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What’s stress got to do with it?
We are living in high-stress times. Sometimes it feels utterly impossible to adequately rest and reset. While a small amount of stress can be a good thing over a short duration, when it propels us to try something new or meet a challenge, a large amount of stress over a long period can wreak havoc on our minds and bodies. Lately, several of my patients have been connecting the dots between their stress and lack of sexual desire, asking questions like: “What’s the connection between stress and low libido?” and "I feel so stressed and uninterested in sex! What can I do?"
Millions of people of all ages struggle with concerns about their libido. While sexual desire can fluctuate due to a variety of interpersonal, biological and psychological factors, lately many of us are noticing big changes in our libido due to the unprecedented times we are living in. When we are on high-alert or preoccupied by thoughts and worries, being present and aroused can certainly be a challenge. Let’s get to know how our bodies respond to stress so we can learn tools to manage it more effectively and hopefully improve our sex lives!
The Stress Response
We’ve all heard about “The Fight or Flight Response,” the way our bodies are hardwired to respond to stress. This response evolved to help us react readily to life threatening scenarios, alerting our nervous system to set off a cascade of hormonal and physiological changes — all to help us survive. The problem is, when we are faced with an everyday stressor, our bodies often jump into survival mode, leaving us to feel like we are running for our lives when we are simply late on a deadline or anticipating a contentious conversation. By frequently misidentifying the severity of our stressors, many of us are living in a chronic state of survival mode.
Many animals innately and quite literally “shake off” after a stressful encounter, while humans have a more difficult time resetting. Robert Sapolsky, a Neuroscientist and expert in the physiology of stress writes, “Viewed from the perspective of the evolution of the animal kingdom, sustained [psychological stress] is a recent invention, mostly limited to humans and other social primates.” If we don’t signal to our bodies that we are safe and secure, we can remain stuck in fight, flight, or a state where we essentially “freeze” and can feel paralyzed and shut down — all of which result in surges of cortisol and other stress hormones that disrupt many systems in the body. And for those who have experienced trauma in the past, it is common to be on high-alert much of the time since the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for danger detection) can become hyper-sensitive and hyper-reactive.
How Does Stress Lower Libido?
When we are under stress, our bodies divert all of their attention towards physiological functions to help us survive (like increasing heart rate and breathing rate), and away from less essential functions like reproduction, leaving our sex drive to go by the wayside. On top of that, when stress is ongoing and not well managed, stress hormones like cortisol increase, wreaking havoc on other hormones and bodily processes, which generates a dampening effect on libido.
Chronic stress also impacts the brain, specifically the areas that control things like mood and motivation, and may contribute to anxiety and/or depression. In addition, when we are preoccupied with intrusive thoughts or feeling overwhelmed by uncertainty or decision-making, it can be difficult to focus on sex or tap into our desire. Individuals or couples who are experiencing high amounts of tension and emotional distress may also find it difficult to prioritize sexual activity or to “get in the mood.” While masturbation and sex with a partner are known as powerful stress-relievers, if an individual is experiencing less sexual desire than usual (or expected), this may contribute to additional distress, further diminishing libido and fueling additional stress.
What can I do to manage my stress and improve my libido?
There are several lifestyle modifications that can lead to an improved stress response. Here are 10 Tips and Tricks for Reducing Stress and Improving Libido:
1. Prioritize getting adequate sleep and maintaining a consistent circadian rhythm. Most of us need 7-8 hours of quality sleep each night. When we sleep poorly, cortisol spikes throughout the day to keep us alert and awake.
2. Eat a healthy diet low in inflammatory foods and maintain blood sugar balance. A well rounded diet with lots of nutrients can nourish our guts and our adrenal glands. When we eat sugar and processed carbs or when we skip meals (and are not long-term intermittent fasters), an abundance of cortisol is released in an effort to balance our blood sugar.
3. Get regular exercise and movement into your day, such as yoga, dancing or walking. Try exercising in the morning and not in the evening, to avoid disrupting your cortisol levels and sleep schedule.
4. Practice meditation. Meditation is such a powerful tool. Committing to a regular meditation practice for even 5-10 minutes per day can be very helpful for combatting stress!
5. Breathe. Learn different breathing techniques to have on hand and practice daily or whenever you might need them. Soft belly breathing can be very relaxing, or you could try setting a timer for a 6 second inhale and a 6 second exhale over the course of a few minutes.
6. Pause and heighten your senses through walks in nature or pleasurable treats like berries or dark chocolate. When we practice mindfulness we learn to focus on the present which can improve our awareness of physiological responses.
7. Engage in any mindful activities you enjoy such as cooking, hiking, painting, playing an instrument, or even washing the dishes in a mindful way.
8. Explore ways of being intimate with your partner such as cuddling, hugging, touching and/or kissing. You may want to try an approach called sensate focus, to help tune into and focus on your senses.
9. Make time for intimacy with your partner and increase opportunities for romance or new and fun activities.
10. Communicate with your partner: Try to acknowledge and articulate your stressors, emotions and expectations. What is on your mind and what might be helpful to reduce your stress, even just slightly? Brainstorm alone or with your partner on ways to rest or find space to practice self care. Try individual or couples therapy, or sex therapy. The Association of Sex Therapists, Educators and Counselors’ website can be helpful to find a therapist locally: Http://www.aasect.org.
*Remember, sexual desire is individualized, so please focus on what feels most healthy to you! *Please also note that while libido is impacted by factors such as stress, sense of well-being, hormones and relationships, there are also medical causes of low sex drive that are important to discuss with your healthcare provider. Working with your provider can help you figure out what might be impacting your desire so that you can focus on a treatment plan.
If you are interested in reading more on the stress response, checkout Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky’s book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers