Sex is a great way to relieve stress. The benefits include release of endorphins and other hormones that elevate mood, and exercise, which itself is an effective stress reliever. But stress can also keep us from getting in the mood and, worse, not being able to perform sexually. Here’s a common scenario that’s played out countless times:
You’ve had a bad day at the office and you get home late, tired and still brooding over that argument you had with your boss. When you try to have sex, your mind’s just not there and you can’t get an erection. Your partner asks if there’s something wrong, and without realizing that the problem is nothing more than stress, you try to do the impossible and force yourself into performing. It doesn’t work. The next time you try and have sex, you’re reminded of what happened last week, which only makes you fail again. The harder you try, the worse it is and the stronger your conditioning becomes. Soon, the stress of performance anxiety is an ingrained, spontaneous habit that causes erectile dysfunction whenever you think about sex. This is one of the main reasons men can avoid sexual intimacy altogether.
For millions of men, erectile dysfunction is nothing more than a stress response that triggers a classic mind-body phenomenon. Sexual activity is under the control of the autonomic or involuntary nervous system; i.e. we have no conscious control over it. Whenever a man becomes aroused, nerve impulses cause blood vessels in the penis to dilate, allowing a steady flow of blood into the spongy tissue. At the same time, a circular muscle called a sphincter constricts to prevent blood from flowing back. During stress, blood vessels don’t dilate fully and the sphincter fails to constrict, both contributing to erectile dysfunction. Negative events create a spontaneous stress response that intensifies the more ingrained it becomes. And because physiological actions such as erection are controlled by the autonomic nervous system, the conditioning process is more easily developed and that much harder to break.
As with any stress response, a variety of hormones are disrupted as well. Endorphins, which block pain during stress, also block the release of LHRH (luteinizing hormone releasing hormone). In turn, a decrease in LHRH causes a drop in LH (luteinizing hormone), a hormone important in testosterone production. FSH, which stimulates sperm formation, also declines. To add fuel to the fire, cortisol, the main stress hormone, makes the testes less responsive to LH. The underlying power behind all these reactions is the mind. Reconditioning the brain is the key element in reversing it.
Women can also be victims of the stress-sex connection. After all, sex for women is not only a physical but an intensely emotional experience. And just as it is for men, there’s not a more powerful aphrodisiac for women than the brain. It’s not surprising, then, that women can often condition themselves to think of sex in a negative way, form habits that prevent them from enjoying sex, and develop spontaneous stress responses that trigger automatic physical reactions.
As with men, women’s hormone levels are significantly affected in response to stress. Endorphins inhibit LHRH, which causes lowered LH levels. In females, LH triggers ovulation. Cortisol also blocks the anterior pituitary from releasing proper levels of LH. FSH, prolactin, estrogen, and progesterone levels are disrupted as well. The net effect in females is not only an irregular ovulatory cycle but an environment in which fertilization and implantation of the egg into the uterine wall is more difficult.
Both men and women produce FSH, LH, testosterone, and estrogen, although in different amounts. Chronic stress affects the concentration of all sex hormones because the body produces stress hormones such as cortisol at the expense of sex hormones like testosterone. In order to fight stress, our body shuts down sex mechanisms so that we’re better able to deal with more urgent and immediate needs. This change, called the stress-shift in hormone production, helps us respond to life-threatening situations by focusing hormone production for survival rather than procreation. The shift in hormones not only lowers sex drive but it can interfere with ovulation, sperm count, and fertility.
In many cases, simply recognizing stress as a contributing factor or the cause of sexual problems is enough to bring about recovery. Ignoring the problem and not taking steps to eliminate it can lead to anger, emotional disorders, depression, physical illness, and permanent loss of intimacy. The following mind-body suggestions can help recondition the brain and reverse the process before it gets out of control:
Although an imbalance between sex and stress hormones can play a role in causing sexual problems, the major factor is negative conditioning created by stress itself. The three most common sexual problems are erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, and frigidity. All three are typically the end result of stress, anxiety, tension, fear, depression, or a combination of these, and all three can be treated by using relaxation techniques, behavior modification, and special exercises that condition the brain and the genital muscles to respond in a normal way.
Sexual problems can be one of the greatest sources of stress a couple experiences. Becoming impotent or frigid can lead to depression or severe anxiety and cause illnesses that develop into more serious problems. There’s no doubt that many good marriages have broken up because couples didn’t realize the extent to which stress can affect sex.
During those times in our lives when day-to-day stress makes sex the last thing on our plates, we need to keep three things in mind: (1) expectation sometimes leads to failure, (2) failure can be overcome with understanding and compassion, and (3) understanding and compassion lead to better communication and a deeper awareness of your partner’s needs. Once we get to that point, we’ll be well on our way to eliminating the sexual problems that are commonly driven by stress reactions and experience the joy and satisfaction of finally knowing that sex is often a matter of our mind deciding what our body will do.