Stress & Sex
Author: Sunny Rodgers, ACS
ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARI SAPERSTEIN
I’m so stressed I don’t want sex!
Sex and stress are a complicated duo. Have you ever felt so stressed that the idea of having sex to feel better actually made you MORE stressed? Maybe you had a terrible week at work and the thought of giving or receiving pleasure feels impossible, or an anxiety has spun out of control, shutting down your interest in intimacy. Either way, for some of us, the stress over not desiring (or having sex) when we are stressed leads to even more stress— it is a vicious cycle! Try and relax, it is all normal—take the mental pressure off yourself and tune into what your body is telling you.
Although there is no universally accepted definition of stress, the bottom line is that taxing physical, mental or emotional stress that can prevent us from enjoying all the greatness of life, including sex.
Stress & Sex Drive
Hormones impact our bodies in a variety of ways, and stress can directly influence their effects. For instance, cortisol, a hormone produced by stress, can be helpful in limited doses to regulate our metabolism. However, when stress produces elevated levels of cortisol, our libido can be suppressed, thereby killing our desire for sex – a natural mood-lifting activity.
Stress can also have a profound mark on our relationships, making us more likely to argue with our partners, creating a rift that can inhibit loving feelings. We can become less caring of our lovers’ needs during sex play, which can make the overall quality of sex deteriorate. It’s no surprise that stress causes people to drink more alcohol, which, according to research by Stanford University, can make sex less enjoyable due to dehydration affecting our lubrication and natural arousal levels.
Sex is a Stress Reliever
When it comes to stress relief, sex can help. As discussed in my essay, Female Orgasms 101, orgasms may be the fountain of youth, as climaxing regularly can increase your lifespan. Every time you reach orgasm your body releases DHEA, a hormone known to boost your immune system, improve cognition, keep skin healthy, and help you look younger, longer. The glow of good sex is real and it is a powerful way to combat stress.
Sex also helps relieve stress by increasing endorphins and other hormones that elevate mood. The body releases oxytocin (aka the love hormone) during sex, which acts as a natural sedative and can prompt feelings of compassion. Remember that sex doesn’t have to mean penetration and includes solo sex! Masturbation is one of my favorite stress busters.
Mutual masturbation is a practical pleasure that is meant to be easy and enjoyable. It's intimate, sexy and fast for those times when you want stimulation but also need adequate rest for work the next day. Consider mutual masturbation a sex hack and allow yourself to share what makes you feel good!
It’s important to remember that self-pleasuring is a very personal act. To masturbate in front of a lover and share how you enjoy being stimulated can cause many to feel shy or uncomfortable; however, this is a powerful way to form a deep connection, demonstrating an act of vulnerability that can break barriers and create an even greater level of trust and love.
Exercise & Diet
Regular exercise can combat stress, ramp-up stamina and help improve your sex life, whether solo or with a partner(s). Routine physical exercise stimulates the release of hormones and triggers physiological reactions that boost your libido and your self-confidence. Being healthy and fit— whatever that means for you personally, will give you a positive outlook on life and can translate into a more fulfilling sense of your sexuality. Exercise also stimulates growth of blood vessels and increases blood flow, which naturally leads to enhanced blood flow to genital areas.
Try eating chocolate. A study by the South African Journal of Clinical Nutrition found chocolate promotes the release of phenylethylamine and serotonin into your body, which can create aphrodisiac and mood-lifting effects.
Enjoy a Good Night’s Rest
Stress can be exacerbated by lack of sleep. Sleep is crucial for health, and sleep deprivation and deficiency can affect your overall life. It’s also important for a good sex life because it reduces stress and keeps the immune system healthy. While 8 hours a night is preferable, power napping is another option. Sleep can boost energy, and in turn, your sex drive.
Deep and controlled breathing not only keeps your mind and body functioning at their best, it can also lower blood pressure, promote feelings of calm and help relieve stress. Deep breathing techniques can increase awareness and mindfulness, release tension and make you feel relaxed.
Andrew Weil, M.D. developed the 4-7-8 breathing technique based on pranayama, which are yogic breathing techniques that can clear physical and emotional blocks. (Prana is defined as life energy and yama is control.) Combined, pranayama is a set of breathing techniques that promote bodily awareness and enrich your bloodstream with healthy oxygen.
To try the 4-7-8 breathing technique for yourself, follow the steps below for one breath cycle:
- Relax and let your lips part. Make a whooshing sound, exhaling completely through your mouth.
- Next, close your lips, inhaling silently through your nose as you count to four in your head.
- Then hold your breath for 7 seconds.
- Make another whooshing exhale from your mouth for eight seconds.
- When you inhale again, begin a new cycle of breath. Start by practicing this pattern for four full breaths.
The held breath (for seven seconds) is the most important part of this practice and can be used to focus your intentions while counting to seven. What is your intent? Stress relief. Relaxation. Elation. Connection. Decide what resonates for you.
It’s recommended to practice 4-7-8 breathing for four breaths when starting out, gradually working up to eight full breaths.
Mindful meditation is another effective technique to relieve stress. If you’re new to meditation, there are useful apps, such as HEADSPACE, that can teach you the basics through guided meditation sessions. A study published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine found meditation can significantly improve sex drive!
Meditation can also make you more aware of living in the present – the here and now. This means enjoying the immediate experience of sex and not viewing sex play as an outcome-oriented task.
Enjoy a Healthy Fuck!
Non-goal-based sex can be cathartic. A good, old-fashioned romp in the hay can take your mind off the stress-triggers, allowing you to enjoy intense feelings of pleasure and relaxation—whether or not you climax.
Sex Life, Interrupted
In today’s busy world, we can be easily overwhelmed with our careers, schooling, financial stability, family demands, and a host of pressures to live or be a certain way. As a result, the pleasures of sex often fall at the bottom of our “To Do” list. People can forget the positive and powerful benefits that sex brings to your health and relationships!
My life is incredibly full, and though I wouldn’t want it any other way, I too sometimes struggle with finding time to fit sex in. Luckily, I’ve been married to an incredibly understanding partner since 1999 and in our almost twenty years of being together, we’ve learned some tips, tricks, and techniques to ensure that our passion and love of sex remains strong which I’d like to share.
One of the most important lessons my hubby and I learned is that while date night is great for spending quality time together, sex is not an end-of-date guarantee. We’ve gotten into the habit of enjoying sex play before we begin our date. This allows us to connect and get our friskiness out of the way before we go out or share a meal (and we get the added benefit of a sexy glow at dinner!). Of course, if we enjoy another round of sex for dessert, that is just icing on our cake.
Plan for Pleasure
Taking steps to plan for sex takes effort, but the benefits are highly worth it! Don’t just promise yourself that you’ll try to make it happen, truly make time for pleasure and set a date on your calendar with an intent on sex play. Take turns planning monthly dates– it can be as easy as picking up a meal at the local deli and enjoying a picnic under the stars in a local park or your own backyard. Extra points for sex in a tent afterward!
Finding time can be as simple as turning off your phones, choosing a wonderful erotic book to read in front of a glowing fireplace – clothing optional. Often, it’s the simplest actions that bring the greatest connections.
5 Tips to Amp Your Sexual Desire
As we now know, stress has been proven to lower sex drives, but there are ways to help boost low libido or inconsistent feelings of desire.
1. Start and end every day with a hug. Carnegie Mellon University researchers have clinically proven that hugging for 30 seconds three times a day increases your intimacy and passion fivefold! Hugging also increases oxytocin and lowers stress and blood pressure. Hug a friend, a lover, your animal, yourself— you deserve it!
2. Keep a daily journal and write about what you are grateful for. Remind yourself all the ways in which you are grateful for yourself, your body, the areas of your life that bring you joy and pleasure. You can also try this exercise by listing the ways you are grateful for your partner(s), what you love about them and why you enjoy sex with them. Sometimes a daily reminder of the goodness and sexiness of your life is what’s needed to wake-up feelings of arousal. Research has found that practicing gratitude can enhance emotional and physical well-being. Try not to skip a day!
3. Do something different at least once a week, alone or with your lover. It can be as easy as going to a new restaurant, exploring an art gallery, taking a hike or eating Baskin Robbins’s flavor of the month. Whatever it is, big or small, trying something new helps you use your senses to find calm in the chaos of life. My hubby and I have “Adventure Saturday” once a month (we also have monthly “Naked Saturday”). So, switch things up and have sex in locations beyond the bedroom once a month or try a different sexual position!
4. Make-out sessions once or twice a week can bring more intimacy to your life. Even if these moments don’t lead to sex, just spending close and sexy time together can be beneficial and help maintain connection.
5. Have an affair with yourself. Take time to enjoy warm, relaxing baths or buy a favorite lotion and lovingly (and slowly) rub it on your body. Treat yourself and wear lingerie and pretty underthings. Prepare yourself as if you’ll be having sex later and want to seduce the person who undresses you. Make time to masturbate and thoroughly enjoy whatever it is that turns you on – erotica, porn, your healthy imagination. Do little things to make you feel sexy. These steps will affect your overall feelings about how you are perceived and can lead to healthy self-esteem, as well as boosting your sexual desire.
Research has found that having a pleasurable “sexual experience” daily for two weeks leads to cell growth in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that moderates stress levels. Simply put: Orgasms, sex, and sensual time solo or with others are great ways to reduce stress. Whether you’re planning it or doing it spontaneously, sexual release can be beneficial to your mind and body, helping you manage the intensity of everyday life.