Just like late night parties, all-you-can-eat pizza, and cold hard cash, sex is considered one of life's greatest pleasures. And while more action is supposed to equal more happiness, that's definitely not always the case. The links between sex and mental health are complex, and depending on the situation, can work for or against one another.
There's a lot of hype about the ways sex can transform our harsh realities into fleshy fantasies. Take, for instance, that study which suggests having sex once a week (if you've previously been having it monthly) is enough to increase your wellbeing to the tune of $50,000. Apparently, if you're unable to get that raise, just get a partner in the sack instead to reproduce the feeling and you're good to go!
That said, feel-good hormones in the moment aren't often enough to impact your overall psychological wellness — and, let's be honest, the idea of well being or happiness drastically differs from person to person based upon your life circumstances and/or mental and physical make up. Sex and mental health can be positively correlated, they can be negatively correlated, and sometimes, they don't even correlate at all. Here are seven study-based links between the two:
1Masturbation Can Improve Mental Health
Self-esteem is a cornerstone of mental health, and solo sex offers it in spades. According to multiple studies on self-pleasure, not only does masturbation release the happy hormones that sex does, it can also have a positive impact on body image for women who indulge. So female masturbation stigma be damned, a little time spent getting intimate with yourself can go a long way to improve your headspace.
2BDSM Correlates With Mental Health
Although kinksters have historically been branded as mentally unwell deviants, new vindicating research shows a positive correlation between BDSM and good mental health. The study, published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, surveyed 902 BDSM practitioners and 434 vanilla participants, and found that the former group scored consistently higher on mental health measures. Kinky people reported higher states of well being than non-kinky people did, and they were also more open to new experiences, less neurotic, and more secure in their relationships, too. Vanilla folks have a lot to learn about wellness from their BDSM-loving contemporaries, it seems.
3Depression Can Decrease Your Sex Drive
If you've struggled with depression (or have dated someone who does) it should come as no surprise that it can put a major damper on your libido. Untreated depression can make sex feel like the last thing you'd ever want to do, and, paradoxically, treated depression can also do the same. Certain antidepressants are known to suppress sexual desire, which is sometimes — but not always — a small price to pay for gaining some control over this debilitating illness. However, thanks to a variety of options these days, there are medications that can make you feel more like yourself again and make you still want to hit the sheets.
4OCD Can Correlate With Hypersexuality
The stereotype of people suffering from OCD is that they're constantly washing their hands or counting cracks in the sidewalk. However, the illness is a lot more varied, and in some instances can correlate with hypersexuality. This can manifest as anything from a "dysfunctional preoccupation with sexual fantasy" to compulsive masturbation to sex addiction. But, like depression, there are a host of medications and methods out there to treat OCD, and alleviate unwanted symptoms — both sexual and not.
5Casual Sex Can Impact Your Mental Health
Casual sex has long been viewed as a one-way ticket to heartache and STIs — particularly for women. According to sex researcher Dr. Zhana Vrangalova, however, casual sex can impact your mental health in positive, negative, and mixed ways. Analyzing the responses of college students to their one off encounters, she found that those who hooked up for the "wrong reasons" (aka to avoid their feelings, to please someone else, or to get revenge, etc.) had lower self-esteem and higher levels of depression and anxiety. Those who hooked up for the "right reasons" (aka to try new things, or explore their sexuality) showed higher self-esteem and similar levels of depression, anxiety, and physical symptoms to those who didn’t have one nights stands at all.
The bottom line? How a hook up will impact your mental health has everything to do with your reasons for having it.
6Sex Can Ease Depression Symptoms
It's deeply, darkly ironic that depression can inspire a lack of desire for sex in some folks, when sex itself can help ease depression symptoms. Because depression is often caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, even a single sensual session can boost serotonin and oxytocin levels and bring a little bit of color to a grey state of mind — at least in the immediate aftermath.
7Sex Can Ease Anxiety Symptoms
Just as sex can ease depression symptoms, it can help ease anxiety symptoms too — although having anxiety in the first place can deter you from wanting to have sex. However, neuroscience has shown that orgasms literally shut down parts of the brain (hooray!) which can aid in shutting down the perseveration that goes hand in hand with chronic anxiety.
Sex may not be a one-size-fits-all fix to every psychological issue, it can influence how we measure our own mental health, and how we can go about improving it.