3 Ways Stress Contributes to Sexual Dysfunction

Anxiety isn’t easy to deal with. It can negatively impact your life in numerous ways…many of which then cause you to experience more anxiety! It just doesn’t seem fair.

But how much does your mental health relate to your physical wellbeing? You’ve probably heard that people who are more stressed are also sick more often. And you may have heard that stress and anxiety contribute to erectile dysfunction. Actually, stress contributes to sexual dysfunction as experienced by both men and women. How does this work?

Each person’s body responds to stress in a different way. Some people are unable to sustain feelings of arousal, which in men often manifests itself as erectile dysfunction. Other men have difficulty with the opposite problem, premature ejaculation, because of stress.

The Brain Puts on the Brakes

Stress boosts the brain’s levels of a small protein hormone called RFamide-related peptide (RFRP), which inhibits the production of reproductive hormones.

In 2000, a new reproductive-inhibiting hormone called gonadotropin-inhibitory hormone (GnIH) was discovered. These hormones, which are found in humans and animals, help adapt to stressful situations. It doesn’t make sense to reproduce during times of severe stress.

In humans, however, these stress hormones cause us to have problems with sexual enjoyment, which usually leave us more stressed out, and even more unable to perform sexually. Researchers are studying these hormones in animals, to figure out better ways of treating sexual dysfunction.

In the meantime, let’s think about how stress acts on the body on a more emotional level, and how we can improve our ability to enjoy sexual intimacy:

1. The Brain is Overwhelmed

When you experience stress, the negative emotions can overwhelm your ability to feel sexual stimulation. It’s hard to enjoy something nice when you’re feeling upset! More severe anxiety actually overwhelms the brain. The brain limits power to those areas that don’t relate to anxiety, so that more energy can be directed into those parts that do deal with it. One of these “less critical” areas is the part of the brain that responds to sexual attraction.

2. The Brain is Distracted

Being in the moment is the best way to truly enjoy intimacy. However, when you’ve got other stuff on your mind, like work, money matters, or even what may seem like trivial causes of anxiety, it is really hard to be present. You may think you’re paying attention to your body and to your partner, but your subconscious brain may still be distracted.

3. The Brain is Thinking Too Much

This may sound a lot like number 1, but the difference is pretty crucial. Remember, in number one, the brain is too focused on anxiety to enjoy the physical experience. When the brain is thinking too much, you are too focused on the moment, you are unable to experience the organic feelings of sexual response. It’s as if your brain is trying so hard to enjoy (and/or be good at) sex, that you’re unable to do so.

While we wait for more studies on reproductive-inhibiting hormones, there are other things we can practice to reduce anxiety, and improve our sex lives. Try having an intimate time with no goal in mind. In fact, set yourselves the goal of not having sex.

Enjoy intimacy without having it lead to intercourse. Now that there’s no pressure to “perform,” you can simply enjoy spending intimate time with your partner. Cuddling, kissing, even making jokes and having fun can be great non-anxiety-inducing ways to spend quality time together. You might also consider therapy sessions to reduce your anxiety through exercises like breathing, or mindfulness meditation.

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