Chances are, on any day of the week, it’s not hard to see why the World Health Organisation has cited ‘stress as the epidemic of the 21st century’.
From the traffic, to work deadlines, to money and family worries, the onslaught of daily stress can feel relentless, so it’s no surprise that getting busy between the sheets is often the last thing on our mind.
Relate? You can stop feeling bad now!
The impact of stress cannot be underestimated. It has huge consequences on all aspects of our health, and that includes our sexual function.
The physical effects of stress
When we get stressed, our bodies perceive it as a threat to our survival. This triggers the release of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline which help us to fight or flee this ‘threat’, which in days gone by meant woolly mammoths, but now mean those traffic jams and work deadlines.
The problem is that these hormones cause havoc with our bodies, including how we function sexually. The ways they do this are complex and varied, but think of it like this:
So that the body can concentrate on “preserving itself from danger, our non-essential processes in the body… are switched off” explains Dr.Deborah Lee, a sexual and reproductive doctor for Dr Fox Online Pharmacy.
Unfortunately, these non-essential processes include the manufacturing of hormones like oestrogen and testosterone, hormones that help us feel horny in the first place, but also, even if you do make it to the bedroom, directly affect our ability to get aroused, maintain an erection or reach orgasm.
“Psychological issues including stress…are the most common cause of erectile dysfunction explains Lee. “…they are also closely linked to premature ejaculation.”
For women in particular, stress is linked to low libido. In one study of junior doctors during their training, where they were often working over 70 hours per week, 49% of females as opposed to just 11% of men complained they were dissatisfied with their sex life.
Are you a working mum? Then you’re in the category most likely to be too stressed for sex In one survey, 42% of working mothers had been diagnosed with anxiety or depression, in comparison to 28% of the general population and 25% of working 6mums without children.
So, there you go, there’s a good reason why you’d rather watch Netflix and eat a Magnum when stress comes knocking.
The emotional effects of stress
Psychosexual and relationship therapist Aoife Drury, explains that not only does stress affect us physically, raising our blood pressure and heart rate as well as impacting our love-making, but it throws us off emotionally too.
“We all have to deal with some stress in life but it’s when it dips into overwhelming levels that couples often turn up at the therapy door,” she says.
“Stress can be all-consuming and sex can be placed on the backburner making it difficult to engage with sexual thoughts or fantasies. This can escalate for people, the anxiety surrounding sex takes over and suddenly sex becomes this insurmountable hurdle.”
Psychotherapist Lohani Noor explains that because stress hormones encourage us to ‘fight or flight’, we sometimes literally do this to our partner, with real consequences to our intimacy.
Massages, mindfulness, meditation, Tai Chi, Yoga and acupuncture are all good stress-busters
“When the stress hormones kick in, we stop nurturing our loved ones,” she says. “So, instead of cultivating closeness we cultivate absence or conflict…. It is not uncommon for stressed people to be aggressive towards their partner, to be snappy and moody.”
“Over time, this behaviour can massively impact intimacy. Then…insecurities rear their head meaning lack of trust, aggression and irritability which in turn perpetuates a lowered desire for sexual intimacy.”
Hello vicious circle!
Our self-esteem suffers also suffers, affecting things like body confidence.
“These feelings disrupt every stage of the sexual process,” says Lee. “Desire, arousal, sexual responsiveness and the ability to orgasm.”
And interestingly, studies show that rather than acute stress - such as bereavement or redundancy – it’s chronic stress i.e. low level but over a long time - that most affects our libido.
We all know ways to combat stress. We know to switch off our phones in the evening, make time to relax, eat right, exercise and get enough sleep.
But Noor also suggests meditation and journaling. “These are great ways to get some perspective on, and contain stress,” she says. “This can help clear enough space in your head to contemplate sexual and sensual contact.”
“Any activity that results in rest and relaxation is good as this will lower your cortisol and adrenaline levels” Lee adds. “So, massage, mindfulness, meditation, Tai Chi, Yoga and acupuncture are all good options.”
Don’t forget, however, that one of the best things you can do if you’re stressed out is actually have sex!
Sexual activity and orgasm help your body release all sorts of feel-good hormones and tension.
“Sex also promotes the production of oxytocin,” says Noor. “This is commonly known as the ‘love hormone’ as it is released during physical touch, not necessarily sexual. Oxytocin can alleviate pain, increase trust and improve mood.”
So...what are you waiting for?
Read more about sex:
Life as a female sex addict: How to know whether you have a high drive or addiction (Yahoo UK, 5 minute read)
I'm polyamorous—I love my boyfriend and girlfriend, but the jealousy can be difficult (Yahoo UK, 8 minute read)
My open marriage destroyed me – I don’t trust anyone anymore (Yahoo UK, 10 minute read)