Whenever I am stressed, it is difficult for me to have sex. My body shuts down, and sex becomes painful.
I can’t explain it to my boyfriend, but also I find it infuriating. How can I learn to see sex as something fun and relaxing?
We all have our own ways of dealing with stress. Some choose yoga, others choose vodka, but the best way to deal with stress is sex. Seriously. Physical intimacy and orgasm release a flood of feel-good chemicals, which counter the spike in stress hormones. The Catch-22 is that, in women, elevated levels of cortisol and adrenaline decrease the production of the sex hormone, testosterone.
This interferes with libido (our desire for sex) and arousal (our physical response to sexual stimulation). Stress hormones can also delay ovulation and, if cortisol levels remain elevated over a long time, menstruation can cease completely. Women with stressful jobs have shorter periods than women with low-stress jobs; and there is a significantly higher incidence of miscarriage in women who experience high levels of stress.
Stress is related to lower levels of sexual activity, a decrease in relationship and sexual satisfaction, and an increase in sexual dysfunction. Lack of arousal diminishes natural lubrication, which can cause friction and irritate the lining of the vagina, but that problem is easily solved by a good commercial lubricant. More complicated is the onset of stress-induced dyspareunia (recurring pain during sex) or secondary vaginismus (penetration difficulties). Feeling uptight can make you tighten up; and as soon as you begin to associate sex with any form of discomfort, the anticipation of pain exacerbates the problem.
When you feel stressed, you need to be kind to yourself. Take a warm bath and drink some chamomile tea. If you have sex, spend a lot longer on foreplay and only attempt penetration if you are fully aroused and lubricated. If you don’t feel up to it, forget sex and simply snuggle naked with your boyfriend. Touch is the most wonderful antidote to stress.
Research by Laura Berman, PhD, director of the Berman Centre for women’s sexual health in Chicago, found that couples who kiss and cuddle are eight times less likely to be stressed or depressed. Similarly, a 2008 study of married couples that investigated the effects of ‘warm touch’ on physiological stress systems found that, in both partners, daily touching led to an increase in salivary oxytocin and a reduction of alpha-amylase, a biomarker for stress. Husbands in the intervention group also had significantly lower blood pressure (conducted by psychology professor, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Birmingham & Light, 2008).
Touch has significant health benefits, too. Research from Tennessee State University indicates that touching triggers the production of higher levels of immunoglobulin A, a chemical that increases the number of immune system-boosting white cells in the blood.In 2008, Swiss researchers equipped 51 couples with pocket computers to analyse their exposure to stress and to measure their levels of intimacy. Over six days, the couples were prompted to record their emotional state and they also took saliva samples every three hours (except when sleeping) to test their cortisol levels. The results suggested that couples with higher levels of sexual intimacy had lower cortisol level throughout the day and decreased cortisol responses to stressful situations.
Research by McCarthy (2003) also suggests that sexual activity reduces tension in the relationship and helps couples to contend with stressors that occur in everyday life or marriage.
So, not only can sex diminish the stress that you, as an individual, are feeling in the here and now, it also mediates the way that you, as a couple, cope with stress as it occurs in everyday life. Win win, I’d say.
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