Stress Is Hard on Our Sex Drives. Here’s How to Get It Back

For certain couples, the Covid-19 lockdown created a gateway to great sex. Confined to their homes for weeks on end and freed of previous commitments, they were able to head into the bedroom (or shower or kitchen floor) and capitalize on their sexual urges. It didn’t hurt that sex is also a great stress reliever and provided a flood of endorphins and calming hormones at a time when anxiety was especially high.

Other couples, however, faced the opposite scenario. Busy with working remotely, child care, home schooling, and weighed down by the many, many stresses brought on by the pandemic, one or both partners found themselves not only with little time for sex but little desire for it as well. After all, a pandemic isn’t exactly a plate of oysters and dark chocolate. But sex — and all of the stress-relieving, connection-making, emotional intimacy it fosters — is an important factor in any relationship. When couples sense a decline in their sex drive, it’s an issue that should be addressed.

First of all, a decline in sexual activity during times of high-stress is normal. Now is one of those times. “So many people are stressed out from the one-two punch of the pandemic and the economy. They’re working from home, some are or have been sick, and others are worried about finances. It’s a mess,” says sex and relationship expert April Masini. “This kind of stress wreaks havoc on mental health and sex drives; this kind of stress creates sex deserts.”

Stress pumps cortisol into our systems and activates our baser fight or flight response, which can lower one’s libido and limit the desire for intimacy. “When you are in this state, sex and reproduction are not the priority, so those systems get down regulated and your sex drive takes a hit,” says Dr. Brandye, a Board-Certified OB/GYN and libido coach.

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As Carolyn Davis-Cottle, a clinical psychologist, couple’s counselor, and founder of Inner Image Counseling & Consulting adds, it’s also a matter of simply feeling too depleted. “When one is tired, there is little room for closeness and touching. While the idea of being intimate is nice, the reality is ‘I would rather rest,’” she says. “The added responsibility of having to do it all while in quarantine can cause a great deal of stress especially when you’ve grown accustomed to having someone else handle most of the day-to-day necessities.”

Staying silent about issues is one of the worst mistakes a couple is make. Open communication is the bedrock of a healthy relationship. Not addressing issues, be it a low sex drive or anything else, can make partners jump to conclusions. Resentment is sure to grow when cues are misinterpreted and internal dialogues replace external.

“A healthy sex life is vital to most relationships, and it looks different for every couple,” says Dr. Lyndsey Harper, Founder and CEO of Rosy, an app dedicated to helping women with low libidos. “If you are feeling less connected sexually to your partner, it is best to be open about your feelings, goals and priorities so that your partner doesn’t misinterpret the situation to mean more than it actually does.”

Harper understands that such conversations can feel awkward and therefore tend to go unaddressed. She recommends taking small steps at first and framing the conversation as ‘I really love you and our sex life, and I want to work on getting it back to what it used to be.’ “Just like anything else, the first time you communicate about sex is the most difficult,” she says. “But it is an important muscle to strengthen for the overall health of your relationship.”

Setting realistic expectations, adds Dr. Jill McDevitt, resident sexologist for CalExotics, is also paramount. So is compassion. “When you communicate about it, share your wants and needs, but also be understanding and comforting.”

Another crucial element is self-care. It always is, but in high-stress times, it’s only more so. Eating right, exercising, sleeping well, taking measures to manage your anxiety levels, limiting consumption of news, and carving out time to unwind are all important.

“When there is an overproduction of stress hormones, there are less building blocks available for sex hormones,” says Jacqui Olliver, a psychosexual relationship specialist. Olliver suggests anyone who wants to restore their sex drive focus on these five specific rules:

  1. Reset yourself to a place of calm whenever you start feeling emotionally triggered, so hormone production isn’t only going into creating stress hormones
  2. Focus your attention on your desired outcomes and how you want to be and feel
  3. Focus on the more pleasing attributes of your partner
  4. Eat a diet high in green vegetables and healthy fats with moderate protein to provide the building blocks required for hormone production
  5. Avoid foods containing sugar, wheat, corn, high fructose corn syrup, and other foods which spike your blood sugar and place stress on your adrenal glands.

Equally important is intentionally setting time for emotional intimacy. As Davis-Cottle points out, “sex starts in the mind.”

“Things like holding hands while sitting next to each other, and hugs are great to increase the sense of connection,” adds Dr. Brandye. “Get curious about your partner like you were in the beginning. Ask about their dreams and desires, their vision for the next five years, their bucket list items. These types of conversations will draw you closer into the inner world of your partner, a plus for generating intimacy.”

Our brains respond well when there is something positive to look forward to, but it’s often difficult in times of stress to make room for such moments. That’s why all experts recommend regular date nights — even if they’re only an hour long — or going as far as to schedule sex on the calendar. Plan the occasions together or separately.  Get weird with it. Have fun. Is your date night more fancy cocktails and a movie at home or taking an online cooking course? Great. Is it a Nerf gun war in the basement, putting on some music and busting out your grade school dance moves, or eating some edibles and giggling your asses off? Even better. Silliness helps alleviate stress and firmly ground you in the moment.

Masini recommends a dedicated space for intimacy, one that is free of distractions and allows you to focus on one another. “Not just for sex, but a place where you can sit down with a glass of wine, in robes, after showers, and talk,” she says. “When you have to move piles of papers, or dust bunnies, the mood is diluted. But if you can keep one room as an intimacy room, you’re on your way.” So, clear clutter, put fresh sheets on the bed, remove paperwork or work from home paraphernalia, and tidy up as much as possible to limit distractions.

It’s also important to take your time and make such moments intentional. “Pour cocktails, take showers, put on appealing loungewear, turn on music, set the lights on low, and take it slow,” suggests Masini. “This is a process. If you rush it, you’ll risk failure. You’re hedging against stress, so focus on reducing it.”

This also means doing your best to minimize distracting conversations. “Catch yourself before you turn this would-be date into a work session or a bitch session,” Masini says. “This is a moment to have a date that leads to sex. Leave any conversation having to do with work or stressful topics at the door.”

She notes that the irony of the situation is that having sex reduces stress, but stress can limit the desire for sex. And this can put unnecessary expectations on the moment. “If you’re in a sex desert, try to have sex. Not have perfect sex,” she says. “That’s a step towards perfect sex. Getting over the hump of not having any is just as important as having it at all. It’s a process.”

In any case, couples need to make an effort.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in being a sexologist for the last 13 years, it’s that sexuality ripples and impacts all areas of our lives,”  says Dr. McDevitt. “If things aren’t right sexually, it can put a damper on your family life, work life, health, hobbies, and overall quality of life. So it’s important.”

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