Why stress affects your sex life, and what you can do about it

Stress. We've all felt it. It can be everywhere from deadlines, traffic and financial worries to relationships and living through an unprecedented pandemic. You may even be feeling stressed at this very moment. If so, you aren’t alone. A study in the Journal of Global Health identified that stress was affecting around 50% of us at the time of the report (1). We aren’t surprised!

Let’s face it, stress is an unavoidable part of life. Although relatively low amounts of stress can actually be beneficial for motivation and performance (2), harm can arise when stress becomes unmanageable and spills into other aspects of our lives. 

How does stress affect my sex life? 

I'm sure it’s not breaking news to hear that stress is not great for your sex life. While around 10-20% of us may find that stress actually increases our desire for sex, most of us experience the exact opposite (4). Essentially, stress slams on the sexual brakes.

Even if you're having sex when stressed, studies have shown that the sexual experience can be less enjoyable. In one study, participants that were shown erotic films had a lesser response in the higher stress group (5). High stress is associated with reduced genital arousal (blood flow to the genitals), increased distractibility and less sexual pleasure…including fewer orgasms (5, 6)! It even can put you at a greater risk for developing a sexual dysfunction (which might include disorders relating to desire, arousal, orgasm or pain) (7). Yikes! 

Stress may also predispose you to other physical symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, poor sleep and digestive issues, none of which do any favours for your sex life (or relationship)! 

In essence, stress isn't very sexy. 

Why does stress affect sex? 

Well, stress signals to the body that you should be on alert for threats, increasing important functions for survival and diminishing any unnecessary bodily activities (8). Unfortunately, sex is not a necessary function for survival and so it’s not prioritised during stressful times (9). This can leave you feeling that everything else is a priority over sex (and it’s the last thing on your mind!).

While the exact biological mechanisms underlying the relationship between stress and sexual functioning are not well understood, it is believed to do with the brain putting survival needs over sexual cues (11).

 As cortisol levels (the main stress hormone) change during different phases of the menstrual cycle, you may even find that stress is exacerbated in the follicular phase (first day of menses until ovulation) when cortisol levels are raised (10). 

How can I use sex or solo play to reduce stress levels? 

Now, you may be thinking… doesn’t sex actually help reduce stress? You would be right, sex absolutely can. As much as stress may not leave you feeling like getting between the sheets, sex has shown to be a great antidote for stress. 

One 2019 study that surveyed women found that one of the most common reasons for masturbation was stress relief (12). Sex – which doesn’t just mean penetration but can also include kissing, mutual masturbation, manual stimulation (fingers), oral sex or other forms of intimacy, is good for our overall health and quality of life (13). Engaging in sexual activities can help reduce stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol and promote endorphins, all of which help relieve feelings of stress and improve mood (8, 14). 

So there really is no reason not to get that vibrator out… The physical closeness of sex and experiencing orgasm will also deliver oxytocin, which you may know as the “cuddle” or “love” hormone that has been shown to lower stress levels (15, 16). Have we convinced you yet? 

Tips to lower stress 

Now that you're aware of the potential harm that stress may have on your sex life, let’s discuss some tips to keep stress low and your sex life flourishing. 

1. Self-care 

Intentional self-care is a valuable technique that can help manage stress and promote overall wellbeing (17). One study found that students who engaged in less self-care practices had higher levels of stress. Clearly, these small acts of self-love make a big difference! Self-care involves creating a context that lets your body know it’s safe (reminder, no lions are chasing you! You can let go of the stress) and fosters self-compassion and kindness. 

Consider doing something relaxing and enriching for you – like settling into a hot bath, reading a novel, treating yourself to a calming face mask.  Establishing a regular self-care ritual can be a great opportunity to check in with yourself and acknowledge how you have been feeling. 

2. Mindful Masturbation 

Often when it comes to masturbation, we operate on autopilot rather than being present and taking things slow to reconnect with ourselves. Think for a moment, when was the last time you switched up your masturbation routine? Now could be the time! 

Mindful masturbation is the act of cultivating awareness and immersing yourself in the experience of masturbation…stay with me here! Consider it this way, rather than driving your car to a destination without being fully conscious of the journey, you are actively appreciating the route. Mindful masturbation does not only increase pleasure, but it is also a great way to lower stress (18)! So, how do you do it? 

Try reconnecting with yourself by tuning in with all five senses. How do you feel? What do you smell? Taste? Hear? See? If you have a distracting thought (which may occur more frequently when we are stressed), acknowledge it, let it pass and return yourself to the senses and the present moment. 

Some ideas to promote mindfulness might include:

  • Using your opposite hand
  • Switching up positions
  • Changing sex toys
  • Taking things slow
  • Moving to a new location
  • Lighting a candle
  • Putting on some music
  • Teasing yourself 
  • Exploring different sensations and pressures

The more you practice, the easier staying present becomes. Guess it’s time to get busy! 

3. Be open to responsive (building) desire 

Although the standard narrative for sexual desire is that it should just appear out of the blue, for most women, this is simply not the case. You may not have heard of it, but there is another form of sexual desire that is responsive. It occurs when a mental interest in sex comes after experiencing pleasure (19). Rather than a sudden urge for sex, responsive desire arises in response to stimuli such as touch, physical closeness, or sexual contact (in the right context). For example, you may be receiving an oily massage and feeling adored by a partner which may result in responsive desire. This is something that builds over time. 

As sex can help reduce stress levels, consider being open to saying maybe to sex in times of stress. Research shows that women have a tendency to make conscious decisions to engage in sex based on reasons often unrelated to sexual desire and maybe for you, that might be to reduce stress and relieve tension (20). To be clear, this does not mean having sex out of obligation or when you don’t want to. Rather, it looks like keeping an openness for sexual intimacy and the possibility of desire building. 

Final word:

Stress can certainly have some serious repercussions for your sex life. Fear not, there are strategies to help! Remind yourself that self-care practices are a great method for checking in with ourselves and promoting some much-needed self-compassion. While you may not always feel like getting between the sheets when stressed (and that’s OK), consider being open to mindful masturbation and cultivating responsive desire, which can help you curb stress.

 

Zoe Sever is Unfabled's Clinical Lead. Zoe brings a wealth of knowledge from her broad spanning background, having started her career in Nursing and transitioning to Sexology and Research. She holds a Master’s in Sexual and Reproductive Health and is currently pursuing a PhD in Women’s and Reproductive Health at Oxford University. On a mission to empower individuals with cycles to better understand their bodies, Zoe is helping us to banish shame, stigma and demystify reproductive health.

 

References: 

  1. Salari N, Hosseinian-Far A, Jalali R, Vaisi-Raygani A, Rasoulpoor S, Mohammadi M, et al. Prevalence of stress, anxiety, depression among the general population during the COVID-19 pandemic: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Globalization and Health. 2020;16(1):57.
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