NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Anxiety as an Emotional Aphrodisiac

In the last several articles my focus has been on the themes in the book, The Erotic Mind: Unlocking the Inner Sources of Passion and Fulfillment by sex therapist and researcher, Dr. Jack Morin.  

Anxiety as an Emotional Aphrodisiac

My focus in the current article will be one of the paradoxical emotional aphrodisiacs, anxiety.  

In the context of emotional aphrodisiacs, according to Dr. Morin, anxiety includes: fear, vulnerability, worry and nervousness (see my article: What is the Difference Between Fear and Anxiety?)

Also, see my previous articles:

Anxiety as a Paradoxical Emotion
To recap from a previous article: Paradoxical means seemingly contradictory. 

The word "seemingly" is important in the context of this discussion because these emotions often have the opposite effect to what is normally expected.

Erotically speaking, anxiety, as well as anger and guilt, are considered paradoxical emotions because these emotions can have an unexpected aphrodisiac effect.

Anxiety is usually thought of in terms of getting in the way of sexual arousal and pleasure.  

For instance, if a man is anxious about being able to maintain an erection, his anxiety can bring about the problem he fears, especially if he has a history of erectile unpredictability.  In that context anxiety is an anti-aphrodisiac.   

Another example is if a woman feels pressured by her partner to have an orgasm, her anxiety can get in the way of her enjoying sex and having an orgasm (see my articles: Closing the Orgasm Gap Between Women and Men - Part 1 and Part 2).

Anxiety as an Emotional Aphrodisiac: Risk and Violating Sexual Prohibitions
Anxiety can enhance sexual desire and pleasure in certain situations where risk is involved.

For instance, many people get turned on when they feel they're about to violate a sexual prohibition that they consider "breaking the rules," including:
  • Having sex in a car parked on the street, in a park or in a public place where there is a risk of getting caught
  • A sexual attraction to someone who is from another race or ethnic background when your family, religion or culture prohibits it or where the behavior would include "forbidden fruit"
  • Pushing sexual boundaries 
  • Having a secret sexual affair 
For many people, the fear of getting caught in a risky situation gets them excited,  (assuming that the anxiety doesn't overwhelm the excitement).

Sexual prohibitions, whether it involves behavior in real life or sexual fantasies, can be enough to get some people turned on.

Clinical Vignettes: Anxiety as an Emotional Aphrodisiac: Violating Prohibitions By Breaking the Rules
The following fictional vignettes illustrates how violating a sexual prohibition can be a real turn on:

Jean and Tom
While they were on a much-needed vacation, Jean and Tom settled into their hotel room after a busy day of sightseeing in Cancun, Mexico.

After 20 years of marriage and raising two teenage children, when they were at home, they were often too tired to have sex.  So, aside from getting away from their usual responsibilities at home and work, they also took this vacation to rekindle their sex life.  

Settling in for the night, they were both feeling a little tipsy and relaxed from the Margaritas they had at dinner.  There was something about being alone in a beachfront hotel room far away from home that got them both turned on.

Tom leaned over to kiss Jean when he noticed the opened curtains facing the beach.  But when he got up to close the curtains, Jean said playfully, "Maybe you don't have to close them all the way..."

Standing in front of the curtains, Tom was momentarily confused, but when he saw the mischievous look in Jean's eyes, he smiled and, as he closed the curtains only part of the way, he said in a teasing voice, "But there are still a few people on the beach.  They might see us having sex..."

This fantasy of people on the beach possibly watching them making love was a psychological stimulation.  It was enough to get them both sexually excited that night in a way they had not felt in a long time (see my article: Enhancing Sexual Motivation With Psychological Stimulation).

In reality, the risk of someone on the beach seeing them having sex was probably minimal. But for this couple just imagining it was enough to rekindle their passion that night.  

Even after their vacation, when they were back at home, just talking about that night and the possibility that someone might have seen them was enough to add spice to their sex life for a long time.  

Back home, when Jean and Tom talked about that experience, they both considered it to be one of their peak erotic experiences (see my article: Discovering Your Peak Erotic Experiences).

At another time and in another context, a similar situation might have made both of them too anxious to enjoy sex.  But in this particular context, they were both feeling mostly relaxed and enjoying their time away.  So, in this case, instead of detracting from their sexual excitement, the anxiety added to it.

Note the elements involved that ignited their excitement, including:
  • Pushing sexual boundaries by being somewhat exhibitionistic that night in their hotel room
  • Taking a risk at getting caught in a public way
  • Creating this secret "naughty" sexual encounter that only the two of them would ever know about 

During her friend Ina's birthday party, Jill began a conversation with Laura, a woman she recognized from another one of her friend's parties.  

After Jill and Laura chatted about how they each knew Ina, Laura suggested they go out on Ina's deck to get some fresh air and get a break from the noise of the party.  

They were both relieved by how quiet and peaceful it was on the deck, especially since they were the only ones there.  Chatting on the deck, they were surprised to discover they had a lot in common, including that they enjoyed playing tennis.

Sipping her wine, Jill suddenly became aware that she was sexually attracted to Laura.  This came as a surprise to her because she considered herself to be heterosexual and she never felt a sexual attraction for a woman before. 

This sudden awareness made Jill feel a little anxious because it was so new, but it also made her feel sexually excited.  So, when Laura moved closer and leaned in for a kiss, she discovered that Jill was receptive.  

Later that night, when they were alone in Laura's apartment, they had a passionate evening together.  It was the first of many, and after each date with Laura, Jill felt a little anxious, but also excited, about whether she could be interested in other women too (see my article: Women and Sexual Fluidity).

Anxiety as an Emotional Aphrodisiac

Raised in a conservative religious home where sex was never discussed, Jill wasn't sure what her encounters with Laura meant to her, but she knew she enjoyed them.  

Since it was all so new to her, she decided not to mention anything to Ina or any of her other friends about her dates with Laura for the time being.  

She wanted to see how things developed.  She also wanted to keep their dates a secret--not because she was ashamed of them--but because she wanted to savor this new sexual experience (see my article: Sexual Wellness: Savoring Pleasure).

Note the elements in this second vignette that enhance pleasure for Jill:  
  • The risk of getting caught kissing Laura on the deck
  • The secret dates with Laura and the pushing of boundaries into new sexual territory for Jill who, until then, thought of herself as being exclusively heterosexual and had never realized she could be sexually attracted to women
  • An element of "forbidden fruit" and even "naughtiness,"especially considering Jill's conservative, religious upbringing
Both of these vignettes also relate to the Erotic Equation, which states: Attraction + Obstacles = Sexual Excitement.

Just the Right Amount of Anxiety and Sexual Excitement
The two vignettes above demonstrate how just the right amount of anxiety and sexual excitement can enhance passion.

Often, it depends on how everything comes together in a particular situation.  

For instance, in the vignette about Jean and Tom, if they had received a call from one of their teenagers just as they were settling into their room, their mood might have been very different when Tom noticed the curtains were open.  Instead of getting excited by keeping them open a little, they both might have felt exposed (literally and psychologically) to the point where they felt too vulnerable and anxious to be playful in this way.

In the vignette with Jill, if her friend, Ina, came out and she felt embarrassed by discovering Jill and Laura kissing, Jill's anxiety would probably have been a lot higher.  This probably would have spoiled the vibe between Jill and Laura.  It might also made Jill think of her parents and her strict religious upbringing in a way where her anxiety would have been overwhelming.

The Four Cornerstones of Eroticism
Aside from Violating Prohibitions By Breaking the Rules, there are many other scenarios relating to Dr. Morin's other The Four Cornerstones of Eroticism where anxiety can act like an emotional aphrodisiac, including:
There is much more that could be said for how anxiety, in the right amount, can add to sexual excitement, but I hope I have given you some basic concepts.

In my next article, I'll focus on how guilt can be an emotional aphrodisiac.

Getting Help in Therapy
Everyone needs help at certain point in their life.

If you're struggling with unresolved problems, seek help from a licensed mental health professional.

Overcoming unresolved problems can help you to lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT and Somatic Experiencing.

I am a sex positive therapist, who works with individual adults and couples (see my article: What is Sex Therapy?).

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.