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Mindfulness Meditation Helps Resolve Many Sex Problems

Stress contributes to many sex problems. Mindfulness helps by reducing stress.

Great sex and meditation have a good deal in common. Several researchers have shown that one type of meditation, mindfulness, helps resolve several sex problems. It focuses practitioners' thoughts intently on the present moment.

The Sex-Meditation Connection

Both sex and meditation involve taking breaks from daily routines and responsibilities. Both include deep diaphragmatic breathing. Both encourage emptying the mind of extraneous thoughts and focusing attention on the present moment. And both help free the mind from daily hassles.

Meditators accomplish this by sitting quietly and focusing intently on their breath, or on a word or phrase (mantra), or on a simple activity (walking, slowly chewing one bite of food). Lovers free their minds by engaging in mutual erotic touch while focusing intently on one another (though they may fantasize about other partners). Both expand spiritual connections—meditators to the world around them, lovers to their partners. And after both, meditators and lovers emerge feeling calm and refreshed, better able to cope with life's challenges.

But emptying the mind isn’t easy. During both meditation and lovemaking, random thoughts—some possibly disturbing—inevitably dart in and out of consciousness. Meditation teachers urge students to accept their thoughts without judging them, no matter what the content. They say: “Your thoughts are not you. They’re like dreams. You can’t control them and are not responsible for them. Don’t judge your thoughts. Simply observe them, then let them go as you return to your breath, mantra, or mindfulness activity.”

Sex therapists concur, encouraging lovers to observe their erotic thoughts and fantasies non-judgmentally, no matter what their content, and then gently let go of them as lovers return to focusing on giving and receiving pleasure. Just as random thoughts during meditation don’t mean anything, neither do the vast majority of thoughts and fantasies during sex.

A head full of ideas

Bob Dylan’s song, “Maggie’s Farm,” includes the line: “I got a head full of ideas that are driving me insane.” Many people can identify. They have heads full of sexual beliefs that may not exactly drive them crazy, but do produce sufficient stress to cause problems. Stress/anxiety/worry triggers the fight-or-flight reflex that constricts the arteries in the central body, limiting blood flow to the gut and genitals and sending it out to the limbs for self-defense or escape. Reduced blood flow through the genitals compromises sexual responsiveness, function, and satisfaction. But deep relaxation, the kind produced by meditation, opens the arteries that supply blood to the genitals and enhances sexual function and pleasure.

In recent years, several sex researchers, notably Lori Brotto at the University of British Columbia, have harnessed the power of meditation to treat a broad range of sex problems:

Child sex abuse

A team led by Brotto enrolled 20 adult survivors of childhood sexual trauma in a program shown to aid recovery, CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy). CBT helped them reframe their stories away from the horror of abuse toward self-forgiveness and personal empowerment. Half the group also learned mindfulness meditation and practiced it daily. After one month, both groups reported less sexual distress, but the mindfulness group reported greater relief and better sexual functioning.

Low libido

Another Brotto team recruited 117 low-desire women. Forty-nine were placed on a waitlist. The rest participated in three 90-minute classes over six weeks that discussed the causes of low libido and offered instruction in mindfulness meditation. Between classes, the women practiced mindfulness daily at home. After six months, the treatment group reported significantly greater desire, arousal, and lubrication, easier orgasms, and greater satisfaction.

Investigators at Willamette University in Oregon analyzed 11 studies of mindfulness involving 449 women who complained of low libido and arousal and orgasm difficulties. “All aspects of sexual function and well-being—exhibited significant improvement.”

Erectile dysfunction (ED)

A third Brotto team enrolled 10 men suffering erection difficulties in a four-week mindfulness-based treatment program that included information about ED, counseling, and mindfulness meditation practiced in therapy sessions and daily at home. Most of the men reported significant improvement.

Men in distress because of their porn consumption

Creighton University investigators took 38 men who were convinced they were porn addicts to a rustic retreat center for eight days. They spent 32 hours in cognitive-behavioral therapy. During CBT sessions, the researchers endeavored to correct participants’ sexual misconceptions, such as:

  • Sexual thoughts and fantasies are wrong, harmful, and sinful.
  • Only bad people masturbate.
  • My porn watching proves I'm evil.

The therapists endeavored to correct those mistaken beliefs:

  • There’s nothing wrong with sexual thoughts and fantasies. Everyone has them. They’re perfectly normal and a key element of great sex.
  • Almost everyone masturbates, particularly men who feel stressed. Unless it interferes with life responsibilities or partner lovemaking, there’s nothing wrong with it, even frequently, even daily.
  • Virtually every Internet-connected man on Earth has seen porn, many frequently, some daily. Viewing it doesn't make you evil. Porn is a cartoon version of men’s fantasies of effortless sexual abundance.

The researchers also taught participants mindfulness meditation, which they practiced several times a day. After the retreat, their sexual anxiety and porn viewing decreased significantly.

Breaking vicious cycles

Anxiety contributes to many sexual problems. That’s why “Am I normal?” is one of the most common questions sex experts get. Many people feel nervous about their fantasies, bodies, libidos, sexual repertoire, and ability to negotiate functional sexual relationships. That nervousness causes stress, which, as mentioned, impairs sexual desire and function.

When sex experts correct people’s misconceptions, sometimes that’s all that is necessary to resolve their issues. But quite often, sexual issues cause chronic stress not relieved just by learning the truth. Sometimes, people need the truth plus tools to relieve their sexual stress. That’s where mindfulness and other relaxing activities help: deep breathing, hot baths, massage, yoga, tai chi, dance, hiking, and other exercises. They break the vicious cycle of stress-dysfunction-more stress-worse dysfunction and replace it with refreshing calmness.

Sex unfolds most pleasurably when people feel calm, centered, and focused on pleasure—their own and their partners’. Even those free of sex problems can benefit from deep relaxation. For more, search: mindfulness, meditation, or the relaxation response.

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Bossio, J.A. et al. “Mindfulness-Based Group Therapy for Men with Situational Erectile Dysfunction: A Mixed-Methods Feasibility Analysis and Pilot Study,” Journal of Sexual Medicine (2018) 15:1478.

Brotto, L.A. et al. “Pilot Study of a Brief Cognitive Behavioral Versus Mindfulness-Based Intervention for Women with Sexual Distress and a History of Childhood Sexual Abuse,” Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy (2012) 38:1.

Brotto, L.A. et al. “Pilot Study of a Brief Cognitive Behavioral Versus Mindfulness-Based Intervention for Women with Sexual Distress and a History of Childhood Sexual Abuse,” Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy (2012) 38:1.

Brotto, LA. et al. “Mindfulness-Based Sex Therapy Improves Genital-Subjective Arousal Concordance in Women with Sexual Desire/Arousal Difficulties,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2016) 45:1907.

Brotto, L.A. and R. Basson. “Group Mindfulness-Based Therapy Significantly Improves Sexual Desire in Women,” Behavior Research and Therapy (2014) 57:43.

Brotto, L.A. et al. “A Mindfulness-Based Group Psychoeducational Intervention Targeting Sexual Arousal Disorder in Women,” Journal of Sexual Medicine (2008) 5:1646.

Hallberg, J. et al. “A Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Group Intervention for Hypersexual Disorder: A Feasibility Study,” Journal of Sexual Medicine (2017) 14:950.

Patterson, L.Q. et al. “A Pilot Study of Eight-Session Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Adapted for Women’s Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder,” Journal of Sex Research (2017) 54:850.

Patterson, L.Q. et al. “A Pilot Study of Eight-Session Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Adapted for Women’s Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder,” Journal of Sex Research (2017) 54:850.

Stephenson, K.R. et al. “Effects of Mindfulness-Based Therapies for Female Sexual Dysfunction: A Meta-Analytic Review,” Journal of Sex Research (2017) 54:832.

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