Modern life can be hectic and intense; many of us juggle many different responsibilities and challenges daily. We’re now more aware than ever that stress doesn’t just make us feel miserable, it can also make us feel pretty physically unwell. Many of us enjoy a challenge and work well when the pressure’s on. However, when stress begins to feel beyond our control that’s when it can start to take an emotional and physical toll. When you start having difficulty with sex, stress might not be the first factor you’d consider. However, research shows that changes in sexual performance and satisfaction could be a warning sign that you’re not coping well in other parts of your life. In order to have the most enjoyable sex we need to be feeling comfortable, at ease and connected to a partner. Stress disrupts this, putting us on edge and taking us out of the moment. Anxieties that haven’t been fully put to bed can start to creep into the bedroom.
Here are a few of the ways stress can affect sex that you might not have considered and some helpful tips on how to cope:
Even if you prefer your sex to be more gentle than athletic, some energy is still required. Stress can make you feel like your batteries are drained. Struggling to stay on top of everything uses up time and depletes your energy reserves. The result can be that when it comes to it you’re more interested in getting some zzz’s than getting intimate. It’s a challenge to feel turned on when you’re physically exhausted. If you’re finding you can’t stay awake long enough for sex, this could be a sign that you need to take a break to recharge.
Many people feel that in order to be passionate, good sex needs to be spontaneous. This can be an unhelpful myth. It might not sound sexy, but a little scheduling helps many couples. You don’t need to necessarily set your Google calendars but planning a date night in or even going to bed earlier than usual can make a big difference. Experiment with sex at a different time of day when you know you’ll be more awake. This makes sex more of a priority and will encourage you to not leave sex until your last waking minutes.
- Psychological Erectile Dysfunction
We often think of getting an erection as a purely physical process related to blood flow. However stress has been found to be a major factor in whether you can get and keep hard. If you’re able to get an erection whilst asleep or first thing in the morning but have more difficulty with a partner this could a sign that stress is at play. Erection problems are common and will affect many at some point in their life. The good news is that there are things you can do to treat psychological impotence. It’s a very treatable problem. Often an approach taking into account both physical and psychological factors is most beneficial.
Despite being common, erection problems can affect self-esteem. Unhelpful messages in the media can suggest that erectile difficulties undermine your masculinity. You might find yourself feeling embarrassed and worrying about pleasing your partner. In this way, the problem can become its own source of stress! You may take some reassurance in that although this isn’t a problem discussed very openly, it’s very common and rarely permanent. You may find the section below on performance anxiety also relevant.
- Vaginal Pain and Spasms
If you feel discomfort during sex, stress can be a factor. This might include tenderness and aching in the vulva and tension and spasms in the walls of the vagina. For some this can make any kind of penetrative sex impossible to manage. Feeling pain during sex isn’t typical and at a first point it’s important to establish with a doctor that this pain isn’t due to a treatable infection or any damage to your genitals. A major cause of pain can be insufficient lubrication of the vagina. The result is that penetrative sex feels uncomfortable and even sore. Stress can interfere with our ability to relax and get turned on and the result may be that it takes you longer to feel physically aroused.
When you experience this kind of pain, carrying on anyway often isn’t helpful and can run the risk of causing physical damage. Instead, try slowing down the pace of sex. You could switch to a different activity, perhaps mutual masturbation, until you feel ready to try penetrative sex or even skip it all together. Using a personal lubricant may also be helpful. If vaginal pain is persistent and distressing, you may require treatment from a specialist.
- Performance anxiety
If you’re not feeling confident and able to cope with day to day demands this feeling can start to spill over into sex. You might find yourself worrying about whether you can satisfy your partner and keep them interested. These worries can contribute to a range of sexual difficulties including premature ejaculation and difficulty achieving orgasm. Mishaps in sex happen to everyone, sometimes there are days when we’re just not in the right mood or our bodies aren’t playing along. This is natural. However when you’re already stressed a misfire is more likely to feel like a catastrophe. This can lead to feelings of insecurity. Next time it comes to sex you might find yourself expecting things to go wrong again and worrying or trying to compensate. This can take you out of the moment – you’re stuck in your worries rather than paying attention to your partner or enjoying yourself. The result is often less than satisfying sex. This can become a difficult cycle: worry about sex, being less relaxed during sex, having less enjoyable sex and then taking this as further evidence that you’re not performing and starting to worry more and more.
The best starting point for managing sexual worries is talking to your partner. You’ll probably find that they are not as bothered as you might assume. When things don’t go to plan, take a pause and then moving on to a different activity (e.g. giving a massage). Try and find a way to laugh off your “oops” moments rather than taking them to heart, they really do happen for everyone! If you find anxieties are persisting and really getting in the way of you enjoying sex you might consider seeing a therapist specialising in sexual difficulties.
If you’re already feeling under pressure, difficulties with sex probably feel like the last thing you want to think about. Sex should be an opportunity for enjoyment and even stress relief, but left unchecked it can become its own source of worry. Ups and downs in how you function sexually are natural and not necessarily a sign of a significant problem. Unfortunately, sexual difficulties can become an unspoken issue, creating tension and distance between two people, which can make matters worse. Before you criticise your own performance or your partner it might be time to consider “How am I coping?” The good news is that how you cope with stress is something you can work on, with every possibility of improvement. From exercise and meditation to good nutrition and social contact, there are many ways that people find to keep the stress in their lives under control. When you’re feeling confident and relaxed in yourself this can’t help but have a knock-on effect on your sex life. Put the time into looking after yourself and you may find you reap the benefits in the bedroom.
Dr. Alexandra Richards is clinical psychologist with a specialist interest in sexual health, medically unexplained symptoms, and neuropsychology. She serves as a professional consultant for the Between Us Clinic, which provides sex-therapy online programs for men and couples experiencing premature ejaculation.