The Modern-Day Libido Killer

Distracted minds sabotage our ability to focus during sex.

Posted Jan 19, 2021

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Couple Arguing in Bed
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Adaeze and Mark fidgeted on the sofa across from me in my therapy office. She glanced down at her handbag at the familiar rhythm of her phone vibrating. It was obvious they felt frustrated.

We’d met several times to address the sexual disconnection they’d experienced over the past few years. It was a story I’d heard many times before. They loved each other and had a good relationship with no major problems, but they’d lost the spark they’d once enjoyed.

Like many couples, sex was hot, fun, and effortless in the beginning of the relationship. But over the years, as the demands of work and family took over, Adaeze found it increasingly difficult to get in the mood. When they did have sex, neither felt very satisfied. We’d tried some of the more traditional sex therapy techniques for boosting her libido, but nothing made much of a difference. "No matter what I do, I can’t seem to shut off my mind," she complained. "There’s always a running to-do list."

I noticed that this statement—I can’t shut off my mind—was one I heard more and more over the years. As I contemplated their case, I began to wonder: Is it possible this isn’t a sexual problem, but a distracted mind problem?

I decided to reach out to my first sex therapy supervisor, Ruth Sherman, Ph.D., LMFT to ask whether this was an issue she recalled from her decades as a sex therapist from the ’70s until 2008. I called Ruth specifically because she had retired from seeing clients just before social media and smartphones took over our lives.

"What do you remember about your clients’ ability to focus?" I asked. "Honestly, Emily, I spent some time thinking about your email and your question before our phone call today, and I have to say, in my 30+ years of running one of the busiest sex therapy practices in Houston, I can’t recall one client who complained of the kind of thing you’re describing. Sure, we had clients who were 'orgasm watchers' or 'erection watchers.' We had clients that would get distracted by body image concerns. But I don’t remember any clients who felt like they couldn’t settle their mind." 

It turns out that distraction has become a major problem. Neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley writes in his book, The Distracted Mind, that, “We seem to have lost the ability to single-task… we act as though we are no longer interested in or able to stay idle and simply do nothing… where we used to read, we now skim.” Could we be similarly skimming through sex, resulting in us feeling dissatisfied, disconnected, and ultimately, uninterested?

Multi-tasking wreaks havoc on our ability to focus and significantly increases our overall stress levels. One study found that office employees focus for an average of only 11 minutes before being interrupted by an email, phone call, or tap on the shoulder and that it takes an average of 25 minutes to regain focus on the task at hand.

Another study of information workers found that when email was taken away for five days, people multitasked less, focused longer on tasks, and had lower physical stress response, as measured by heart rate variability (Mark, Voida, & Cardello, 2012).

When was the last time you ate a complete meal without checking your smartphone? Do you focus on your body during exercise, or are you simultaneously trying to learn from a podcast playing in your earbuds? How many minutes of uninterrupted time do you spend playing with your children? Are you guilty of replying to a text while stopped at a red light? Even when we’re trying to relax in front of the TV, many of us periodically browse the Internet on our phones at the same time. We’ve all been there.

And ask yourself, assuming your answer to one of these questions was yes, if you multitask so much throughout the day, is it reasonable to think you’ll be able to focus—really focus—during sex?

I think that as technology evolves, we are training our brains to focus on many things at once, which makes it harder to focus on any one task when we want to. Think of yourself like a computer, the more browsers you have open, the slower your processing speed.

Our distracted minds make it hard to pay attention to sexual cues, which in turn makes it harder to feel in sync with our partner. This inhibits our ability to immerse ourselves in the sensual pleasures of sex. Furthermore, the increased stress response we experience as a result of multitasking makes it harder for people to relax enough at the end of the day to even get in the mood for sex.

I asked Adaeze about how distraction affected other areas of her life. Sure enough, she admitted to feeling stretched too thin most of the time. I decided to switch up our treatment plan.

What Do We Do?

Mindfulness helps some (Newcombe & Weaver, 2016; Stephenson & Welch, 2020). When intrusive thoughts or distractions occur, mindfulness teaches us to respond without judgment. This lessens the frustration we feel about distractions and helps us refocus on pleasure and sensation. But this isn’t enough. Don’t forget the research cited above that highlights how long it takes workers to refocus on a task after being interrupted. Most people don’t even have sex for as long as it would take to refocus on it after an interruption.

We need to take it a step further. We need to minimize the number of distractions coming in. This begins with cultivating an uninterrupted life

If you haven’t seen "The Social Dilemma" yet, I'd recommend watching it. Nearly every former social media executive interviewed for this documentary discourages the use of social media. At the very least, turn off your notifications—for email, social media, and any other app that pings at you. When you work, focus on work. When you exercise, focus on your body. When you eat, savor your food.

I asked Adaeze to live this way for a few weeks and then reassess how things felt sexually. It wasn't easy, but she made a concerted effort. I’m happy to report that she noticed a big difference. She felt calmer and generally more relaxed. She noticed it was easier to focus on the things that mattered. And, most importantly, she and Mark reconnected in a way they hadn’t for a very long time.

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Gazzaley, A. (2016). The distracted mind: Ancient brains in a high-tech world. The MIT Press.

Mark, G., Voida, S., & Cardello A. (2012). A pace not dictated by electrons: An empirical study of work without e-mail. Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems – Proceedings.

Newcombe, B. C. & Weaver, A. D. (2016). Mindfulness, cognitive distraction, and sexual well-being in women. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality. 25(2), 99-108.

Sherman, R. Personal communication. January 5th 2021.

Stephenson, K. R. & Welch, J. P. (2020). Statistical mediators of the association between mindfulness and sexual experiences in men with impaired sexual function. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 49(6)