When you think of a sexy night out, your mind may turn to a blissfully indulgent dinner and a couple glasses of red wine. These days, though, date nights are few and far between, and it can seem like every ping of your phone is another disheartening news update or the start of another Facebook debate. There's no denying that this climate has caused a lot of stress and anxiety — mood killers, to say the least. If you find that your sex drive has dipped lately, you're not alone. In fact, it turns out that this the-world-is-falling-apart level of stress can have a far greater impact on your sex life than you might think. To better understand how stress affects sex — and what you can do to get your sex life back on track — we turned to the experts.
How Does Stress Affect Your Sex Drive?
Stress causes the body to release a hormone called cortisol, and while it's a natural part of the "fight or flight" response — and can help protect you when you're in danger — it's not quite as helpful in the bedroom. "Sex and stress don't mix," Jordin Wiggins, ND, a naturopathic doctor, sexologist, and creator of Health Over All Inc, told POPSUGAR. "When cortisol is raised for long periods of time — say, during a worldwide pandemic — it impacts everything, from digestion, to immune function, to body fat storage, to the ability of your brain to process and react to sexual cues."
Judy Ho, PhD, a neuropsychologist and host of the SuperCharged Life podcast, agreed, noting that excess cortisol and epinephrine can not only decrease your sex drive, but also have an effect on your cognitive functioning. "You [may] start to feel disorganized, find it difficult to concentrate, and experience depression or anxiety symptoms," Dr. Ho explained. "And when these conditions are present, you're not going to want to spice things up in the bedroom."
It's for this reason that Alyssa Dweck, a board-certified ob-gyn and sexual and reproductive health expert for INTIMINA, often reminds patients that the brain could be considered one of the biggest sex organs and it should be treated as such. "If the brain is cluttered with a never ending to-do list or stress from various aspects of life, it will make its way into the bedroom," Dr. Dweck told POPSUGAR.
She added that stress can manifest itself in other ways that can be detrimental to your sex life. For example, you might be prone to overeating, which could lead to poor self-image that may then affect how you relate to your partner. As Dr. Ho explained, that's not the only sign that stress levels are too high. You might also lose the motivation to take care of yourself, get easily irritated with your partner, or even isolate yourself from family and friends.
It's important to remember that, to some degree, changes in your sex drive are normal and expected. "The thing with sexual desire is that, through the course of our lives, ebbs and flows are natural," Pani Farvid, PhD, an assistant professor of applied psychology and director of the Sex Tech Lab at The New School, told POPSUGAR. "It's not totally automated, it's contextual, it's social."
That's not to say that stress can't affect your sex life in a serious or unhealthy way, but generally speaking, you should show yourself some grace. "Putting more pressure on yourself to have sex, or [feeling] guilt because you don't want to, isn't going to help shut off the stress response and get your libido back up and running," Dr. Wiggins said. Allowing yourself time to deal with the stress on your own terms will ultimately be a much more effective solution.
What Can I Do to Get My Sex Life Back on Track?
There are several lifestyle changes you can make to decrease your stress and boost your libido. Dr. Ho suggests making a list of the things in your life you can and can't control. For every controllable aspect, come up with some kind of action you can take. For everything you can't control, allow yourself to release the anxiety it's causing you. Limiting your time on social media can also help reduce negativity and keep your stress levels at bay, Dr. Ho said. Other things she finds helpful in calming the body include walking meditations, journaling, soothing music, breath work, and creative outlets like adult coloring books.
As for the act itself, if you've noticed big, persistent changes in your sex life, Dr. Wiggins recommends practicing intimacy with yourself first. That means masturbation, experimenting with different kinds of touch, and figuring out what feels good for you, which can lead to better communication with your partner and increase levels of the feel-good hormone dopamine. Once you've gotten the hang of this, you can then set aside time to give your partner an orgasm, using lots of direct, honest communication (and toys, if you have them). "A no-pressure-to-have-sex-just-an-orgasm orgasm can be a great way to take some of the pressure of having sex off when it feels overwhelming," Dr. Wiggins explained.
Gabi Levi, a sex expert, relationship coach, and founder of the erotica site Shag Story, also placed a huge emphasis on open communication. "Feeling inadequate to your partner is only going to increase your stress levels," Levi told POPSUGAR. "Feeling safe with your partner, be it a serious or casual partner, is going to make getting in the mood much easier." If you're still struggling to feel aroused, she suggests increasing the amount of foreplay and making sure to create a sexual space that feels completely relaxing and comfortable.
Ultimately, stress affects everyone differently. If it's causing you to feel persistent distress, it's always a good idea to seek personal, professional help — but if you feel your stress has only moderately impacted your sex life, there's no need to panic. "If you're feeling like you have a reduced desire for sex, it's OK! It's just a product of the time we're living in right now, so don't be hard on yourself," Dr. Farvid said. "You're allowed to go with what your body is needing."