Can hypnotherapy help with sexual anxiety?
Hypnotherapy can be a powerful ally in addressing sexual anxiety, as it can help rewire the brain to overcome various psychological challenges. Sexual anxiety can manifest in many forms, such as performance anxiety, fear of intimacy, or general discomfort related to sexual activities.
In this article, I will cover the mechanisms behind anxiety, and I will delve into how hypnosis can help, so you feel more informed.
Many people tell me they feel anxious about seeking hypnotherapy because they are afraid of not being in control, being judged, or feeling exposed in some way. So, let me give you critical information so you know what happens during a session and how hypnosis will work.
The autonomic nervous system
Deb Dana, a clinician and author in the field of Polyvagal Theory, defined trauma as an experience of something that happened too much too soon, too much for too long, or too little for too long. Such an experience places a demand on the nervous system to alter its configuration for protection and survival - at the cost of social connection and trust since we cannot feel trusting and unsafe at the same time (Dana, 2020).
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is a complex network of nerves and ganglia that regulates involuntary physiological processes essential for maintaining homeostasis in the body. It operates without conscious control and manages various bodily functions, including heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, pupillary response, urination, and sexual arousal.
In survival mode, the system prioritises self-preservation, often sacrificing the openness and vulnerability necessary for genuine connection and intimacy. The impulse to safeguard oneself, as ingrained in the survival state, compels individuals to cling to familiarity and mistrust anything perceived as potentially threatening.
Once in the survival state, our thoughts also take shape towards survival. As humans, we are story-tellers and meaning-makers, which makes it easy for us to create stories about ourselves and the world - Deb Dana coined the term "autonomic stories" to refer to what type of stories we are in: are they of danger and protection, or connection and trust? The state of our ANS will lead us one way or another.
There is a delicate balance between the innate human need for social connection, to feel love and feel loved, safe, and sometimes intimate, and the primal instinct for self-preservation. Our daily struggle is to manage those needs, and sexual anxiety is precisely at the core of this matter: when the need for self-preservation overpowers the need for intimacy and connection, and it is just too difficult to relax and feel safe to fully enjoy sex.
During the early stages of life, repeated experiences form neural pathways that dictate our responses to the environment.
Experiences of love, connection, separation, reconnection and repair sculpt the flexibility of the nervous system, determining an individual's ability to navigate a range of emotional experiences with a sense of safety and security.
On the other hand, growing up in an environment lacking emotional flexibility can give rise to a spectrum of psychological problems, from anxiety to phobias and depression. In a way, it is not so much about being happy and having a happy childhood, but it is more about bouncing back from upset and repairing ruptures in relationships.
For example, having fights and apologising is better than never having arguments - because it is impossible to navigate life without upsetting anyone or feeling upset, so it is important to get lots of experiences of recovery and reconnection.
Anxiety, depression, and phobias are just a few of the many psychological complications that can emerge when the nervous system is unable to adapt to different emotional situations, perpetuating a cycle of insecurity and unease.
It is much easier to take risks and face challenges when we know we can recover easily from setbacks. Conversely, it is difficult to embrace adventure if we find it hard to bounce back from emotional upset.
Connection and sexual anxiety
The complexity of human sexuality amplifies the impact of emotional rigidity on individuals' sexual experiences. Sexual anxiety, as we have just discussed, stems from a lack of safety when there absolutely needs to be.
Human sexuality is complex - there are societal expectations and norms, and it is easy to feel afraid of being shamed or judged for being different. There are the physical elements of it as well - do I feel safe alone with another person? Does my nervous system tell me stories of safety or danger? Is there any memory of physical trauma? And there are the fears of being shamed and judged for being loving and open, certainly because displays of affection have been rejected or mocked in the past, perhaps in early childhood.
Whether it's a history of trauma, societal judgments, or the need for intimate reassurance, the presence of anxiety is a sign of a survival response by the autonomous nervous system, and it can hinder the ability to engage in genuine and intimate connections.
The role of hypnotherapy in overcoming trauma and anxiety
The good news is that our brains and minds are flexible - neuroplasticity refers to the brain's ability to reorganise and adapt by forming new neural connections throughout life. This process allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or changes in the environment.
By rewiring the autonomic nervous system, hypnotherapy can promote emotional flexibility, enabling individuals to better handle and recover from emotional ruptures.
Hypnosis, subconscious and suggestions
Hypnotherapy is a method that uses words to invite relaxation and focused attention so we can more readily understand and recognise positive suggestions, engaging our imagination and limbic system.
All hypnosis is self-hypnosis - we must want to follow suggestions for it to happen, and it won't happen if we don't want to. This is why there has to be some preparation - you, as the client, must feel safe and comfortable with the therapist, and you and the therapist will likely agree on what the suggestions will achieve.
You will never do or say anything you don't want to in any hypnosis session. Even if you realise you are super suggestible - you are only going along with it because it feels safe; I promise you would not keep your eyes closed if the fire alarm went off, for example.
Cultivating resilience and emotional well-being
Building emotional resilience requires a fundamental shift in perspective. There is no magical solution that will make anyone change how they feel about anything without a mindset change.
Many levels of change can happen. For instance, reality-testing a core belief can be extremely liberating. But for reality testing to happen, there must be enough courage, and courage only comes from feeling stronger. Feeling emotionally stronger comes from knowing you will cope with setbacks.
One hypnotic therapeutic intervention is to find a place where you feel safe and connected and keep the nervous system happy while you explore the underlying beliefs that cause anxiety. Visiting such beliefs can feel overwhelming, so they never get a reality check. With the help and support of someone, you can feel safe and empowered to visit those fears, memories, or worse predictions and rehearse coping strategies.
Your autonomic nervous system responds to imagined scenarios, and you can start reframing the autonomic stories related to sexuality and intimacy.
I have heard someone say, "We use the mind to heal the brain", and I love this phrase, although I cannot recall who said it.
In conclusion, hypnotherapy stands as a powerful mechanism for addressing sexual anxiety, offering the potential to rewire the brain and overcome fears related to intimacy. By leveraging the principles of neuroplasticity, it enables the reshaping of the autonomic nervous system's response, fostering emotional adaptability and empowering us to confront and reframe deeply ingrained anxieties.
Through collaborative therapeutic efforts, you can embark on a journey of self-discovery, cultivating emotional resilience and rewriting narratives to foster a more affirming and liberated approach to sexual well-being.
If the therapist is a good match to your personality and you trust them enough, then hypnotherapy is a fast and effective way to promote positive change.
- Dana, D. (2020) Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection: 50 Client-Centered Practices (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). W. W. Norton & Company.
- Hammond, D.C. (1990) Handbook of hypnotic suggestions and Metaphors. W. W. Norton & Company.
- Heap, M., Hartland, J. and Aravind, K.K. (2002) Hartland’s medical and dental hypnosis.