health

"I’m Mel, I'm 29, and my vagina has anxiety."

This post is one person's experience, and should not be considered medical advice.

As told to Shona Hendley

My name is *Mel, I am 29 years old, in a long-term relationship, and my vagina and I both have anxiety.

If you laughed, I understand. When my specialist first told me I did too, because I thought surely she was telling me some sort of joke. Vagina anxiety? Come on, is that even real?

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But she wasn’t joking, and it is real. Scientifically, it is called ‘dyspareunia’, which is “an overarching medical term for pain caused during, or after sexual intercourse” (her words). Technically this pain can be experienced by men and women but is more common in females. Typical.

Although dyspareunia is used to describe pain caused by a variety of underlying reasons, after what felt like an eternity of assessments, appointments, exercises and treatments that didn’t work, I was finally told the reason why I experienced this pain myself, and this was vaginal anxiety - or a tightening and tension of my vulva and pelvic floor muscles, a side-effect of my own anxiety. 

My journey to a correct diagnosis wasn’t straightforward. It took months. But it would have probably taken longer if I hadn’t been so persistent in finding the answers and a solution for my pain. When you experience such intense pain that it hurts for days after you have sex with the man you love, you become determined to find a solution. In my case, I was desperate.

For the majority of my sexually active life I haven’t had any issues with intercourse. I found the experience almost always pleasurable, and definitely didn’t experience any pain. When I began dating my current partner nearly six years ago, I was having the best sex of my life, and it remained this way for years.

Two years ago, I first began to notice a burning pain - not every time we had sex, but on occasion. At first, we just thought it was not enough foreplay, or being tired. But then the frequency and the intensity of the pain increased so much so that I was physically cringing when we were having sex, so badly we had to stop. It was very clearly not pleasant, let alone pleasurable, for either of us. 

After speaking with my GP, I got a referral to an OB-GYN, who asked a multitude of questions. I explained, in great detail, my sexual history, my current sex life and everything in between. After a few appointments and some assessments she couldn’t determine a diagnosable problem that would be causing my issues and referred me on to a pelvic physiotherapist. 

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“A what?” I asked.

After an explanation - that a pelvic physio was indeed a real specialisation, one that treats a wide range of issues from bladder and bowel conditions, to vaginal pain - I left with a desperate sense of hope that this would provide the answers and treatment I needed. 

Luckily, I only had to wait just over a week to get in thanks to a cancellation. The physio was incredibly welcoming and made me feel at ease, which I would have said was impossible prior to walking into that appointment. 

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After again explaining my sexual and general medical history and current situation, she examined me. 

The examination involved vaginal penetration by two of her fingers and pushing on different areas internally. It was fairly quick and although uncomfortable, it wasn’t as painful as I had imagined, which was a relief. 

She told me that some of my muscles were tight, “too tight.”

“Having tight muscles can cause a burning sensation during sex.” 

She told me that my mild anxiety was most likely the cause, because just like other muscles that stiffen and tighten and get sore when we are stressed or anxious, our pelvic floor muscles or the connective tissue supporting them can have the same response, and cause us pain.

So yes, just like the rest of me, my vagina also had anxiety.

It was a relief to finally have an actual diagnosis, a reason for what was happening. My partner felt the same way. He told me that he had been worried it was something to do with how I felt about him subconsciously, or that our relationship had hit some sort of plateau, so hearing that it had nothing at all to do with him was like a massive weight taken off his shoulders, too. 

To treat the anxiety, I undertook a treatment plan that involved deep breathing, pelvic floor stretches, and other yoga-like exercises designed to “open up” the area.  I then commenced vaginal massage, which I learnt was also a real thing.

The treatment involved my physio inserting her fingers into my vagina to massage the muscles and press on areas to gauge their tightness and if there was any pain. 

The initial massage was probably one of the most out of body, bizarre experiences of my life. Trying to mentally and physically negotiate the concept of a medical professional massaging the internal area of my vagina was a challenge, but like many things women have to go through, you eventually get used to it. 

It wasn’t a quick fix – I saw the physio weekly for months. In fact, I still see my physio from time to time because like any anxiety, the way it manifests often reoccurs and needs to be continually worked on. But the results have been undeniably beneficial, and I can now have a fun, pain-free and mostly consistent sex life again with my partner. 

Shona Hendley, Mother of cats, goats and humans is a freelance writer from Victoria. An ex secondary school teacher, Shona has a strong interest in education. She is an animal lover and advocate, with a morbid fascination for true crime and horror movies. You can follow her on  Instagram.

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