You think you’re all prepared for a night of intimacy with your current boo — but out of left field, stress about a work deadline strikes, and suddenly your desire plummets into the core of the earth. Anxiety can impact your sex drive, experts tell Bustle, because the body stops focusing on pleasure and goes into survival mode.
“When we are in an active state of anxiety, our body shuts off to anything it doesn’t immediately need,” Dr. Jamie Goldstein Psy.D., a psychotherapist and therapy experience lead at mental health app Coa, tells Bustle. The body’s threat response, known as the fight-or-flight reaction, ramps up when anxiety strikes, and prepares to flee, fight, or simply shut down altogether. “None of these translate well to feeling sexy.”
The fight-or-flight response kicks the brain into action, to focus on staying alive. “Your anxious body prioritizes creating stress hormones like cortisol at the expense of sex hormones like estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone,” Erica Zellner, a health coach at medical provider Parsley Health, tells Bustle. Those sex hormones are responsible for regulating your libido, and also help lubrication and arousal. People with anxiety who produce them in low quantities will feel correspondingly less willing to jump into bed.
Beyond this hormonal shift, anxiety can also make you feel less comfortable and relaxed. “Anxiety may prevent you from being present with your body,” Lynda Martin LMFT, head of sex therapy at relationship counseling app Lasting, tells Bustle. “It does this by hyper-focusing on performance or perceptions.” Anxiety may mean you keep running through your mental to-do list, or fixating on all the ways you feel you fall short sexually. Martin also notes that the fight-or-flight response can make all your muscles tense, which can result in discomfort and pain during sex.
All these conditions can lead to a libido-killing circle. “Being stuck in a cycle of criticism, or physically trying to avoid pain, is certainly going to prevent you from craving more sex, leaving you feeling deficient and making sex undesirable,” Martin says. The less you feel like sex when you’re in the throes of anxiety, the less you might want it in the future.
If you’re experiencing high levels of anxiety, Goldstein recommends taking steps to calm yourself before you try to feel sexual. “This can look like deep breathing, coming in for a nice long hug, or settling down for tea and conversation before our bodies are ready to think about sex,” she says. This communicates to the brain that you’re safe, fine, and can take deep breaths, and gradually lowers its threat response. Zellner recommends that you and your partner might try breathing together, which reduces your stress levels while also building intimacy. “You could try a technique called circular breathing, where one partner exhales while the other inhales,” she says. “Consider ways to connect with your partner that also calm your stress response.” Maybe that’s a massage, or even doing some yoga moves together.
Grounding yourself in the moment can also help your anxiety and make you feel more connected to your partner, Martin says. She recommends think about your senses and what helps you feel more connected to sex: a sound, a feel, maybe a look?” Connecting with your senses can create more attunement with your desires and away from the critic or to-do list in your head,” she says.
It’s also important to examine your own expectations, Martin says. “When you or your partner expect to just suddenly be in the mood, because that’s naturally what happens in ‘healthy relationships,’ you may be trying to override your own arousal cycles,” she says. Anxious people may put a lot of pressure on themselves to act ‘normally’, and end up making things worse. “It takes practice and strength in vulnerability to find your voice,” she says. “Use consent and communication to explore what brings you pleasure and connection.”
Dr. Jamie Goldstein Psy.D.
Lynda Martin LMFT