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Mental health and sexual health
Sometimes mental health can affect the decisions we make about sex, for example, choosing to have sex when we feel lonely or anxious. Sexual health concerns and diagnoses can also lead us to feel worried, anxious, sad, or even hopeless. If you are feeling any of these things, it is normal—and there is help! This page will mostly focus on some of the most common conditions: worry, anxiety, depression, and suicide, and what you can do if you’re experiencing any of them.
Worry is the uneasy feeling you get when you are concerned about something. It’s normal to experience worry at different times in your life and it is common for people to worry about sexually transmitted infections (STI).
You may be concerned about a sexual contact and your chances of passing on or getting an STI, or you may be anxious about having an STI and how that will affect your health, relationships or sex life. You may worry about the stigma or shame around some STIs. Some people feel more anxious when they step out of their comfort zone such as having sex with a sex worker, having sex with someone other than a regular partner or trying some new sexual activity. Another time that is often difficult for people is waiting for test results once you have been tested.
Worry can be a problem, but it can also be useful. It is often a sign that you are uncomfortable with something that has happened and it gives you a chance to think about what is worrying you and if you want to make changes. Here are some things to consider if you are worried:
- What is your comfort level with different kinds of sex? Everyone deserves to feel comfortable and safe during any kind of sexual activity, which includes deciding your personal level of “risk tolerance”. With time, reflection, and open communication with your partner(s), you can learn what works best for you.
- Do you have good information? There are many conflicting and shaming messages out there about sex and STIs which can cause confusion and worry. Use only trusted sources for health information. Have a look at our Know Your Chances tables for information on your chances of getting or passing an STI with different types of sex.
- Do you have worry in other parts of your life? If you are worried about one thing, it can often lead to worrying about other things. It’s normal to worry from time to time, but if you find that you have worries that are uncontrollable or daily, there may be underlying factors to consider.
- Is it time to talk to a counselor? Sometimes it helps to talk to someone who has experience helping people deal with worry and anxiety. If your feelings are making it hard to get by day-to-day, then it might be helpful to talk to a professional counselor. See the list of services in the resources section below.
Worry may be a problem when it becomes hard to control and starts to get in the way of your daily life. At this point anxiety may be a useful label for describing the nature of worry and how it affects your life. Obsessive worry, or anxiety, is like a downward spiral; the longer you spend thinking about it, the more anxious you can become. A common example of obsessive worry or anxiety is when your STI or HIV tests are negative but you continue to feel uneasy. You may find yourself looking for more information and getting tested again and again. But anxiety is a state that causes the mind to overthink and often there is no amount of information that will help.
Anxiety can show up in many ways, including:
- Physical symptoms: rapid heart rate, headaches, chills, nausea, fatigue
- Thoughts: confusion, uncertainty, poor concentration, poor memory, intrusive thoughts
- Emotions: fear, guilt, panic, anxiety, irritability, depression, agitation,
- Behaviour: withdrawal, problems sleeping, changes in social activity, appetite or alcohol/drug use, difficulty working
What you can do
It can help to remember that worry and anxiety are emotional issues and there are things you can try that can help you manage your emotions when you are worrying a lot.
In the moment, you may want to try one or more of the following:
- Stop looking for more answers on the internet: Searching the internet for information can often make your anxiety worse because it is full of information that is outdated or incorrect. Getting the wrong information can increase your worry.
- Try deep breathing and breath counting: Bring your attention to your breath; breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. As you breathe in, push the air down deep into your stomach. Slow down and count the rhythm of your breath.
- Affirmations: Affirmations are simple statements to focus your mind, help you stay calm, and reduce negative emotions. For example, “I am worried, but I can be calm”, or “I am worried, but the doctor said I was fine”. It can help to combine affirmations with deep breathing.
- Thought stopping: Thought stopping will give you control over negative thoughts. When you become aware that you are worrying, say STOP in your mind or even out loud, if it’s appropriate. Take a deep breath and visualize yourself gathering up negative thoughts and blowing them out with your breath, say to yourself: “blow it away” or “let it go, take another deep breath and say your affirmation.
- Make a worry plan: Write out these strategies on a business card that you keep in your wallet or nearby so it is easy to find when you need it. The worry plan reminds you what you can do.
Depression can be related to worry and anxiety, and may have similar symptoms. You may be struggling with depression if you have overwhelming sadness, loss of interest in activities, and/or feelings of hopelessness for the future. If these sound like something you are experiencing it’s a good idea to get help. There is a list of resources at the bottom of this page.
If you are thinking of suicide, there is help. There is a list of resources at the bottom of this page, many of them are available 24 hours a day.
BC Crisis Lines - Crisis Line Association of BC
310 Mental Health Support (310-6789) – no need to dial area code
Crisis Center of BC – Helping people help themselves and others deal with crisis
Mindfulness resources – from Crisis Center of BC
Here to Help – Mental health and substance use information you can trust
Anxiety Canada – Expert tools and resources to help Canadians manage anxiety
MindShift – Free evidence-based mental health relief
BC Association of Clinical Counselors – Qualified professionals, here to help