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Let’s Talk About Sex, Maybe?

Sex is natural, right? So why do we find it so hard to talk about it?

Sexual health is a hugely important part of our wellbeing. Not only are there physical benefits from an active sex life, it can strengthen relationships and improve emotional connections. Sadly, what is not often talked about is how sex affects mental wellbeing, and importantly, how our mental wellbeing can affect our sex lives.

There are a number of psychological benefits from a healthy sex life. Regular sex can improve your self-esteem, which will lead to a more positive perception of yourself. We also know that good quality consensual sex can increase overall happiness, and can improve relationships. But did you know that sex has a direct impact on the chemicals in our bodies that affect our mood?

Sexual activity has an effect on many hormones and neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, prolactin and cortisol. Between them, these hormones make us feel a cocktail of feelings, emotions and can even affect our behaviours:

  • Serotonin – the “happy hormone” is released during sex. This is a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, and can make you feel happy and peaceful

  • Dopamine – the “feel-good hormone” is released, which is responsible for pleasure

  • Oxytocin – the “hug hormone” is released in response to nipple stimulation and sexual activity. It impacts our bonding behaviour which in turn helps you feel calmer and more content

  • Cortisol – the “stress hormone” is reduced following sex, helping you feel less stressed

  • Prolactin – a hormone released after orgasm, which can help with sleep (explains why some people feel sleepy after having sex!)

As a result of all of this, a healthy sex life can result in improved mental wellbeing, lower stress levels and lower rates of anxiety and depression.

So all of that sounds great, right? But what about the effect that mental health can have on our sex lives?

It is totally normal for sexual desire to fluctuate over time, and it’s natural to go through stages of craving sexual intimacy followed by stages of being less interested in it. However, our emotional and mental states can impact that sexual desire as well. A commonly recognised symptom of depression is a loss of libido, which in turn can cause feelings of low worth, stress and relationship difficulties. Anxiety is one of the most common causes for sexual problems such as erectile dysfunction, difficulties orgasming, “performance” anxiety, and low body confidence.

To make matters worse, some of the most commonly used medications to treat mental health problems like anxiety and depression such as SSRIs have an effect on the chemicals involved in sexual function and pleasure. This can cause sexual side effects, such as low desire, not being able to get an erection, difficulties ejaculating or climaxing or even just not enjoying sex as much. But don’t worry – we can break the cycle. If you are worried that your medication may be cramping your style, please contact your prescriber and discuss your concerns with them – there are plenty of options.

In conclusion, sexual wellbeing makes up a huge part of how we feel in ourselves and our intimate connections with others. Sometimes when our mental health dips we don’t feel as interested or as engaged in sexual engagement. So if you’re sex life is suffering, perhaps you should work on aspects of your mental health to give it that extra boost. Equally so, making time for intimate relationships can improve our mental wellbeing and so investing time and energy into connections should be built into your self-care routine. However, if this is becoming a problem to you or you feel worried, always speak to a professional for personalised advice.

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