Tracey Cooke is a psychosexual therapist. When she set up her private practice – East London Relationship Therapy – she chose in Shoreditch, East London, for a reason. “Shoreditch is a great place for us to work.” Cooke says, “The demographic of clients are a combination of young couples and individuals, who often work in creative industries ”. And these are exactly the kind of people who tend to live the fast-paced, high-pressure lives that ultimately impact upon their sexual relationships.
Florida-based sex therapist Laurie Mintz, the author of several bestselling books including A Tired Woman’s Guide to Passionate Sex: Reclaim Your Desire and Reignite Your Relationship and Becoming Cliterate: Why Orgasm Equality Matters and How to Get It, is also interested in how stress impacts on our most intimate relationships. “We know that a good sex life correlates directly with happiness. And it takes conscious effort when you’re stressed. We have to expose, explain and close the orgasm gap for good.”
Between them, these two experts have spoken to a hundreds of people whose sex life is being ruined by their stressed life. What is their advice for stressed out Eastlondonlines readers who want to reclaim their desire and reignite their relationships?
“Our misunderstandings about our bodies cause a lot of people serious stress.”-Laurie Mintz
Understand what stress is doing to your sex life
When you’re feeling stressed, having sex can be far down on your to-do list. But there may be physiological explanations for this. Cooke likens the body’s response to stress as a form of fight or flight, an instinctive reaction humans have to dangerous or stressful situations. She states the first bodily functions to go in fight or flight scenarios are digestion and sex drive, which means that the energy put towards arousal is often one of the first to be axed when we are feeling stressed.
Mintz says there are also biochemical reasons for the disdain towards sex, saying “We know that stress increases cortisol and cortisol decreases testosterone. And testosterone is responsible for a lot of our sex drive.” Mintz also runs a small private practice and says she has seen so many people who, as a result of this chemical imbalance, say they are too tired for sex, or when they do have sex that they can’t quiet their mind enough to enjoy it.
When it comes to interactions within a couple, stress can cause a lot of miscommunications and a lack of understanding that can lead to a relationship breakdown. ”It can feel so rejecting if someone doesn’t want to have sex with you,” says Cooke. “It’s hard to separate out that actually they’re just going through a really rough time.”
Hot Tip: Ask questions. Talk to someone about your stress or feelings towards sex. Miscommunication or misunderstanding are often a main cause for stress in sexual experiences, and sometimes it can be solved with a simple chat, either with a partner, friend or counsellor.
Is sex itself the cause of your stress?
As well as the external stress of our daily lives, sometimes stress based around sex can be the cause of a troubled sex life. In her aptly named book Becoming Cliterate Mintz discusses how both poor sex education and unrealistic media representations of sex can cause stress and anxiety for both men and women, who do not have realistic ideas about how sex is supposed to go. The most common media myth, says Mintz, is that women should be orgasming from penetration alone.
“Because of a combination of false media images and a lack of good sexual education to correct them,” says Mintz, “we have a lot of women and men getting their idea of what sex should be through the media. Movies, TV, porn, even songs are all about penetration-based orgasms, women orgasming from thrusting alone, and men having to last long and thrust hard. And the biological reality is that only 15-18 per cent of women orgasm from penetration without additional external stimulation. And only 4 per cent say it’s their most reliable route to orgasm.” This is what Mintz refers to as ‘The orgasm gap’.
These sexual myths cause stress for both men and women, particularly in heterosexual relationships. Men feel they are not performing well enough in the bedroom when they don’t get the reactions Pornhub tells them they should be getting. And women think there must be something fundamentally wrong with them. Mintz discussed how she can’t count how many women have approached her, all thinking they were broken because they were not orgasming the “right way”, saying “Our misunderstandings about our bodies cause a lot of people serious stress.”
Hot Tip: Nothing is “normal” in sex. There is no right way to feel or for your body to react. Stop comparing yourself to what you see in the media, and don’t let anyone make you feel abnormal for your body’s natural responses.
How to make sex less stressful, and more pleasurable
So, what do we do? We can’t just make our stress magically disappear and hop back in the sack. In order to bring the fun and pleasure back to sex we must first take the pressure off. Many people who say they don’t have the time or energy to have sex are seeing it as this spontaneous act, but it doesn’t have to be.
For couples, Cooke recommends lowering expectations but prioritising intimacy. A lot of the time when stress pushes sex away it often pushes all forms of intimacy with it. We can isolate ourselves, and isolation is a breeding ground for stress. “One thing that can help is for couples to set aside time to anticipate sex,” Cooke says. “If you are stressed, choose your moments. Pick a time when you think you can feel neutral – for example, not just before bed when you’re thinking about work the next day. And go into this with no pressure, just see what happens.”
Cooke recommends just starting with a kiss and a cuddle for longer than you might usually. This can be helpful in removing the pressures and expectations of sex but still ensure a level of intimacy and closeness with your partner that could then lead into arousal in a stress-free way. And for those who say scheduling isn’t sexy, there is nothing sexier than actually having good sex!
This idea of a neutral mind helping the stressed feel sensual is also found in Mintz’s studies. When asked what people should do if they are stressed about not being able to achieve an orgasm from penetration Mintz responds, “Stop Trying!” Instead, opt for mindfulness, a form of meditation where the mind and the body are in the same place. Mintz says there are studies to show that the brain state during orgasm is like that of deep mindful meditation. It allows the body to relax and enjoy the endorphin release that will ultimately offset the cortisol. Of course, this is easier said than done and Mintz often advises her clients to practise mindfulness throughout their daily tasks in order to make it more accessible.
Hot Tip: Sex isn’t like the movies. Being spontaneous is nice in theory but if you’re already stressed, having to pretend like you’re swept off your feet is not exactly realistic. Think about and know when you’re going to have sex, that way excitement builds and your body, but also mind, can subconsciously prepare.
The Five T’s and a little bit of Spice
In Mintz’s book The Tired Woman’s Guide to Passionate Sex she discusses a tactic to help stressed women back to the bedroom, calling them the Five T’s and a little bit of Spice:
- Thoughts, thinking about sex when you’re not having it, being mindful when you are.
- Time, taking the time for yourself, exercise and self-care improves sexual functioning (especially Yoga).
- Talk, sexual communication is key; don’t be afraid to talk about your feelings and desires.
- Touch, do all the small intimate touches to increase erotic and affectionate touch.
- Tricks, scheduling sex and debunking the myth of spontaneity.
- Spice, “If women were having better sex maybe they’d be more motivated to do it more” offer ideas for new kinky stuff, toys, role plays etc.
Ultimately know you’re not alone. Sex isn’t stress-free or straightforward for anyone. If you are stressed for any reason, including sexually, seeking help and advice from counsellors is always a good start. Take the time to talk and think about sex, make it less pressure for you and your partner. Try as best you can to be mindful and present in order to achieve a more pleasurable experience. And have fun, it’s sex!
For more sexpertise try Dr Mintz’s books available here. For local sex and relationship counselling try The East London Relationship Therapy or contact Relate, who have a network of centres across the UK. And for more general information about help with sex and stress, reach out to your local GP.
Click here to see the rest of ELL’s articles for this Stress Awareness Month