HEALTH

How Stress Affects Your Sex Life—And What To Do About It

You’re no doubt well aware of the fact that stress isn’t good for you. Unfortunately, stress doesn’t just impact your mindset—it can impact you physically as well. “Stress can wreak havoc on a person’s body,” women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, M.D., tells SELF. “It can affect many different body systems and do damage if a person is under chronic stress.” Chronic stress can even increase your cancer risk by weakening your immune system and leaving you prone to a range of diseases, the MD Anderson Cancer Center says.

If that doesn’t convince you that you need to try to chill out more on a regular basis, this might: Stress can have a big impact on your sex life, too. “Stress has the potential to impact us physically, emotionally, and relationally,” Rachel Needle, Psy.D., a sex therapist and licensed psychologist at the Center for Marital and Sexual Health of South Florida, tells SELF.

Stress’ attack on your libido is innate, licensed clinical psychologist Alicia H. Clark, Psy.D., tells SELF. “During times of stress, we need to survive, not procreate,” she says. Stress increases your body’s most important functions for survival, like blood flow and increased heart rate, while diminishing non-essential functions, like sex.

And, unfortunately, stress can attack your sex life on many levels. One of the biggest is via hormones. Chronic stress can cause your body to produce too much of the hormone cortisol, which can lower your libido, Wider says. That can also throw your menstrual cycle out of whack, which likely won’t put you in the mood, either. Stress even makes it harder to orgasm and can prevent a person from climaxing at all, Wider says.

The very act of being frazzled can take a direct hit on your sex life. “Your biggest sex organ is your brain,” Needle says. “If you have a ‘busy mind’ and are distracted during sex, it’s going to be harder to focus on your arousal, the pleasurable sensations, or orgasm.”

Stress can also impact your sex life indirectly. “The hormones produced when an individual is stressed can impact metabolism, which can in turn lead to [weight fluctuations],” Needle explains. “When you experience changes in your body, or don’t feel good about your body, you might be less likely to want to engage in sexual activity.”

Chronic stress may lead to depression and anxiety, and both conditions can get in the way of a healthy sex life. “Some people who feel stressed complain that they aren't in the mood to have sex at all,” Wider says. And, if you tend to drink more when you’re stressed, you can experience decreased vaginal lubrication to boot, Needle says.

Luckily, you can do something about this issue. Having a healthy outlet for your stress, like yoga, exercise, getting a massage, and even taking a bath can help, Needle says. “Make time for self-care,” she says. And, while some stress is normal, if you can pinpoint big stressors in your life, it's a good idea to do what you can to minimize them or eliminate them altogether, if possible.

Clark points out that being intimate with your partner actually can help reduce stress, so it’s a good idea to try to prioritize some kind of couple time during the day (you’re often exhausted at the end of the day, she notes). “The [feelings] produced from sex are natural defenses against stress—closeness, attachment, and feelings of calm—so making time and space for physical intimacy isn’t at all fruitless, even if stress levels are high,” she says.

If you've done all you can to get a handle on your stress but it's still affecting your life, don't be ashamed to seek out help from a doctor or mental health counselor—the results can change your life in a very positive way.