Mindfulness training, in which you learn to focus your attention on what you are doing in the moment, can help you experience greater joy, even in your mundane daily activities. Too often, we go through our lives thinking about what we’ve done or what we need to do, rather than on what is going on with us in the here-and-now. What’s more, when we multitask, which so many of us do, we fail to perform at our peak. As Columbia University psychologist Maria Konnikova points out in her upcoming book, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, research on mindfulness and productivity shows that we are more effective at thinking when we think about (or do) only one thing at a time.
With the benefits of mindfulness now becoming increasingly evident, it makes sense that it could also help people seeking to improve their sex lives. Pioneering sex researchers Masters and Johnson developed a method called “sensate focus” to help people with sexual desire and arousal disorders train their minds to improve the responses of their bodies. Rather than think about how they well, or poorly, they were performing (called “spectatoring”), Masters and Johnson trained their patients to think only about the sensations in their erogenous zones. They took their patients through a series of guided steps in which they gradually were able to achieve arousal and orgasm by tuning out all distracting thoughts and concentrating on the body’s responses to sexual stimulation. The core of the approach now taken by many sex therapists and sex therapy how-to guides, sensate focus has helped countless thousands of individuals overcome their inability to have a sexually fulfilling life.
Mindfulness training would seem to share many qualities with the sensate focus technique. If you are thinking only about how you are feeling, rather than on the many distractions that can race through your consciousness, you are bound to derive more pleasure from your sexual experiences. However, mindfulness goes beyond sensate focus, even in sexual situations. University of British Columbia Lori Brotto teamed up with Julia R. Heiman of the Kinsey Institute to test out the possibility that mindfulness could successfully be applied to sex therapy.
The three key components of mindfulness training are intention, attention, and attitude. According to Shapiro et al., (2006), intention involves knowing why you are engaging in mindfulness. Attention involves observing your moment-to-moment experiences. Attitude involves holding off on judging yourself.
These three components of mindfulness formed the core of Brotto and Heiman’s approach. They chose to test their approach to sex therapy with women who survived cervical or endometrial cancer and were experiencing a sexual dysfunction in which they were unable to become aroused (sexual arousal disorder). The researchers believed that if mindfulness could improve mood and quality of life, then it should also be able to improve these women’s sexual responsiveness. They developed a 3-session program that they tested on 21 heterosexual women currently in a relationship. Unlike sensate focus, the mindfulness training was oriented to improving these women’s awareness of their experiences both in and outside the bedroom.
For the mindfulness training, the women were instructed to close their eyes and focus on their bodily sensations such as pain, tightness, temperature, and pain. Then they were instructed to focus on the sounds going on around them, labeling each and noticing how it differed from other sounds, tuning out any distracting thoughts. They were told to practice the exercise for at least 5 minutes a day, and then gradually increase the amount that they practiced each day. Once they became confident that they could be mindful in the non-sexual areas of their lives, they were then encouraged to build mindfulness into their sexual experiences.
These post-surgical women, who had all experienced hysterectomies, felt particularly sensitive about their appearance and functioning of their bodies, Many felt that their partners no longer found them sexually attractive or desirable. Therefore, it was especially important from the researchers’ point of view, that they build “positive sexual awareness.” They were reminded to bring the power of their awareness into the “here and now,” and not judge themselves.
In one exercise, the women in the study used a vibrator to elicit arousal, and practice mindfulness to all of their sensations during that stimulation. They were encouraged to stay with these feelings “in the present.”
One of the reports of the study (Brotto et al., 2008) presented objective data in the form of questionnaires and physiological measures. The data clearly showed a positive effect of the training not only on sexual functioning but also on depression and overall well-being. As impressive as the statistics were, equally compelling were the open-ended responses that Brotto and Heiman reported in an earlier paper (2007).
For example, one woman reported that: “When you go through a change like this there’s that message in your mind that your body has failed you. And you don’t know if that is going to happen again. But one bit of learning out of all of this is, ‘OK, my body has changed, but it’s not dead. Life is not over.’ (pp. 7-8). They also felt that they were getting more out of their non-sexual experiences, including the simple act of taking a shower: “Just, just taking a couple of minutes in the shower and you know the water is warm, and you know, just, just, that, that part of it, instead of ‘I gotta get out of the shower and get to work’,” (p. 8).
The program also included more traditional components of sex therapy including education, cognitive interventions (helping them change their thoughts), behavioral therapy (assigning specific tasks with positive reinforcement), relationship exercises, and strengthening of the pelvic floor). Yet, it was the mindfulness that the women felt really made the difference in the success of the program. They all stated they wished they had learned to use mindfulness much earlier in their lives.
Turning off your brain during sex from its preoccupation with daily tasks is a skill that everyone can use. As stated by another patient “It seems incredibly self evident that when you’re having sex perhaps that you should think about the fact that you’re having sex and not wonder whether the parakeet is loose.”
Many people are preoccupied with their body’s appearance, their ability to perform sexually, or both. When these concerns interfere with their ability to enjoy sex, mindfulness training would seem to have a great deal of potential to serve as an effective approach. Particularly important, based on these studies, is that you practice mindfulness outside of sexual situations. As you become better able to turn off your brain, the chances are good that you’ll also turn on your body.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012
Brotto, L. A., Heiman, J. R., Goff, B., Greer, B., Lentz, G. M., Swisher, E., & ... Van Blaricom, A. (2008). A psychoeducational intervention for sexual dysfunction in women with gynecologic cancer. Archives Of Sexual Behavior, 37(2), 317-329. doi:10.1007/s10508-007-9196-x
Brotto, L. A., & Heiman, J. R. (2007). Mindfulness in sex therapy: Applications for women with sexual difficulties following gynecologic cancer. Sexual And Relationship Therapy, 22(1), 3-11. doi:10.1080/14681990601153298
Shapiro, S.L., Carlson, L.E., Astin, J.A. & Freedman, B. (2006). Mechanisms of mindfulness. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 62, 373