Society has historically stigmatized both sex and mental health, but recently, work has been done to have more open conversations about both topics. As we fight the stigma around them, it is necessary to talk about the prominent and deep link between sex and mental health.
Many of us are taught about sex in high school — with some programs being more effective than others — but one thing that sex education usually glosses over is that sex is also a matter of the mind. Positive emotions — whether they are obtained through sex or not — help boost pleasure and satisfaction, while negative emotions such as stress can reduce these beneficial effects.
When it comes to mind-body connections, changes in one area directly influence the other. And just as mental health can impact your sex life, your sex life can also impact your mental health. A good sex life can positively impact your mental health by boosting serotonin or promoting better sleep, among other effects.
Mental health issues can impact sex life
For all genders, thoughts and feelings play a role in arousal and sex. For instance, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, and substance use can affect a person’s ability to experience pleasure during sex. Moreover, anxiety and depression can make it more difficult for people to have good sex lives.
Anxiety disorders affect 4.6 per cent of the Canadian population, and most people face general feelings of anxiety or stress from time to time. An anxious mind prevents you from relaxing or experiencing pleasure in the moment.
In the domain of sex, anxiety can reduce libido because anxiety causes a rise in levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, which can affect the desire for sexual activity. Anxiety can also make people insecure about their bodies, which can prevent them from enjoying sex as they spend most of their time fixated on how they appear to their partner. This fixation can restrict a person’s ability to be fully emotionally and physically present in the moment. Having sex when you’re anxious can be overwhelming for your mind.
However, the more anxious among us need not be disheartened. Data also seems to show that, for some people, anxiety can increase libido. Furthermore, there are ways to prevent anxiety from affecting your sex life. Engaging in self-exploration and mindfulness activities, such as meditation and yoga, can reduce anxious feelings. Communication with your partner can also be a tremendous step to calming your anxious mind.
Major depressive disorders can also have severe effects on sex, including erectile dysfunction and an increased risk of sexual pain. Major depression affects about 5.4 per cent of Canadians, and about one per cent of Canadians suffer from bipolar disorder. To reduce negative effects on sex, people with depression should talk to their provider about the potential side effects of any medication they are taking, whether there may be alternatives, and consider working through their depression with a therapist.
Overall, struggling with mental illness can affect a person’s self-esteem and how they view themselves physically. A generally distressed state can also impact your ability to feel pleasure and enjoy sex.
One of the best things you can do in these situations is to educate yourself on the relationship between mental well-being and sex. We must also encourage and practise sex positivity — an attitude toward consensual sex that sees it as healthy and pleasurable rather than shameful. Sex positivity is an important first step to acknowledging the impact of mental illness on pleasure.
Healthy sex life, happy mind
However, the relationship between mental health and sex goes both ways: just as good mental health can improve sex, a good sex life can promote a healthy mind.
To understand the impact of sex on your mental health, you should know which hormones sex produces. In response to sexual stimulation, your body releases dopamine, which elicits feelings of enjoyment. Endorphins and oxytocin are two other feel-good hormones that are released during sex, activating pleasure centres in the brain and causing relaxation. Oxytocin can increase trust and induce feelings of longing toward our partners, which can make us feel more connected to them. Sex can also boost serotonin, which is linked to improved moods.
While we previously discussed how anxiety and depression can negatively affect sex, sex can also work to improve anxiety and depression. The feel-good hormones and chemicals released during sex can reduce feelings of anxiety and depression by increasing your relaxation and boosting your mood. While sex is not a cure, and emotions elicited during sex are only temporary, the hormones it releases can help you feel relaxed and get sleep more easily — and as we all know, better sleep has positive effects on mental and physical health.
Mental well-being and sex form a cycle of pleasure: what is good for mental health promotes a good sex life, which, in turn, can boost mental health. As we continue to become more open about our mental health troubles and our sexualities, we must also continue discussing and educating ourselves about this cycle. Sex is a matter of the mind — it’s important beyond pleasure.
Shreya Vanwari is a second-year psychology student at Woodsworth College.