Anyone familiar with the everyday strains of life will understand that sex is like meditation: if you’re not able to focus on the experience itself, you’re not doing it quite right! In other words, it’s incredibly difficult to have a fulfilling sexual encounter when your mind is filled with distracting thoughts and worries. But why does stress have such a powerful effect on our sexual functioning?
Our early ancestors were very good at doing three things: evading predators, eating, and making babies. However, you would rarely catch them doing more than one of these activities at the same time. Apart from the logistical challenges associated with having sex while fending off a hungry lion, our brains and physiology simply wouldn’t allow it.
When you are threatened by, say, a saber-toothed tiger or a gun-wielding robber, your mind and body go into fight-or-flight mode. First, a part of your brain called the hypothalamus starts to speak to your pituitary gland. This causes your blood-supply to travel toward your limbs rather than your genitals so that you are better able to respond to the threat.
At the same time, your body stops producing sex hormones and instead floods your body with cortisol – a stress hormone that is associated with lower levels of sexual arousal and fertility (Hamilton, Rellini, & Meston, 2008). This means that when the fight-or-flight process is triggered, it’s nearly impossible to respond sexually because your entire central nervous system is focused on the pressing task at hand: immediate survival.
Modern humans face very different threats to our early ancestors; and yet, the fight-or-flight response is still hard-wired into our brains. So, whether we’re stressed out by a deadline, an argument, or an empty bank account, the primitive parts of our brains still respond as if we were about to face-up to a vicious predator. As a result, our bodies and brains are often preoccupied, and for those of us who struggle to de-stress, our sex-lives suffer.
Does Stress Cause Sexual Dysfunction?
Time and time again, scientists have shown that stress and sexual problems seem to go hand-in-hand (Bodenmann, Atkins, Schar, & Poffet, 2010). Here we will briefly explore what the research says about the way that stress impacts on three common sexual disorders: premature ejaculation, anorgasmia, and erectile dysfunction.
Premature Ejaculation (PE)
Men with PE lack control over the timing of their climax, meaning that sex ends earlier than normal. Is stress one of the possible causes of premature ejaculation? Absolutely. Men with this disorder often report that feeling stressed or anxious makes the condition worse – a finding backed up by research (Bodenmann, Ledermann, Blattner, & Galluzzo, 2006) which shows a strong link between day-to-day stress and higher rates of PE.
Anorgasmia (Difficulty in Reaching Orgasm)
This is a sexual dysfunction in which a person finds it incredibly difficult – or even impossible – to have an orgasm. This lack of orgasm occurs whether the person is having sex with a partner or simply masturbating. Although some men do struggle with this problem, it is far more common among women – one study (Najafabady, Salmani, & Abedi, 2011) suggested that over a quarter of women struggle with this disorder!
There is also good reason to believe that stress makes it order for women to have an orgasm. In 2006, researchers explored sexual dysfunctions in a group of 2626 women aged between 20 and 60. The study showed that women who struggle with severe stress, anxiety or depression are far more likely to suffer from anorgasmia, as well as other forms of female sexual dysfunction such as pain during sex and difficulties in becoming aroused (Safarinejad, 2006).
Erectile Dysfunction (ED)
ED is another sexual problem that seems to be linked to stress. This disorder involves a difficulty in getting or maintaining an erection. When your mind is preoccupied or anxious there is less blood flowing to your penis because your arms and legs are being prepared to help you fight or flee – remember?
To have an erection, you need a fair amount of blood flowing to where it counts. This is one of the reasons why stress makes it harder for you to, well, get hard. Research supports this idea, showing that stressful events in a person’s social or emotional world make ED more likely (Hedon, 2003; Rajiah, Veettil, Kumar, & Mathew, 2012).
What Can You Do If Stress Is Ruining Your Sex Life?
The answer is simple but also potentially complicated – you need to find ways of managing your stress! Easy and effective stress-relievers include daily exercise, meditation, yoga, a funny movie, or a good book. Take some time out from the daily grind and focus on relaxing and having fun! If your stress develops into an anxiety disorder – in which you feel constantly stressed even if there is nothing logical to be stressed about – you may want to consider seeking some support from a doctor or therapist.
Also, keep in mind that sex itself is a great stress-reliever; and sexual dysfunctions can be a source of stress in and of themselves! Treating your sexual dysfunction can lead to a massive sense of relief, breaking the vicious cycle of stress leading to sexual problems, resulting in even more stress.
Stress affects nearly everyone, and many people find that their sex lives suffer as a result. There is a good reason for this: stress changes the workings of our brains and bodies in ways that make it incredibly difficult to get in the mood for sex – or any other sort of fun, for that matter.
The good news is that stress can be easily managed: you just need to get creative and find the strategy that works for you. For some, this might be a walk in the park (literally), or perhaps a coffee with your friend. So, whether you’re feeling stressed, having sex, or like so many of us, trying to do both at the same time – don’t forget to breathe!