By Emerson Karsh-Lombardo
When you understand how your mental health, relationships, and sexual health intersect, you can create an intentional life that you want, not a life someone else thinks you should have. Here are 5 ways our sexual health and mental health are related.
Do you know that feeling? Butterflies fluttering around your tummy when you are excited to see someone? Maybe you have felt that deep pit in your stomach before a difficult conversation. After experiencing heartbreak, have you ever grabbed your chest to stop the physical aching of your heart?
The mind-body connection manifests in many ways. Our body has physical reactions that are sometimes in line with how we feel, and sometimes completely indifferent to how we feel or what we want.
Despite the inconsistent nature of these intersections, mental and sexual health are not independent of one another. Instead, they intersect in unique and distinct ways for every single person. As I’ve said in workshops, your mental health, relationships, and sexuality intertwine in ways they can only for you. If we can tap into this insight about ourselves, we can actively engage in creating a better life while getting to know our minds and our bodies better.
To Dismiss One Is To Dismiss Both
When our mental health is affected, our sex life is affected. The connection between these parts of our lives is undeniable, and inseparable. Even if we tried to ignore our mental health within our sex lives, this denial would only belabor the inevitable overlap of these two areas. We may dismiss past traumas, poor communication and/or insecurities about our bodies as “solely” mental health concerns, yet these exact issues have the ability to hamper our sex life. If mental health concerns are not addressed, they can quickly impede one’s ability to be present in intimate settings.
This does not mean that therapy is a quick fix to “cure” PTSD or body dysmorphia. Instead, by committing to improve our mental health, we can consciously bring our sexual health along for the ride. We are holistic beings. Oftentimes, when one area of our health is suffering, the other area soon follows. The good news is, this connection works the other way too! Meaning, when you start working on one area of health, you can simultaneously better another area of health. Mental and sexual health are connected, let’s get empowered by understanding how they may connect for you.
Sex, Libido, and Stress Walk Into a Bar…
Let’s not beat around the bush, sex is a great way to relieve stress. In fact, sex releases similar hormones that a runner’s high does. One roadblock you might run into during these crazy covid times is that stress often decreases our libido. A lot has changed since the coronavirus pandemic. Since its onset, balancing work and home life has been trickier than ever. Between busy schedules and endless multitasking, when is the last time you stopped to think about how you’re feeling? For many, their libido has gone down as days in isolation have gone up. This is especially true in cases of untreated chronic stress.
If this is you, you are not alone.
Excessive amounts of the stress hormone, cortisol, can lower your body’s libido. When we are able to identify our own stress, we give ourselves the power to do something about it. While it may not be possible to control the source of stress, it is possible to mindfully engage in healthy coping mechanisms. Intentionally and mindfully using sex (especially sex with ourselves!) as a resource to relieve stress is not just healthy, it’s doctor-approved!
As Planned Parenthood explains in an article about the benefits of masturbation, orgasms release endorphins. Thanks to this feel-good chemical, orgasms can act as a natural painkiller and help manage stress. Adding a romantic night with yourself or a trusted partner to your self-care toolbox is highly recommended. Stress can hold back your sex life, but your sex life also has the ability to hold back your stress. This dynamic exchange between mind and body emphasizes the indisputable connection between sexual and mental health.
Consent and Arousal
It is as important as ever to receive active, enthusiastic, and ongoing consent when engaging in sexual activity with a partner or partners. The human body has an intricate communication system within itself to mediate between what the mind is thinking and what the body is doing. This system is so intricate, that there are whole areas of science dedicated to its study. When the body becomes physically aroused, it is not an expression of consent. This is crucial to understand in order to engage in safe, consensual sexual experiences. Acclaimed sex therapist Casey Tanner (@queersextherapy) discussed this common misconception in an Instagram post on February 15th, 2021, “The body sometimes experiences arousal, even when the mind is not turned on.
This is one element of a concept called arousal non-concordance, and is essential in understanding the nuanced dynamic of consent.” As Tanner explains, physical arousal can occur as a protection mechanism for victims of assault or rape. Again, this physical reaction does not equal consent. On the other hand, our bodies sometimes have difficulty expressing physical arousal when we actively want to have sex.
We can be mentally stimulated without displaying signs of physical stimulation (this is called arousal non-concordance, which Dr. Emily Nagoski talks a lot about in Come as You Are). In these times, we can help our bodies get there by extending kindness and patience to ourselves. Judgment gets us nowhere. When it comes to sexual arousal, having the mental toolkit to manage our expectations can positively affect our sexual experiences.
Performance and Pressure
Patriarchal culture teaches that sex is about performance. Effectively, this is why we pressure our bodies to have the “correct” or “right” physical reactions during sex. When you have this mentality, it’s easy to become a spectator instead of consciously engaging in your own sex life. People often put pressure on climaxing at the right time. In reality, there is no right time to climax, our bodies simply do not work that way. In the infamous words of Miley Cyrus, it ain’t about how fast you get there, it’s the climb. No one should feel pressure to climax, especially not from a time frame that society claims to be normal.
There is no one way to experience sexual pleasure, just as there is no one way to climax. So stop pressuring yourself! Sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride- (wink, wink). But seriously, when we prioritize pleasure over orgasms, we are actually more likely to enjoy sex. Orgasming is not the goal, pleasure is. When we mentally reframe our priorities during sex, we can free ourselves of the burden of societal expectations. In turn, we can have better sex! Have your cake and eat it too.
Whip Out Those Handcuffs!
Many of us grew up without a comprehensive sexual education if we received any sex ed at all. Some of us just replayed the romantic car scene from Titanic and filled in the blanks ourselves. The problem with this limited education is that it fails to adequately prepare us for the divergent and multiple sexual experiences we may have throughout our lifetime. After receiving this incomplete and one-dimensional education, society expects us to have it all figured out. Many of us fall into the trap of thinking that it is simply too late to further our knowledge about sex or that we should somehow “know everything by now”. It’s never too late! Continuing your sexual education into adulthood is self-care.
One incredible outlet to do this is by safely exploring and experimenting with kink. Our deepest desires are often repressed from fear of judgment or rejection. Ask yourself, what happens if those expectations don’t exist in your life anymore. Care for yourself by prioritizing pleasurable experiences on your journey of self-discovery. And once again, we are never too old to continue learning about ourselves through our fears and desires. Kinks are very often found where they are least expected. Remember to keep an open mind and proceed without judgment, and always with consent. In this case, our sexual awareness can help us establish life-changing boundaries, as well as open discussions around our own mental health.