Almost everywhere we look, we receive messages about the positive feelings we get from having sex.
Sexual activity (and the experience of an orgasm) releases oxytocin, "the cuddle hormone," which can make us feel closer and more emotionally connected to our partner. Having sex has also been found to boost our mood and even give life meaning.1 And the afterglow of having satisfying sex is found to promote greater well-being up to 48 hours later.2
However, there are some people who, after having consensual sex with someone they care for, report experiencing negative feelings; it's been termed "postcoital dysphoria."
Postcoital Dysphoria 101
Postcoital dysphoria (sometimes nicknamed "the post-sex blues") is a term used to describe a wide range of negative emotions that can follow desired sexual activity. That is, this term would not be applicable to the negative feelings we might feel after a regrettable one-night stand or sex that was coerced or non-consensual. Rather, postcoital dysphoria refers to feelings of sadness, irritability, agitation, anxiety, and depression that occur after having consensual sex with a partner whom we like or even love.
Who Experiences It?
Up until recently, the focus on postcoital dysphoria research has been on women. In one study of 230 college-aged women, researchers found that almost half of the women (about 46 percent) reported symptoms of postcoital dysphoria at least once in their life. And a much smaller, but still noteworthy number of women (5.1 percent) reported experiencing those symptoms over the previous four weeks.3 In another study of 222 female university students, 32.9 percent reported experiencing postcoital dysphoria at some point in their lives, while 10 percent reported those experiences occurring in the preceding four weeks.4
But recent research suggests that it may be a common experience among men as well. Specifically, in a 2018 study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, an analysis of more than 1,200 men found that 41 percent reported experiencing post-coital blues at least once over the course of their lifetime, 20 percent reported the experience at least once in the last four weeks, and just over 3 percent reported experiencing it on a regular basis.5
What Causes the Post-Sex Blues?
The literature on postcoital dysphoria is quite scarce. As a result, we currently only have a limited understanding of the underlying causes. However, the research to date suggests that genetics in addition to personal characteristics (such as higher emotional reactivity) and attachment style (specifically, anxious attachment and avoidant attachment) appear to play a role. It has also been found that a history of childhood sexual assault or trauma can be a predictor of life-long postcoital blues in some women.3 It is important to note that these factors are only found to account for a very small amount of the variance in postcoital dysphoria, meaning there are likely many other, and perhaps larger, explanations at play that have yet to be uncovered.
The experience of post-coital blues doesn't necessarily mean that the sex was bad, or that something is inherently wrong with your relationship (although, of course, if the sex was dissatisfying or painful, or you are doubting your relationship, it would make perfect sense to have some negative feelings after having sex with your partner).
Having sex can be a vulnerable act, and it may bring to the surface a number of hidden feelings and emotions. If you're feeling sad, irritable, anxious, or depressed after having sex, you may benefit from some self-reflection and/or meeting with a counselor or therapist to help understand what might be underlying those feelings for you.
1. Kashdan, T. B., Goodman, F. R., Stiksma, M., Milius, C. R., & McKnight, P. E. (2018). Sexuality leads to boosts in mood and meaning in life with no evidence for the reverse direction: A daily diary investigation. Emotion, 18, 563-567.
2. Meltzer, A., Makhanova, A, & Hicks, L. (2017). Quantifying the sexual afterglow: The lingering benefits of sex and their implication for pair-bonded relationships. Psychological Science, 28, 5, 587-598. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797617691361
3. Schweitzer, R., O'Brien, J. & Burri, A. (2015). Postcoital dysphoria: prevalence and psychological correlates. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 3, 4, 235-243.
4. Bird, B, Schweitzer, R. & Strassberg, D. (2011). The prevalence and correlates of postcoital dysphoria in women. International Journal of Sexual Health, 23:1, 14-25, DOI: 10.1080/19317611.2010.509689
5. Maczkowiack, J. & Schweitzer R. (2018). Postcoital Dysphoria: Prevalence and Correlates among Males. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. DOI: 10.1080/0092623X.2018.1488326