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Let’s say you want to unwind. You light a candle, dim the lights, and take out your toy of choice: be it vibrator, ring, or your hand. But as you masturbate, an unbidden panic comes over you; suddenly, fearfully, you can hardly breathe, you’re terrified. You stop.
You’re not quite sure what happened: maybe you didn’t use enough lube; maybe some touch of your own mirrored something traumatic, a way you’d been touched before; maybe something was wrong with your body or you had a flashback that was shameful or painful. But regardless of why it happened, it did, and now, you’re in the middle of the panic attack. So what do you do now, and what should you do if it happens again? Allure spoke with four experts to find out.
Why do some people experience panic attacks while masturbating?
There are also any number of personal reasons that could trigger this panicked response, including PTSD from sexual assault, trauma, or a number of other factors.
“If you’ve been sexually abused in the past, your body might not feel like a safe place, even when it’s just you touching yourself,” sex therapist Vanessa Marin says. She adds that a personal “history of intense sexual shame” (which could be imposed on someone parentally, socially, religiously, and in various other ways) can definitely contribute to the situation as well.
It’s not necessarily clear why masturbation may cause panic some times and not others. However, if it happens to you, that doesn’t mean you’ve suffered sexual abuse, have a history of sexual shame, or had a panic attack response. Experiencing anxiety during masturbation can also be a response to your own expectations and self-imposed (or partner-imposed) pressure.
Sudeepta Varma, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center and cognitive behavioral therapist — as well as a women’s mental health expert and sex educator — notes that a delayed orgasm can cause anxiety. Basically, you’re expecting the orgasm and not experiencing it, which leads to mounting frustration, as well as lowered self-esteem. The pressure to have an orgasm, both in solo and partnered situations, can be harrowing for those who want their body to behave or feel a certain way; there’s also pressure “to experience their own pleasure [and] connect with their body” as well as overcome past instances of shame or trauma.
How can I tell if I’m about to have a panic attack?
“Typically, when someone suffers from panic, physical symptoms — such as shortness of breath, sweating, and increased heart rate — usually mark the beginning of an attack,” says Talia Wiesel, an assistant professor of psychology in clinical psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. “These symptoms are misinterpreted as dangerous and trigger fearful thoughts and emotions, which in turn can intensify feelings of anxiety, intensifying the cycle.”
While your body may be accustomed to the signs and sensations of a panic attack, the onslaught is always jarring — especially during solo masturbation, which you’d likely assume would be associated with pleasure rather than fear. However, Marin says that “sometimes your body misinterprets the signs of masturbation and arousal — like heavy breathing and increased heart rate — as signs of panic.” As such, your body leaps to defense, acting against a panic attack.
How can therapy help?
Sex educator Logan Levkoff emphasizes the importance of therapy in the wake of this experience. “It’s important when we talk about having panic attacks that we go to resources and professionals who can help us navigate these experiences and help us to develop tools and interventions to manage them,” Levkoff says.