Stress has a huge impact on our sex lives. It changes everything from the initial desire to have sex, through to arousal and ultimately the ability to orgasm.
For most people, sex negatively impacts all these things. So, one of my readers wants to know, how can we reduce the impacts of stress on our physical intimacy:
Jay, I just read your last post “Can my wife get addicted to sex toys?” and is spot on in my opinion. In your post you mentioned:”…(which tends to affect your libido and arousal), some stress from so many kids (which produces cortisol which inhibits dopamine and nitric oxide, which is necessary for arousal), and some lack of sleep, which is also bad for libido and arousal.”My wife and I have gone through seasons where our sex drives have gone up and down because of factors like stress and lack of sleep. I’d be VERY interested in the science behind how stress and other life events affect libido and what we can do to overcome them or minimize their effects. I’m sure many young couples with children would benefit from that knowledge.Thanks for all you do.
So, here are five ways you can reduce the negative impacts of stress on your sex life.
1. Have sex earlier in the day
I know, we’ve been conditioned, especially in Christianity, to believe that sex should only be done under the cover of night. This is a throw-back to when sex was considered to be sinful and thus improper to be done in the light of day. After all, you might see your spouse naked and be aroused, and we certainly can’t have that.
The truth is that chemically, night is about the worst time to have sex.
Cortisol (the stress hormone) is at its peak at night. This is true for men and women, but this tends to effect women more. The entire day’s worth of stress has been building to this point and now you’re about as stressed as you’re going to be. This stress reduces your ability to utilize dopamine and nitric oxide (as mentioned in the reader’s questions), which are both required for arousal and ultimately orgasm.
Testosterone is at it’s lowest at this time as well, which tends to affect men more. Free (unattached) testosterone is regenerated through the night and depletes during the day. This testosterone is what’s needed for stamina, erections and the drive to initiate a sexual encounter.
Energy levels also deplete during the day, and so, again, night time is the worst time to try and call on those reserves in order to have a really good passionate and sweaty encounter. It’s hard to get all worked up when you have no energy to work up anymore, right?
So, when is the best time? Well, research shows that for men, first thing in the morning tends to be. High testosterone and energy reserves gives them exactly what they need. For women, it tends to be in the afternoon. There isn’t the looming stress of “what the day will bring”, but neither is the full weight of they settled down on them yet. However, afternoon sex is generally hard to come by if you have children, and morning is still better for women than night, on average.
Give morning sex a try and see how it works out. You might be surprised.
2. Don’t ignore your health
One of the keys to dealing with sex optimally is to have good health. Our bodies have been designed by an amazing creator to deal with whatever stress throws at us. That said, it does that best when we treat our bodies well. God originally designed us to eat only live plants, get plenty of exercise caring for the garden and lots of sunshine.
Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. – Genesis 1:29
Unfortunately in our culture, we tend to eat too much meat, processed food, exercise little (if at all) and rarely see the sun. This is not the best way to deal with stress. In fact, it compounds the stress in our body. It’s a terrible cycle. Stress can negatively impact your metabolism, which makes you gain weight, feel sluggish and generally feel bad about your body. So, you don’t want to exercise. This in turn creates more stress, lowers our ability to deal with it, and kicks the cycle over again.
So, try to eat more live plants (fresh fruits and vegetables), drink more water (very important!), get out and exercise, even if it’s just a walk around the block, and make sure you get sunshine every day. Take a walk at lunch if you have no other time.
3. Recognize that you’re stressed and talk about it
One of the problems with stress is that parts of our brain shut down to deal with it. Stress is a good thing. God put it there so we could survive an encounter with a lion or anything else life-threatening. Our brain automatically prioritizes the most important aspects for survival. You know what doesn’t make the cut? Social interactions.
When we’re stressed, we’re preparing for a fight, to run for our life, or to play dead. And guess what people do in relationships when they’re stressed: They lash out, run away or shut down.
Talking through the stress accomplishes two things:
Firstly, it can help close the stress cycle. Our bodies are designed to handle stress in a particular fashion. In the case of a lion, we get stressed, in order to either fight or run away or play dead until the lion gets bored. But eventually either we kill the lion, escape the lion or the lion leaves. We feel safe even, and the stress cycle is done.
But in our lives, we don’t often exercise that whole cycle. We feel stress, and then we pile on more stress. And then some more. The lion never stops chasing us. It’s always there. It’s not a lion anymore, it’s debt, or deadlines, or worry about our children, or anything else. We live in a state of chronic stress. Somehow we need to learn to end the cycle, to restart it. We’re going to feel stressed again, and that’s okay, but at some point we need to return to that feeling of safety so we can close the loop and reset.
Talking through it and processing can help do that.
Secondly, talking helps our spouses understand that we’re under a lot of stress and gives them a heads up to give us a bit more grace than usual. We also need to give ourselves permission to give ourselves some more grace than usually as well. They (and we) need to know that when we lash out, run away or shut down, it’s not because of them. It’s because we don’t feel safe and need help getting back to safety.
4. Get more sleep
I know, this is a hard one. I get it, believe me. We’ve had either newborns or toddlers in our house for 11 years now. We can probably count on a hand the number of solid night’s sleeps we’ve gotten in that time.
If you’re having trouble, set a bedtime for yourselves, and do your best to stick to it. During the years where that wasn’t possible, I did my best to try to let my wife nap during the afternoon, because she needed more sleep than I did.
Sleep helps release stress and thus lowers the impact of stress. As well, a rested mind doesn’t need to sacrifice as many high-brain functions to deal with the stressful situation. Find ways to get more sleep, or better sleep, even if it involves naps.
5. Make sex a priority
Here’s the difficult one. For 90% of the population, stress decreases desire. However, for most people, sex decreases stress. The problem is that our culture teaches us not to have sex unless we’re “in the mood”. This is one of the worst lies married people can be taught. From movies and TV shows, we learn that sex drives are proactive and often spontaneous, but the truth is that almost everyone has a reactive component to their sex drives as well. In fact some men, and most women, only have that reactive component most of the time.
What does that mean? Just because you don’t feel like having sex now, doesn’t mean you won’t feel like it once you get started. Especially if you’re feeling stressed. Because stress sort of makes the gas pedal on your sex drive a bit sluggish. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t work, it just means you may need a bit more input than usual. It might take a bit longer for the engine to warm up as well, and that’s okay. Doesn’t mean you should give up just because it’s going to be a bit more difficult.
Sex decreases cortisol levels and also helps in a bunch of other ways. It also produces dopamine which can help combat depression, which often either contributes or is a result of stress. As well, oxytocin released during sex actually has repetitive properties that helps fix the physical damage to our systems caused by high stress levels. Cool, right?
Having trouble giving in to sex? Ask for a massage first. That will help decrease the stress levels, hopefully enough to make starting sex possible. But, you have to give your spouse permission to arouse you, and give yourself permission to lean into it.
So, there you have it. Five ways to limit the negative impacts of stress on your sex life. Want to know more about how stress impacts your arousal, check out our free book Where did my sex drive go?