How to tell if you have sexual tension with someone

sexual tension
Sexual tension: the 21 signs you need to knowLaree Barney / EyeEm - Getty Images

Sexual tension is a common phenomenon that is widely acknowledged as being experienced by both men and women, yet it’s largely misunderstood. There are very few studies that have been done on the mechanics of sexual tension but we all know how it makes us feel. But what exactly is sexual tension? How does it work and how can you tell if the other person is experiencing it too?

Experts will tell you that the answers lie in our brain chemistry. That what we’re experiencing when we feel sexual tension is the product of estrogens and androgens – the female and male sex hormones – and our innate biological drive to seek pleasure and reproduce.

Ultimately, you feel sexual tension because your brain is firing hormones like adrenaline, dopamine, oxytocin, kisspeptin and norepinephrine around your body. These chemicals make us feel an incredible mixture of excitement, security and anxiety all at once.

But what actually causes our hormone levels to spike in this way? And why does this reaction only kick in around certain people?

What is sexual tension – and what does it mean?

Sexual tension is the palpable experience of feeling what you believe is a mutual physical attraction to another person. It manifests in physical reactions in the body that you’ll notice when the other person is around. What makes the attraction ‘“tense” is the lack of certainty that surrounds reciprocity and usually, a lack of familiarity with the other person.

sexual tensions signs
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Smriti Joshi, lead psychologist at Wysa suggests that “sexual tension is a very normal, common experience. It occurs when two people interact, mostly in close physical proximity to each other and feel a strong sexual desire but not leading to any sexual activity.

“One can experience this with a colleague, a friend or a neighbour and it can lead to people feeling weird about having strange desires. Especially if you didn’t expect to feel this way about someone or haven’t considered having a relationship with them and feel triggered sexually by them.”

What triggers sexual tensions?

According to a team of scientists led by Dr. Helen Fisher, our lustful feelings towards another person are determined by three factors.

These are biological, such as physical appearance, social, such as a person’s manners and behaviour, and developmental, meaning whether they remind you of a triggering experience or their presence feels familiar or comforting.

Add these factors to other environmental factors, such as being in close physical proximity to someone, where you are in your menstrual cycle and how your hormones are behaving, the temperature in the room and what you both happen to be doing, such as completing a task as a team and you have a recipe for sexual tension.

“Sexual tension can affect anyone and is largely a biological reaction, though how we deal with it is in our control.” says Julia Kotziamani, sex and relationships expert at Superdrug Online Doctor.

“These feelings can be quite powerful for some people. Some people don’t have a strong response to ST, and some don’t experience ST at all, these may be those who identify on the asexual spectrum for example.”

What about if it’s negative, one-sided or unwanted?

Sexual tension can be one-sided and it’s possible for our feelings not to be reciprocated. Often our hormones can mislead us and the signals firing in our brains can lead us to act on impulses that aren’t always good for us or the people around us.

That’s why often, the impulsive and hormonally driven part of our brain that controls our flight or fight response is called the Reptilian Brain. The Reptilian Brain perceives things very simply: an unfamiliar thing is bad and a familiar thing is good.

Julia Kotziamani advises that, “depending on the circumstances, it may be possible to identify someone else feeling the same as you, at other times much harder. If you are in a bar and someone is a stranger for example it may be easier to detect body language than if you are at work with a colleague.”

You’ll also have to use your sense of judgement to determine whether it’s worth acting on what you perceive to be sexual tension.

“In some instances it’s not going to be desirable to pursue the tension you’re experiencing and so moving on and not dwelling is best. Save the attraction for your private thoughts.” says Kotziamani. “Remember that not everything we feel is going to be the same for others and that consent and making sure people feel safe and comfortable around us is really important.”

The signs of sexual tension – and what to do about them

“Sexual tension is definitely not just in our heads or our rational minds, and has a range of physiological symptoms.” says Julia Kotziamani. “It feels different for everyone and everyone will have a different experience of how sexual tension feels in the body-but common symptoms include an increased heart rate, blushing, stuttering, sweaty palms, faster breathing and even an increased blood flow to genital regions.”

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There are 21 signs of sexual tension and how to deal with them, according to experts.

1) Eye contact

This is the most well-known indicator of a connection with another person and a good way of being able to tell if someone likes you. If you constantly find yourselves locking eyes and holding each other’s gaze, this is a sign that you are interested in someone and of bonding and closeness. Our rule of thumb is that the longer it lingers, the greater the tension.

2) Staring

You might also find yourself staring at the other person, or find they’re staring at you. Sometimes you might happen to glance up at the same time and your eyes might soften into a mutual stare. If this happens, it's likely there's something taking place between you.

3) You’re aware of their presence

Even if you aren't directly eyeing someone up you are likely keeping an eye on where they are in the room. You're aware of where they are located and how close they are to you. Your excitement might grow as you feel them moving closer to you. If your intense awareness of this person is bothering you or distracting you, try listening to music or a podcast to distract yourself, occupying your attention with a repetitive task or practising mindfulness around a topic that interests you.

4) Awkwardness

Are you forgetting all your words? Tripping up or being clumsier than usual? Behaving awkwardly is a sign of sexual tension because your behaviour is due to both being excited physically and being hyper aware of yourself and your actions. To deal with any awkward behaviour, try taking five deep breaths to regulate your nervous system before engaging with the other person and try moving slowly. Don’t rush and take time to pause and gather your thoughts before you speak.

5) That embarrassed feeling

Hyper awareness of how we look and act can also lead to feelings of embarrassment and shame. We’re viewing ourselves through a hyper-critical lens while also dealing with a rush of cortisol, the stress hormone, which is likely making us feel dizzy and disorientated. It’s hard to not feel embarrassed when you’re in a self-conscious state so try repeating kind and positive words to yourself.

6) Blushing

What does embarrassment lead to? Blushing of course. As blood rushes to our heads to temper the effects of rising adrenaline, our faces and necks flush pink. This can be a clear giveaway that you’re experiencing some level of sexual tension or attraction to someone. Deep breathing to regulate your pulse and your body temperature can help.

7) Facial expressions

You might worry more about what you look like if you and another person are checking each other out. You might smile more, or try to face the other person with your “good side”. Try to relax, take a beat and breathe out.

8) Sweating

As certain hormones flood your body and your pulse quickens, your body temperature might start to rise. This means you might find yourself sweating a little, which can be a source of embarrassment and anxiety. You can’t stop yourself sweating, but you can load up on antiperspirant and breathe deeply to try and stabilise your temperature.

9) An odd atmosphere

Does the air feel heavy? Do your senses feel heightened? Sexual tension creates a physical response that makes it feel like the frequency in the room changes when you’re close to the person you’re attracted to.

10) Smiling

If you find yourself smiling when you think of the person, grinning when you see them and beaming when you engage with them, that can be a sure sign of sexual tension, especially if the smiles are mutual.

11) Laughing

Laughing releases feel-good hormones and feel-good hormones put us at ease so your propensity to laugh, giggle and joke around with another person both builds a chemical connection and shows that you like one another.

sexual tension
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12) Touching each other

Maybe it's a brush of their leg or a hand that lingers a little too long on a forearm after a funny joke. Whatever it is, subtle touching is definitely a sign of something bubbling beneath the surface.

13 )You respond to touch by getting closer

If you happen to touch the other person, do they pull away or get closer?Do they lean in while you’re talking? If they move towards you, they’re probably attracted to you or at least very comfortable with you being in their personal space.

14) You can't help flirting

Joking around, making flirty comments and challenging each other are all signs that tension may be rising between you. If someone is flirting with you and you’re not enjoying it, it’s always good to respond with clarity by saying, “don’t say that to me please, I don’t like it.”

15) 'You Two Look Great Together!'

People telling you that you look, sound and act like you’d be good together suggests that others may be picking up on the sexual tension between you. Of course, everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but if people saying these sorts of things makes you feel uncomfortable, be clear with your boundaries and make it known that these sorts of comments aren’t appropriate.

16) You tease each other

Making fun of one another is a way of forging a personal bond and flirting in the process. It's also a sign that someone is paying attention to your mannerisms and actions. However, don’t confuse degradation for playful teasing. If something feels jarring, tell the other person you’re not enjoying the teasing and being mocked hurts your feelings.

17) Daydreaming

Do you find yourself daydreaming about a particular person? If your thoughts keep drifting, you play out fantasy scenarios or often wonder how certain conversations might go, this distraction could be a sign of sexual tension.

18) X-Rated Dreams

Sexual dreams are totally normal but sometimes they can be disarming, especially if someone you weren’t expecting to see makes an appearance. Sexual dreams don’t always mean that we want sex with the person in them, dreams are complex expressions of our subconscious, after all. However, if you find yourself having steamy dreams about a particular person regularly, there might be some desire there.

19) You gravitate towards each other

If you and the person you’re experiencing sexual tension with always tend to gravitate towards each other at social events, or at work, or even just often bump into each other in the same places, there might be something in that.

20) Changes in mood

The problem with sexual tension is that it can be a source of confusion and frustration. No one is acting on their feelings and you are both likely somewhat anxious and embarrassed about them. If someone brings up attraction, dating, body language or anything that feels too close to home in conversation, you might feel the mood change as you both respond to the shift in energy and acknowledge what you’re feeling. Try not to panic. No one is calling you out. Just calmly change the subject.

21) You get butterflies

A burst of adrenaline and a rising heart rate can result in tummy flutters when the other person is around. The feeling of butterflies in your stomach is associated with nervousness so doesn’t always mean you’re experiencing sexual tension, however, when combined with the other signs, it is pretty likely the tension is present.

Psychologist Smriti Joshi advises, “this could be just something one person feels or it could be mutual. It’s important to remember that while this could be a precursor to a relationship these feelings are mostly led by sexual desire so you must consider if there is mutuality and consent in case you want to pursue these feelings further.”

And sex and relationships expert Julia Kotziamani, concurs, “If you aren’t clear if the other person feels the same, try some light flirting and see how they respond. You may notice they mirror some of your body language, make eye contact, look at your mouth, or find excuses to talk to or be around you. If you are feeling bold, and it’s safe and appropriate to do so, you can ask directly. This way you are sure to know if the tension is just in your head. Just make sure you are able to comfortably and considerately deal with the answer, even if it’s a rejection.”

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