Your Sex Life & Your Stress Levels Go Hand-In-Hand — For Better And For Worse

Lately, it can feel like there are a million things to be stressed out about. From work to family to politics, there are constant pulls on your attention that can leave you feeling exhausted and drained. If you crawl into bed at night with your last drops of energy, it's a fair bet that sex is not on your mind. In fact, high-stress levels can lead to lower libido, erectile dysfunction, and even pain during sex making you less likely to even want to try.

In a recent survey, 76% of people said that the future of the country was a significant stressor, while 27% stated they were so stressed most days that they were unable to function in their daily lives. These large-scale societal stressors can be difficult to handle and are bound to affect a person's sex drive. With forgetfulness, concentration issues, and difficulty making decisions, it's no wonder that, for many, their sex lives have taken a back seat as they struggle to feel present during sex.

However, sex can also be a tried and true way to manage stress. With proven health benefits, sex can be a fun escape from the stress many of us are experiencing. So what do you do if sex is not on the menu? Or, even worse, what do you do if sex itself becomes your stressor?

How stress levels can impact sex

It's impossible to talk about your sex drive without first emphasizing how damaging chronic stress can be to your entire body. Rachel Needle, Psy.D., a sex therapist and licensed psychologist at the Center for Marital and Sexual Health of South Florida, told SELF, "Stress has the potential to impact us physically, emotionally, and relationally." Chronic stress can lead to serious health implications including heart disease, depression, and sleep problems. Stress causes your body to produce cortisol, a hormone that can help during a fight-or-flight situation but seriously harm you in an everyday capacity. Cortisol can suppress your immune system, digestive system, and even reproductive system. Plus, since your body is existing in a constant state of fight-or-flight, cortisol will affect your mood and fear responses which can be difficult to manage around the office, let alone in the bedroom.

Dr. Needle also said, "Your biggest sex organ is your brain. 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." All of this factors into your willingness and ability to have sex. With a host of physical and emotional symptoms, stress can have a powerful impact on your sex drive.

How sex can impact stress levels

There's a compelling school of thought that believes that sex can be the ultimate answer to stress. The act of having sex releases feel-good chemicals and hormones that can help you better manage stress. However, with sex comes the weight of other factors within a relationship, making it more complicated for some to use sex as a stress management tool. These conflicting methods of handling stress can lead to sex itself becoming the stressor in the first place instead of a solution. This is especially true if both parties are not in sync when it comes to their respective sex drives. If one partner is experiencing high levels of stress at work that leaves them exhausted and with a diminished sex drive, this can lead to conflict if their partner is wanting or expecting regular sex.

To make matters even more complicated, pressuring people into having sex when they aren't ready or interested is unethical, and can cause some to be even less interested than they were to begin with. This self-reinforcing cycle can lead to frustrations on both sides where, even if the other stress factors are mitigated, sex itself has become the stress-inducing problem. The good news is that it's fairly common for couples to deal with sexual problems at some point in their relationship, so remember that it's normal and there are ways to help.

Ways to manage stress and improve your sex life

Sex is meant to be an enjoyable experience for all parties involved. If there is a disconnect in frequency between members of a sexual relationship, start by talking it out. Since intimacy is a key factor in sexual desire, ensuring you take the time to maintain and strengthen your relationship can ultimately help make sex appealing to you (and/or your partner) again. Reducing your stress levels is another obvious place to start, but not always the easiest to implement. By identifying your stressors and knowing what elements of your life are particularly triggering, you can work to minimize their impact on you. The Mayo Clinic also suggests eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise to help reduce stess even further. 

For some, relaxation and mindfulness work can be beneficial for both improving intimacy and reducing stress. Try taking a yoga class, getting a massage, or trying meditation techniques. The most important thing you can do, and possibly the hardest, is reach out to your partner, friends, and/or family. Even when you feel overwhelmed, maintaining your relationships and openly communicating can help you feel in control, and probably lead to some much-needed laughter in the process. Lastly, sometimes you just need some extra help and that's ok — couples counseling and sex therapy can be a great way to communicate things you might not feel able to convey otherwise, and a great place to receive professional tips on managing your stress and sex life.