But is there anything you can do when you’re in the midst of a panic attack during sex? The first thing to do, if you can, is explain to your partner what’s happening — and step back from sex to take care of yourself. You can always try having sex again later when you’re feeling better. Deep breathing exercises, mindfulness practice, and reassuring self-talk can all be helpful in calming a panic attack, says Michael Aaron, PhD, a sex therapist and author of Modern Sexuality: The Truth about Sex and Relationships. Changing your physical position or getting up to walk around can also help comfort you.
At that point, Dr. Aaron says it’s okay to take any anti-anxiety medication you’ve been prescribed, such as benzodiazepines (e.g. Xanax, Ativan, and Klonopin). Because you can become dependent on such medications over time, they’re meant to be used on an as-needed basis, Dr. Aaron says. But, depending on your individual needs, you may be taking them for a week or have a prescription at-the-ready for the rest of your life. While you’re taking these medications, though, you’re also (ideally) learning other self-soothing techniques in therapy that will come in handy when you stop taking the meds as frequently.
On top of managing what’s happening in your own mind and body, explaining it to your partner presents another challenge. In particular, when I had a panic attack, my partner had a hard time understanding that he did nothing wrong. But Dr. Saltz says that, in the moment, it’s enough to “tell your partner [your panic attack] will pass, take slow and deep breaths, and relax your muscles.” After the crisis has passed, you can get into a more detailed description of what you experienced — and how it wasn’t your partner’s fault.
If you’ve been a witness to someone else’s panic attack, know that they have likely experienced panic attacks before meeting you and probably will have them after you’ve parted ways, says Amanda Luterman, MA, OPQ, a psychotherapist who specializes in sexuality. “What you can do is be a soothing and stabilizing partner for that person, keep the focus on them, and reassure them that it’s going to pass,” she explains.
So, remember that panic attacks do go away. But if you continue to have them during sex as part of a larger mental health issue or due to unresolved trauma, you should seek treatment. Trust me, it can be a life- (and sex life-) saving experience.