Mental Health in Bed: Sex and Stress

stress impact on sex

Picture this: You’re in bed with your significant other, and things are getting hot and heavy. You’re kissing each other, taking your clothes off, touching each other, and then —a memory from your workday flashes through your head. You can practically hear your naggy boss listing off all the things you need to get done. Next thing you know, you’re stressed — all you can think about are your feelings of stress. You feel it in your body and soul. You’re wondering how you’re going to get everything finished in time, and contemplating going in early tomorrow morning. 

Suddenly, sex is the last thing on your mind, even when it’s right in front of you. 

Stress, no matter the cause, has a tendency to spill over into other aspects of our lives. It can make us irritable, anxious, or upset — and it’s notorious for killing sex drives. 

Stress and Your Sex Life

Sex is an important aspect of relationships, and if you’re experiencing a much lower desire to have sex than your partner — because you’re so stressed out — it can put a strain on your relationship. 

Some people are able to deal with stress in healthy ways and compartmentalize their feelings, and leave thoughts of work responsibilities at work. But many others find that stress completely consumes their mind, at all hours of the day, in totally inappropriate situations. It can be hard to think about anything else — even good things — when you’re consumed with stress. It’s no wonder thoughts about sex can be unintentionally placed on the back burner., 

Aside from your mind being occupied by stressful thoughts, studies have shown that the stress hormones released by the body are linked to sex drive. The more stressed out we are, the more stress hormones our body releases, and therefore the more likely we are to have a lower sex drive. A low sex drive isn’t the only effect stress can have on the body; as you may have experienced yourself, stress can also lead to a slew of physical symptoms, including fatigue, headaches, upset stomach, and insomnia. 

Effects of stress on your body

“When you’re stressed, you may feel physically unwell,” says Talkspace provider Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D., LPCC-S. “You may not feel much responsive or spontaneous desire for sex. It’s also possible that you may simply feel like sex is one more thing that you need to add to your to-do list. All of these things can contribute to a general feeling of overall unsexiness and disinterest in sexual activity.”

Ways to de-stress before sex

If you find yourself lacking libido, being very “in your head” during sex, or constantly putting the brakes on, it can be very beneficial to take some time to purposefully destress before sex. 

“Try to have some sort of clear demarcation between a stress-filled day and the rest of your day,” says O’Neill. “For example, if you’ve had a stressful workday, try to take a bit of time to decompress from that before transitioning into the next part of your day. That could be something as simple as a shower or a bath, or maybe just a few minutes of calm and focused breathing.” 

Allowing yourself this intentional time for self care can really make a difference in the way you feel for the rest of the night. Do something that’s relaxing and enriching for you — something that’ll bring down stress levels and simply make you feel good. This can benefit your daily routine, regardless of whether sex is in the picture or not. 

Additionally, you could do something relaxing that doubles as some sensual foreplay with your partner. O’Neill says, “The use of massage or paired breathing techniques can be a great way to make stress relief something you do together, and it might serve as a precursor to ramping up that sexual desire!”

If part of your stress is due to feeling pressure to have sex with your partner so that you don’t “lose” them or because you don’t want to upset them, be sure to communicate this with them. Speak openly and honestly so your partner can understand where you’re coming from, and then you can work through it together.

Keeping stress out of bed

Even if you’re relaxed before sex, it’s possible that stress can still kill the vibe. Your mind might wander to work, finances, health — you name it. To prevent this, you’ll want to work on your skill of being present and in the moment. This is something you can work on both in and out of the bedroom. 

Practicing mindfulness — which, put very simply, is basically a state of being fully present and aware — is something that can certainly pay off. Various studies have proven that mindfulness can reduce stress and anxiety.

O’Neill recommends taking mindful pauses throughout the day, they can even be as short as five minutes. Take this time to check in with yourself, breathe deeply, and notice how you’re feeling physically and mentally. 

“You can incorporate mindfulness during sexual activity, too,” says O’Neill. “This can include things like being really focused on your senses and really focused on experiencing what’s happening in the moment. The use of mindfulness practices during sex really allows you to be fully immersed in the experience — which means those intrusive thoughts or worries or concerns that have happened throughout the day are not at the forefront of your mind and thus, aren’t standing in the way of you experiencing pleasure.” Basically, it means really being in the moment for these sensual experiences. 

When to seek help 

It’s totally normal for sex drive to fluctuate throughout your life, whether day to day or even year to year. Everyone’s different. However, if a low sex drive is unusual for you, it’s been a while, and this issue is really affecting your quality of life, it’s time to seek help from a mental health professional. You might also want to see a general doctor to assess physical symptoms you’re experiencing and ensure a medical conditions isn’t contributing to your low libido. 

“If it feels like trying to facilitate stress reduction or mindfulness on your own hasn’t been super successful, it could be a good invitation to seek out some professional help,” says O’Neill. “Also, if you’re really feeling stuck in your ability to enjoy sex, find time for sex, or just feel connected during sexual activity then it can be just a great opportunity to talk about it with a mental health professional.”

Chances are, if stress is affecting your sex life, it’s probably negatively affecting other aspects, too. Taking control of your life and working towards making positive changes to reduce your stress levels will benefit your day-to-day and mental health as a whole — not just enhance your sex life — although, that’s an absolutely delightful bonus. 

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