimer: I know YANMD/YANMT, and while this felt more like something falling within the “random weird one-off occurence” category than the “alarming issue of great medical concern” one, I also understand that whatever happened last night might have a clear medical explanation. I have my first physical exam in about two years coming up at the end of this month, and would be willing to present some general details to my GP for discussion if folks think that’d be prudent.

NB: Wow, I had no idea how long this turned out to be - my apologies and endless gratitude to anyone who read this far!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total)
To me, it sounds like you have a lot of stuff going on in both mind and body around sex, mostly centred on these various anxious points (pandemic, drinking, your past issues with intimacy, your experience of trauma), all of which seem to have come up very quickly in succession PLUS the added anxiety of meeting someone new and doing a new thing.

The feelings you describe sound similar what I've experienced before on the verge of an anxiety attack. From reading this, I would assume that you were (subconsciously) under some intense internal pressures that were tipping the scales. Maybe there were some specific triggers in there as well like certain kinds of touches or a moment that reminded you of something that lead to those moments of increased anxiety.

Am I doomed to feel weird and panicky during very-much-wanted sex now?

I strongly doubt it. I would say that you might have to take it slow, but I imagine that once you are back in therapy (which I VERY MUCH urge you to do asap) and unpicking it, you will find yourself feeling easier around these issues. I would recommend you maybe check out a sex or intimacy therapist for a few sessions specifically about this, so they can help unknot whatever might be going on.

Bottom line, though: you are not broken, or weird. You never were. You deserve to feel good and happy and have fun with whoever you want to have sex with. Good luck to you.
posted by fight or flight at 4:42 PM on April 12, 2021 [5 favorites]

Is it possible you didn’t actually want to sleep with her? Sometimes my body tells me no and I try to convince it otherwise (“come on, body! It’s been months! This person is cool!”) but my body won’t let me.

Another thought is that there was a perfect storm of triggers (pandemic, anxiety, new person, pressure, memories of past incidents) for an anxiety attack.
posted by kapers at 4:54 PM on April 12, 2021 [18 favorites]

In the context of everything you've shared about your history, this seems like a pretty understandable reaction. Pair your traumatic experiences with being physically and probably emotionally isolated for an unusually extended stretch for many reasons, and its a bit like a powder keg just waiting to freak you out a little. That's just a lot for your heart and mind to process! However, I do not think this is something you need to expect will happen to you consistently. This was your first time dipping a toe into an intimate moment in a long time, it's a new person after a very heavy stressful year... I say be gentle with yourself and consider if it wasn't entirely natural to have vulnerable feelings. Some of us even randomly get anxious or teary in sexual situations even in established, trusting relationships just because its intense or we've been stuffing some feels and our guards are down (hiiiiiii yeah thats me).

Also worth noting that it's not uncommon for sensory experiences to trigger anxiety symptoms if you were traumatized under similar conditions. It's possible that the less conscious, more lizard brainy parts of your mind were going...I'm inebriated and we're getting sexual and OMG DANGER HAPPENS IN THIS SITUATION.

If you're concerned it will happen again, maybe slow down the pace a bit and spend some time playing in the shallow end? Also, if you're with a kind and cool person and you feel safe doing it, it might help to tell them a little bit about your anxiety before you get intimate to take the pressure off. Finally, for the record, both me and my current partner had a number of anxious moments during physical intimacy early on in our relationship, and we have both entirely moved on from it now that we're comfortable with each other.

I'm very sorry you had such painful experiences previously. I hope you find yourself in more nurturing, comfortable and satisfying spaces in your relationships moving forward.
posted by amycup at 5:03 PM on April 12, 2021 [5 favorites]

Could the severe isolation and anxiety of the past year or so have lowered my tolerance for human touch and closeness to the point that too much of it became physically unbearable?

Oh yes, most definitely. I think we've all adapted to the isolation and lack of social interaction in ways we've yet to discover. I recently went to an all outdoors get-together with about 10 people and found myself getting very overwhelmed and had a strong desire to leave & get out. It was just exhausting to try to follow multiple conversations to give attention to other people and just be out in the world.

Couple regular, in-person interaction with being intimate with someone for the first time and yes, I'm not surprised you had such a strong physical reaction.

You demonstrate a lot of self awareness so I'm sure you're not doomed. Be kind to yourself and take things slow. I don't know how much you shared about your past with this person, but do consider checking in and making sure she understands a bit more about what was going on for you. You don't have to give every last detail about your past history, but I think you could generally say something about how it felt to be with someone in-person after such a long year and how it made you feel a bit more emotional and vulnerable and the strength of those feelings were a bit overwhelming for you and that's why you pulled back. You can let here know that you were surprised to and that you hope you can try again and maybe just slow down a bit more so you can ease back into intimate contact.
posted by brookeb at 5:04 PM on April 12, 2021 [8 favorites]

To me it kind of just feels like your brain has been bombarded with messages that being close to other people is LIFE-ENDINGLY DANGEROUS and here we are doing that very thing??!!! It sounds like you were getting an outdated fire alarm - Oh no, we have got to get out of here, you told me this was no good, I do not understand things quickly or at a sophisticated level, let's go.

Your subconscious might just need time & to see people out & about like normal to adjust its risk assessment. Or it might need talking out in therapy to get the message.
posted by bleep at 5:06 PM on April 12, 2021 [14 favorites]

Doing this after such a long time is probably a lot of pressure. Currently I get anxious anytime I'm about to hang out with people, I think because of covid and not being used to it. I'm guessing also that once you started having that reaction and needing to pull away you also had anxiety about the anxiety which also makes things worse. It's really stressful to show that vulnerability around someone who's brand new to you and who you're trying to impress as well. It sounds like you ended up handling things pretty well all things considered. Be kind to yourself.
posted by lookoutbelow at 6:51 PM on April 12, 2021

Maybe you were really truly hitting it off and you liked her and she’s warm and friendly and approachable and you pwere terrified of getting close so your sub conscious is trying to protect you by feeling sick?
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:02 PM on April 12, 2021

Either that or your subconscious actually doesn't like her? Sometimes it's not a 12-dimensional chess thing of "I feel like I don't want it because I want it SOOO much" but actually a checkers thing like, "I feel like I don't want it because I don't want it." In any case, my experience is that nothing goes away by rejecting it, so I'd spend some time reassuring the part of yourself that reacted this way that you love and honor it.
posted by slidell at 7:28 PM on April 12, 2021

Could the severe isolation and anxiety of the past year or so have lowered my tolerance for human touch and closeness to the point that too much of it became physically unbearable? Could my weird reaction have been caused by the drinks somehow?

Not caused by, but exacerbated by, yes.

It sounds to me like you just got very, very overwhelmed for completely understandable reasons. Go easy on yourself. Don't be embarrassed.

/I'm an extrovert who feels fucking broken by this pandemic and am now aware of simmering social anxiety at the thought of doing the things that...I...desperately want to do, like go visit my friends and hug them. I've heard parallel "what the hell is wrong with me" stories from more friends than I can count. We're all a little out of whack in ways that we didn't expect.
posted by desuetude at 9:33 PM on April 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

When I used to work abroad in a context where I had zero touch for about a year at a time, I had a parallel (though clearly not totally similar!) experience when my sister rested her hand on my knee during a car ride. She clearly didn’t mean it to be invasive or aversive, but being touched on my knee after so long made me feel physically ill, angry, and terrified. It was super I’m sorry you had to get through that.

I think the advice to go slow is great - therapy is probably also great - some dates and (slowly-built) lower-stakes forms of physical intimacy without drinks might be helpful to calibrate your somatic responses, too. Holding hands or walking arm-in-arm, sitting close or leaning together on park benches, slow dancing, shoulder rubs, head scratches, that kind of thing. Hope you’re feeling better!
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 10:34 PM on April 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

My panic can absolutely work in a cycle inside me where just a physical feeling that's reminiscent of some part of a panic attack (shortness of breath, or pressure on my chest) can, with no actual initial feeling of panic, trigger other panic symptoms and then turn into an actual panic emotion / panic attack. I think the combination of this entire last year plus any small amount of anxiety or even just physical trigger could easily have caused this, especially when you add in your history with trauma and that it was your first date in quite a while.
posted by augustimagination at 10:36 PM on April 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

Similar situation except with a man. When he accepted my invitation I nearly passed out. I spent the day and first half of the date similarly edging into an overwhelming state and having to take a moment to breathe. He was similarly understanding. I have had subsequent dates with small moments of a similar kind of feeling and to me - given my experience with triggers and PTSD, and general anxiety - it is very much the physiological heightened response of intimacy after a prolonged period alone hitting very very similar buttons to a panic attack. And my therapist reminds me that the only way to deal with that is to keep working at it (I used to have the same response to driving over bridges).

So in my experience, yes it may happen again, no you're not broken, it got easier. The butterflies are just normal ones now not "okay hold on, I need to lay on the floor with a cold compress" levels.
posted by geek anachronism at 10:43 PM on April 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

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