The pandemic has had a massive impact on every aspect of life, including our sex drives. Adapting to restrictions and lockdown has been stressful for many, and anxiety we know, is one of the main killers of libido. Sex therapy app Blueheart has reported a rise in a mindfulness technique called "sensate focus" that helps your mind zone in on what your body feels. But what is Sensate Focus? And how can it help you improve your sex life?
What Is Sensate Focus?
Sensate Focus is technique used in sex therapy, which was introduced by pioneering researchers William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson in the 1960’s. The intimacy technique trains the mind to focus on temperature, pressure, and texture, in order to block out any other thoughts that may distract you from pleasure.
Sex therapy app Blueheart has noted a key rise in people trying Sensate Focus – 12,000 people since March 2020 – which they attribute to the stress the last twelve months has brought about for many. Per mental health charity Mind, 60% of adults have said their mental health has gotten worse as a result of the pandemic.
“Sensate Focus is a great way for couples to manage the anxiety and stress the pandemic is having on their sex lives," explains Blueheart co-founder, Sachin Raoul. "It allows couples to reconnect at a pace that they’re both comfortable with. By practising Sensate Focus, couples become able to quell intrusive thoughts that might occur during sex, whether that’s about how they look, or other events that aren’t relevant to the moment, and instead focus on the feelings and sensations they’re experiencing."
Relationships therapist Peter Saddington explains that when you experience sexual difficulty or disconnect in the bedroom you may cut off physical touch altogether. Sensate focus is a gentle way to reintroduce that. "It's overcoming the barrier which may have developed as a result of sexual difficulty," he says.
How Does Sensate Focus Work?
Sensate Focus gives you the tools to focus in on the sensations you experience during intimacy and the way they make you feel.
While practicing Sensate Focus you might be asked to focus on what you can feel, hear, and smell. At the same time you learn to dispel negative thoughts from your mind or anything that may distract you from what you’re feeling. This focuses your mind on what’s happening to you in the present and can reduce stress and anxiety.
When you’re stressed your body releases cortisol. This is the hormone that puts you in fight or flight mode. It’s essentially useful as it protects you from dangerous situations. However, if you’re feeling high levels of stress over a long period of time then it can be detrimental to your sex drive. When you’re chronically stressed (stressed for a long period of time) you have a depletion of sex hormones as your body caters to the increase in cortisol.
“Stress is the number one killer of sex drive and the pandemic is a perfect storm of stress. With one Blueheart user having said their sex drive had been 'annihilated',” said Raoul, “High levels of financial stress, job insecurity and health anxiety have been the reality for many and this stress can cause a loss or drop in libido."
Being stressed for a long period of time can also leave you feeling exhausted. Over the last 11 months it’s likely that COVID-19 has occupied a lot of your emotional and mental capacity. It’s hardly surprising that it’s harder to feel sexy.
As Sensate Focus forces you to concentrate on your direct surroundings and what’s presenting happening, it can reportedly help people feel more connected. It’s also been used to treat pain during sex, anxiety surrounding intimacy, and desire and arousal disorders.
"Sensate focus boosts the bodies production of oxytocin and dopamine (feel good neurotransmitters) which can boost low mood and increase bonding," says sex and relationships therapist and sensate expert Jodie Slee, "Its also an affective way to work through sexual performance issues as it takes the attention away from then genitals, allowing participants to experience pleasure without the anxiety attached to goal-orientated sexual performance."
How To Practice Sensate Focus
Focusing on the link between your mind and body may sound awesome but in practice it can be hard to know where to begin. "Set aside periods of quality time of about an hour and a half: not when either partner is tired or late at night or ‘pushed for time’. Phone off hook, Doors locked, Children asleep or elsewhere," Slee suggests.
By creating an environment that's relaxing, decluttered, and quiet you'll be able to focus on what you're doing. She then suggests starting to touch your partner all over. "There is normally a ban on sexual intercourse to allow people to just experience the physical touch without the pressure for it to lead anywhere," she says, "If you're very anxious you can keep the more sexual parts of your body (breasts and genitals) off limits so there is no pressure to get turned on or for the session to lead anywhere."
If the prospect of touching your partner in silence sounds like a big step, Slee recommends beginning with your arms and legs before moving to more intimate areas. Like any intimate activity, Saddington outlines that no two people are the same and you should go at your own pace. The key to normalising sensate focus and intimate touch is by doing it regularly. He suggests three times a week.
"If you can't cope with the idea of being naked together then spend time holding hands. You could also stand and hug. Going for walks and holding hands is a good early step. If you feel able to move forward then give each other a back rub," Saddington says, "It's non-sexual but it gets you used to being vulnerable. It can feel pleasurable, comforting, and reassuring." He explains that you can do this for a set amount of time, ten minutes for example, so you know that it's intentional and will come to an end.