March 18, 2020

How Stress Can Cause a Low Libido

From worrying about money to deadlines at work, everyday stress can lead to low libido. Dealing with so many concerns can impact your sex life, exacerbating your stress by potentially causing relationship issues.

Stress Response and Low Libido

When you react to stress, your body goes through a series of changes in order to prepare you to run away or stay and fight. This is known as your fight or flight response. When you experience fight or flight response, you’ll experience an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate while non-essential functions, like sex drive, are acutely diminished.1

This response also triggers the release of hormones, such as cortisol and epinephrine, which in high levels can cause decreased sex drive. When stress is chronic, the body uses sex hormones to meet the increased demands for higher cortisol production, decreasing your interest in sex.2

In addition to the physiological effects of stress, there is also a psychological aspect. Stress can cause you to have a busy, frazzled mind, and distract you from wanting sex or being present during sex. It can also impact your mood, leading to anxiety and depression, which can diminish libido in their own right.3

Lastly, uncontrolled stress can lead to unhealthy habits such as smoking, drinking, and overeating and poor lifestyle choices like lack of self-care and exercise that can influence how you feel about yourself and interfere with a healthy sex life.

If your stress response isn’t reversed, it can contribute to a condition known as chronic stress, impacting your physical health in many ways, including causing low libido.

Overcoming Stress and Low Libido

Minimizing stress and maintaining a good sex life with your partner is possible, especially if you both put in time and effort. Here are a few strategies to consider.

Practice Stress Management

If you suspect that life stress is putting a damper on your libido, one of the first solutions you should consider is overall stress management. If you reverse your stress response using effective relaxation techniques, you won’t experience as many hormonal disturbances from chronic stress.4 Try some known strategies for dealing with worry or anxiety in other areas of your life so that they won’t have an impact on your sex drive.

A few stress management techniques to consider include:5

  • Guided imagery
  • Meditation
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Breathing exercise
  • Aromatherapy
  • Journaling

Talking with a therapist specializing in stress management can also help you discover coping techniques for your individual situation.

Examine Your Relationship

When dealing with low libido, it’s also important to look at the health of your relationship. Studies show that relationship stress and conflicts within the relationship can be a stronger factor in low libido than other types of stress6. This is true for both men and women.

Because men and women both say that their partner’s satisfaction impacts their own libido, a lack of interest from one partner can lead to a lack of interest for both partners.

Working through relationship difficulties is important for many reasons, and your sex drive is a big one. The first step should be to make sure you’re using communication techniques that are fair and supportive of your relationship. Try to view problems as challenges you face together rather than seeing one another as “the enemy.” Try to find strategies that support the needs of both partners.

If you have difficulty doing this on your own, a therapist or marriage counselor can help you develop more effective relationship skills and work through some deeper issues.

Exercise Together

Exercising is a great way to keep stress at bay and boost your self-esteem which, in turn, can boost your libido. If you feel like you don’t get enough alone time with your partner, consider working out as a couple. A quick jog or evening walk together may help you to feel more connected while you get those endorphins going. If your partner is willing to try yoga, practicing together may help bring new energy to the bedroom. Look for a book or video specifically dedicated to partner yoga or search your local area for classes you can try together.

Practice Self-Care

It’s hard to feel good about having sex if you don’t feel good about yourself. Practicing self-care means eating a healthy diet, exercising, getting good sleep, practicing stress management techniques, pampering yourself, enjoying time for self-reflection, and ditching harmful habits like smoking and drinking (which put your health at risk and dampen sexual desire). By taking time for a little self-care, you’re taking time to build confidence and feel sexy, energetic, and more than worthy of your partner’s affections.

Make Time for Each Other

Many of us find ourselves busier than we ever thought possible. Being constantly busy means having little downtime, which can drain your energy and make sex unappealing. A busy schedule can also mean a busy mind—and having a lot on your mind can make it difficult to relax and “get in the mood.” Packed schedules can even present difficulties in finding the time for sex or make it feel like just one more chore on your mile-long “to-do list.”

If a busy lifestyle is behind your stress and low libido, you may consider making a plan for intimacy or sexual experimentation.

While scheduling sex may not seem like the most romantic notion, you can get creative and make it exciting.

Begin flirting first thing in the morning (consider it part of your foreplay) and do your best to pick up the phone midday to let your partner know that you are looking forward to your “sex date” with a quick text or phone call. Adding a little music or aromatherapy can also help set the tone for relaxation and romance.

Focus on Sensation Not Sex

The power of touch is a pretty powerful stress reliever and doesn’t have to include sex. Hold hands, make time to cuddle more (when you hug someone, the stress-busting hormone oxytocin is released), or explore each other through partner massage.

Touching each other is a great way to show affection to your partner without any added pressure from the expectation of sex.

Focusing on touch, rather than sex, can help you relax and find pleasure and intimacy, which can increase your desire for closeness and, ultimately, sex.

How to Talk to Your Partner

Stress and low libido can affect your relationship, so it’s important to talk about it. When talking to your partner about low libido, take extra care to avoid directing blame at yourself or your partner. The best approach is one that neither assigns low libido as their issue or your issue but rather a problem you both will overcome together. This will require open and honest communication about the possible causes of your stress as well as the physical and emotional symptoms of low libido.

Consider these tips for starting a healthy conversation:

  • Let your partner know that you want to talk about your sex life and set a time and neutral place (i.e., not your bedroom) that’s comfortable for both of you.
  • Don’t bring up the topic after sex, or when either of you is rushed or distracted.
  • Consider doing some meditation or breathing exercises prior to your talk so you’re in a calm state of mind. When you’re stressed, it’s easy to get defensive.
  • Be honest and open. Share your expectations, fears, desires, and concerns.
  • Give your partner a chance to tell their side and use active listening skills like repeating back what your partner said. Do your best to validate your partner’s feelings with words of understanding.
  • Ensure your conversation is balanced by asking open-ended questions along the way. For example: “What do you think of all this?”
  • Know when to stop talking. If your conversation becomes too heated, it’s likely time to wrap it up. This may be a sign that you need a mediator such as a therapist or sex counselor to help you work through this.

When to Consider Therapy

Communication is a crucial part of a healthy sex life, so if you and your partner are having a difficult time talking about issues with stress and low libido, therapy might be a good choice. Individual therapy may also be a good option if any negative thought patterns are contributing to your stress.

Types of therapy for low libido may include:

  • Individual cognitive therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy: Cognitive therapy for stress is based on the concept that it’s not simply the events in our lives that cause us stress, but the way we think about those events. You’ll work one-on-one with a therapist to explore what’s behind your stress and to define and meet your goals for better managing stress so it doesn’t interfere with your sex life
  • Marriage counseling or couples therapy: In couples therapy, you and your partner will work with a therapist in joint sessions. The primary goals of joint therapy are to foster open communication, recognize and resolve conflicts, strengthen your relationship, and gain a better understanding of each other.
  • Sex therapy: Sex therapy is a specialized type of talk therapy that focuses on sexual issues. Through sex therapy, which is offered in both individual and joint partner sessions, you can learn to express your concerns clearly and better understand yours and your partner’s sexual needs.

When considering therapy as an option, look for a therapist you’re comfortable with who specializes in the type of therapy you’re seeking. A cognitive therapist may encourage you to begin journaling to record the emotions you’re feeling before, during, or after sex or to track the times when you’re most stressed as well as what does (and does not) work to help you relax. While a sex therapist may give you “homework” to do as a couple such as role-playing or communication exercises.

Other Causes of Low Libido

If you’re still experiencing low libido after trying some lifestyle modification and working with a therapist to better manage stress, you may consider speaking to a healthcare professional about the possible medical cause of your loss of sexual interest.

There are several underlying medical issues that can take the sizzle out of your sex life, including:7

  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Chronic pain
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Hormone imbalances
  • Peri-menopause and menopause
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Sleep disorders
  • Thyroid disease
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Vaginismus

If low libido and lack of interest in sex are causing significant distress and impacting your relationship or self-esteem, and it’s not due to medical or other psychiatric causes, you may be diagnosed with hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD).8

In its latest edition, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) used by mental health professionals, split HSDD into two categories: female sexual interest/arousal disorder and male hypoactive sexual desire disorder. For a diagnosis of either disorder, symptoms must last for at least six months and cause a significant amount of distress.

Symptoms of female sexual interest/arousal disorder include:

  • Loss of spontaneous sexual desire
  • The inability to respond to sexual cues
  • The inability to maintain interest during sex
  • Few to no sexual thoughts or fantasies
  • Disinterest in initiating sex

Symptoms of male hypoactive sexual desire disorder include:

  • Few to no sexual thoughts or fantasies
  • A deficient or absent desire for sexual activity
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