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Does Stress Affect Your Sex Life?

4 ways to keep your love life strong


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  • Stress produces the hormone cortisol, which can weaken your sex drive
  • Sex is a stress reliever — it increases endorphins and can lower your blood pressure

Does too much stress ruin your love life? It’s entirely possible. Stress produces the hormone cortisol, which can weaken your sex drive. Stress can also lead to headaches, depression, loneliness, fatigue and even, yes, indigestion — all of which dampen desire. We’re also less likely to focus on healthy habits, such as exercising, sleeping well or eating right — and such neglect can further affect libido. Add in the usual sources of stress — work, money, family — and you’re probably not in the mood for love. Statistics show that stress is on the rise, and that may be affecting our sex life. Americans who are married or living together had sex 16 fewer times per year between 2010 and 2014 than between 2000 and 2004, a March 2017 study by researchers at San Diego State University found.

“When someone manages stress poorly, it affects all areas of their life, and they may avoid sex altogether,” says Kristen Lilla, a certified sex therapist in Omaha, Neb.

As stress increases, sex life decreases

In January, 80 percent of Americans said they’d experienced at least one symptom of stress, up from 71 percent in August 2016, according to a American Psychological Association (APA) poll. We experience stress for a reason. The stress response is part of a defense system that helps us when we’re threatened: It’s what spurred our prehistoric ancestors to run when confronted by saber-toothed tigers. Even today, stress isn’t always bad. It can motivate you, even if you’re not being chased by a predator.

Unfortunately, prolonged tension can make you unintentionally celibate. And sex has many health benefits, from boosting our immune system to reducing the risk of prostate cancer (not to mention sustaining our species).

“When a person has sex under these circumstances, their brain may be so distracted by stressful situations that their body becomes tense,” Lilla says. That tension can reduce sexual function and pleasure. Stress can also increase performance anxieties.

Sexual differences: Men vs. women

“Men are taught to believe they want sex no matter what, which may create more pressure,” says Lisa B. Schwartz, a psychotherapist in Philadelphia who focuses on sexuality. “The impact of stress can be similar for men and women, but some men think it’s not manly to say, ‘Not tonight, honey.’”

For women, the emotional issues are different. “Women are more likely to feel pressure from a partner to sexually perform, and sex may feel like another thing on their to-do list rather than something that can alleviate stress,” Lilla says. And sex is an excellent stress reliever. It increases endorphins, triggers the release of oxytocin and can lower your blood pressure. Pleasurable activities — including food and sex — not only reduced stress levels for subjects in a November 2010 University of Cincinnati study, but the benefits lasted for at least seven days.

“People get trapped in a cycle: They aren’t having sex with their partner, which can make it difficult to get back into a routine,” Lilla says. The solution: Talk with your partner — even if it’s awkward — and consider professional help from a marriage counselor or sex therapist.

Here are four stress-busting options that may help improve your sex life.

1. Communication is key. Studies have found that men and women who discussed sex with their partners increased their enjoyment of sex. In one study by researchers at the Medical University of Vienna, the hormone oxytocin improved sexual experiences for women with sexual dysfunction. But the control group, which received a placebo, saw similar improvements. The reason? “Sexual problems are often caused by the stress of everyday life rather than any chemical deficiency in a woman’s hormone balance,” noted project leader Michaela Bayerle-Eder, M.D. Studies have found that for both women and men, communicating openly about sex increases pleasure and decreases tension.

2. Manage your stress. Determine what helps you relax. It could range from reading and golfing to meditation and yoga, from spending time with friends to taking a hot bath. “Self-care doesn’t have to be expensive or lavish,” Lilla says — although the occasional indulgence, such as a relaxing massage, can also reduce stress.

3. Re-create vacation at home.
 “A lot of couples have great sex on vacation, but when they get home, daily stresses resurface and they won’t have sex for months,” Lilla says. Replicate your vacation activities, she suggests, whether it’s eating dinner together at the table (not in front of the TV) or enjoying a leisurely walk.

4. Leave work at work.
 People who constantly check their phones report higher stress levels than those who are less obsessed, an August 2016 survey by the APA found. In a March 2017 study of 159 married couples by researchers at Oregon State University, employees who carried stress home with them — whether answering emails or ruminating about work — were significantly less likely to have sex that night, says Keith Leavitt, an associate professor in Oregon State University’s College of Business. Conversely, those who enjoyed a healthy sex life reported higher levels of job satisfaction.

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