Stress

How Feeling Stressed, Anxious, and Depressed Can Impact Sex

Common emotional reactions to COVID-19 could be changing how we approach sex.

Posted Mar 31, 2020

The current social climate is leading to numerous fears, worries, and concerns about our health, our jobs, and our futures. As more and more of us are temporarily laid off, working remotely, or social distancing, it means that we are spending a lot more time at home. And for many of us, that means spending a lot more time with our significant other.

People are already speculating about how self-isolating may be impacting romantic partners who live together. Some say we could see a “baby boom” in nine months, suggesting that couples may be having more sexual activity due to this increased time together and little else to do (if you already have kids at home this may not apply to you!).

Others are positing that, rather than relationships becoming closer and more intimate during self-isolation, couples may be experiencing increased tension and frustrations that may not only mean less sexual frequency, it could also lead to a boom in divorce.

While we don’t yet have the scientific data to support either of those claims (although social scientists are in the process of collecting data as we speak), there are some things we do know about how the most common feelings many of us are having right now (namely, stress, depression, and anxiety) could be impacting our interest in having sex.

Stress

Typically speaking, research suggests that feeling stressed can have a negative impact on our sexual desire. When we're stressed, we're typically distracted, preoccupied, worried, exhausted. Not sexy feelings. The negative relationship between stress and desire has been documented among women as one of the main contributing factors for not being in the mood for sex, and research suggests that stress can negatively impact men’s sexual desire as well.

However, research examining how immediate stressful life events influence women’s desire found a different outcome.1  In the study, authors asked 52 women to respond to questionnaires inquiring about various potential stressful events and how women would respond using the Impact of Event Scale (a tool used by some clinicians to assess reactions to recent life stresses). The scale taps into three different emotional reactions: Avoidance (“I tried not to think about it”), Intrusion (“I had waves of strong feelings about it”), and Hyper-arousal (“I felt irritable and angry” and “I felt watchful and on-guard”).

The authors' results found a positive association between the stressful event and women's reported desire for her partner. This relationship was particularly notable among women who experienced high levels of Intrusions and Hyper-arousal reactions after a stressful event. This suggests that during, or shortly after, a stressful life event some of us may experience higher (rather than lower) levels of sexual interest.

Depression

The research on depression and sexual functioning tends to suggest that those of us with clinical depression tend to have a lower desire and sexual functioning. This finding is somewhat colored by the fact that many individuals with clinical depression also tend to be on medications, some of which have been found to have a negative effect on sexual desire.

However, there are also many of us who do not meet the criterion for clinical depression but may experience depressed mood, particularly in reaction to the social climate we currently find ourselves in. So what does the research have to say about non-clinical depressive moods?

Well, for the most part, the pattern seems to hold. For example, in one study of 198 couples, researchers measured depressed mood (using the Beck Depression Inventory) and asked various questions to tap into participants' sexual functioning.2 They concluded that depressed mood was associated not only with participants' low sexual desire, but it was also related to sexual aversion and sexual arousal problems.

Anxiety

Feeling anxious appears to have a more complicated relationship with sexual desire and sexual functioning.

Some research suggests that anxiety can lead to avoidance of sexual activity, and this may be particularly strong among those who have panic disorders, OCD, and generalized anxiety.3

However, in a comprehensive review of the literature on anxiety and sexuality, researchers found that across studies some women reported a positive relationship between anxiety and sexual arousal, some women reported a decrease in anxiety and sexual arousal, and some studies found anxiety had no significant impact on desire.4

In other words, depending on the person and depending on the cause of the anxiety, some of us may experience an increased interest in sex, others may find themselves less interested, and others may not notice any difference at all.

What Does This All Mean?

There are a lot of unknowns and uncertainties right now. Stress, worry, and depression are all common feelings and reactions to our changing social climate and the research is relatively mixed on how these experiences may impact sexual desire, arousal, and functioning.

It is likely that some of us are comforted by sexual activity or are feeling our heightened levels of nervous energy draws us towards wanting sexual activity. Others may find ourselves turning inward and away from sexual connection. It's important to be curious, not only about changes we may be experiencing but also whether we're in tune with our partner's emotional and sexual changes during these times. Both an increase in desire, or a notable drop in sexual frequency, could be normal responses to the stress, anxiety, and depression many of us are experiencing in the current climate.

Facebook image: Iryna Imago/Shutterstock

References

1. Géonet M., De Sutter, P., & Zech, E. (2018). Do stressful life events impact women's sexual desire? Sexologies, 27, 4, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sexol.2017.09.012

2. Guy Bodenmann PhD & Thomas Ledermann MSc (2008) Depressed Mood and Sexual Functioning, International Journal of Sexual Health, 19:4, 63-73, DOI: 10.1300/J514v19n04_07

3. Agnes Van Minnen & Mirjam Kampman (2000) The interaction between anxiety and sexual functioning: A controlled study of sexual functioning in women with anxiety disorders, Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 15:1, 47-57, DOI: 10.1080/14681990050001556

4. Kane, L., Dawson, S. J., Shaughnessy, K., Reissing, E. D., Ouimet, A. J., & Ashbaugh, A. R. (2019). A review of experimental research on anxiety and sexual arousal: Implications for the treatment of sexual dysfunction using cognitive behavioral therapy. Journal of Experimental Psychopathology. https://doi.org/10.1177/2043808719847371