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Andrew Goliszek Ph.D.

The Stress-Sex Connection

How to prevent stress from ruining your sex life.

Sex is a great way to relieve stress. The benefits include release of endorphins and other hormones that elevate mood. It's also great 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. You're 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:

  • Communicate your fears and desires. Sexual problems will lead to loneliness and hostility if you don’t share your feelings with the person you’re with. Since the majority of sexual problems starts in the brain, and are typically the result of stress or anxiety, any treatment has to begin with both partners in it together. Simply sharing the anxiety, stress, and depression with someone is often enough for recovery.
  • Use special techniques to help eliminate sexual problems. There are numerous resources available that address the causes of sexual problems and their cures. Techniques such as Kegel exercises, sensate focus technique, and stop-start technique are very effective in helping couples work through their problems, because in many cases, sexual dysfunction is the result of weakened pubic muscles, sensitivity problems, or spectatoring (the act of watching or imagining yourself fail in what you’re doing). If you can’t solve your problem on your own, sex experts are there to help.
  • Exercise regularly. People who exercise on a regular basis have better stamina and much better sex lives. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, physical exercise stimulates the release of hormones and triggers physiological reactions that boost libido. Secondly, the emotional awareness of being healthy and fit gives one a better outlook on life and translates into a better sex life. And thirdly, regular exercise stimulates growth of blood vessels and increases blood flow, which naturally leads to enhanced blood flow to genital areas.
  • Take supplements to boost energy and libido. Certain vitamins, minerals, and herbs have been shown to increase libido, as well as keep the reproductive system in good working order. B-complex vitamins and vitamin E are important, as is zinc. In recent studies, the amino acids arginine and citrulline, in addition to lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, helped improve erection by helping the body produce nitric oxide, which increases blood flow to the penis.
  • Use stress relievers. Use meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, laughter, and progressive muscle relaxation to reduce stress and tension. You’ll be surprised at what just 10 minutes a day of relaxation will do for your mindset and libido.
  • Get enough sleep. As we’ve seen, sleep is critical for health. It’s also important for a good sex life because it reduces stress and keeps the immune system healthy. If you can’t get your normal eight hours a night, try power napping and see what that does for your energy and your sex drive.
  • Set the mood. Getting in the mood for sex is not as easy as turning on a light switch. Some of the best mood-setters are soothing music, aromas from scented candles that stimulate the senses, lighting that provides a romantic atmosphere, and massage, which triggers the relaxation response and induces emotional well-being.
  • If all else fails, consult a physician. Recent advances in medicine have produced astonishing success in treating sexual dysfunction. Viagra, Levitra, and Cialis, for example, have a greater than 80 percent success rate. Today, unless a man has complications that prevent him from ever achieving a normal erection, there’s no reason why a simple prescription can’t improve anyone’s sex life.

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.

About the Author

Andrew Goliszek, Ph.D., is a professor at North Carolina A&T State University. He studies how the mind can heal the body.

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