Sex is sometimes a taboo subject. As young adults, women-identifying vulva-owners often begin to explore their sexuality in an attempt to understand both their mental and psychological response to intimacy with a partner. For many, libido and desire continue to grow and expand throughout adulthood until naturally occurring life changes, such as pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause impact sexual function. For others, new or ongoing mental health challenges at any stage in their sexual development can hinder a sexual relationship’s positive aspects. We may sometimes not feel as comfortable sharing our mental health struggles. Given the effects mental health can have on our libido, it is important to understand how the two are related.
Sex and Mental Health
While the physical effects of sex are, at least for the most part, well highlighted, how sex affects our brains are often not given the same spotlight. The truth is that sex and our emotional well-being are so intertwined that one (or lack of one) has a significant impact on the other. This does not mean someone with a high sex drive is the pinnacle of mental health, nor does it signify the opposite. However, it does point to the importance of understanding one of the primary reasons we may experience a decline in sex drive. Some mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety can cause us to distance ourselves from intimate partners because of how symptoms translate to sexual desire; more on that topic to follow.
Sexual activity can also provide positive benefits to all facets of life. Whether physical or emotional intimacy (with a partner or on your own), sex can improve our mental health. Like exercise, sex can help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression and increase happiness, memory, and emotional satisfaction.
Does Not Having Sex Affect Your Mental Health?
Over the years, several studies have aimed to tackle the question of whether sex is beneficial for mental health and whether abstinence directly relates to an elevated risk for negative emotional states. In other words, does a lack of physical intimacy directly connect to an increase in mental health symptoms? Does sex help reduce the occurrence of new or worsening depression, anxiety, or stress? In short, the answer may be yes. Although more research is needed, some studies indicate ongoing abstinence can be directly linked to an increased incidence of depression and anxiety in women.
Benefits of Regular Sex for Mental Health
As studies have shown that regular sex and mental health are intrinsically linked, you may be asking what some of the benefits of regular sex for your mental health may be. Regular sex can help with improved sleep, increased physical activity, and better cardiovascular health. Sex also benefits the brain. For example:
- Improved Memory – Several studies have shown that sexual activity promotes cell growth in the hippocampus, the area of the brain that controls long-term memory function.
- Reduced Stress – There is a growing body of evidence that indicates how sexual intimacy with your partner can help with stress. Physical intimacy triggers the release of several “feel good” chemicals in the brain, including dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins. After orgasm, other hormones are released. Combined, these help to reduce stress, increase motivation, and elevate your sense of relaxation.
Mental Disorders and Sex Drive
Women-identifying vulva-owners are twice as likely to experience depression and anxiety. If one considers this statistic, it is easier to understand how women may also struggle with more frequent changes in libido due to common mental disorders.
Depression and Libido
A significant and noticeable decrease in sex drive that differs from simply “not being in the mood” may be a sign of depression for women. Women who struggle with depression often struggle to participate in or enjoy activities that typically bring them pleasure – including sex. Depression affects libido because depression often reduces energy and self-esteem, increasing one’s negative perspective of themselves or their partner. All of these factors contributed to lower sex drive. Also, as women age, certain physical changes can make sex less enjoyable and sometimes painful. Lower estrogen levels can impact natural lubrication, and changes to the vagina can make the act of sex unpleasant. Lack of sex due to these unavoidable but treatable physical changes can also impact depression and libido.
Anxiety and Libido
Anxiety and the fear and panic associated with it can do a lot to inhibit your libido. The overwhelming emotional symptoms that accompany anxiety easily overpower the desire or ability to get or stay “in the mood.” Panic and worry can also increase the production of stress hormones that make you feel on edge and unable to relax. In these moments, feeling and being present physically and emotionally in a sexual way is nearly impossible.
Anxiety can inhibit your ability to be honest with your partner about what feels good, and it can silence your voice and ability to ask for what you want in bed. Also, some women-identifying vulva-owners experience anxiety unique to past experiences. In these cases, sex can be triggering, and without realizing it, you may avoid sex or any form of intimacy. This can quickly put a strain on your relationship with your partner, your libido, and your overall well-being.
Can Sex Help with Anxiety and Depression?
An ongoing struggle with anxiety or depression may place sex on the back burner. However, understanding the psychological and mental health benefits of sex can help it become a useful tool for enhancing your health in every way.
- Our physiological responses to sex can minimize the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
- Having sex can increase essential hormone levels in the body. This can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, including irritability, exhaustion, and difficulty sleeping.
- Sex increases the release of epinephrine, oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine – all of which are linked to mood, well-being, and behavior.
Mental health struggles, such as depression and anxiety can quickly lead to little or no sex drive. For the reasons above, and a host of others, the reduction in the desire to be intimate when your mind is racing or you feel emotional turmoil is entirely understandable. Intimacy is crucial at any age. A healthy sexual relationship improves your emotional and physical health in many ways. For this reason, if you experience a loss of desire, it is vital to openly and honestly communicate your needs and emotions with your partner.
In some cases, seeking assistance from a mental health provider to address your emotional needs is essential for ongoing health. Once your depression or anxiety has been addressed, other helpful solutions may include looking for ways to change up the “norm” in the bedroom or talking to a sex therapist about ways to improve your libido may help. Please remember that you are not alone in your struggle. Depression and anxiety can limit your libido, but they don’t have to lock it away.