Stressed tattooed man lying down in a bed with a purple light
Illustration by Marta Pucci

How Stress Affects Your Sex Life

Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Katherine Hertlein,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Date published:
2/10/2022
Last updated:
5/8/2022
Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Laura Vowels,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Date published:
2/10/2022
Last updated:
5/8/2022

TL;DR

  • It’s now more common than ever to feel stressed out by everyday life.
  • High stress levels result in a rise in levels of cortisol within the body. This can have many unwanted side effects on our mental and physical health.
  • Sex drive and arousal can be impacted due to changes in hormone levels as well as mental distraction.
  • When we become disconnected from our partner and lose the intimacy from our relationship it can lead to stress around sex, creating a vicious circle.
  • Working on ways to identify and reduce stress triggers and tackle the problem together can be a great first step to overcoming sexual difficulties caused by stress.

Work getting on top of you? Money feeling a bit tight? Kids demanding your time… all the time? Or do you have a health problem that’s playing on your mind?

There are a million and one reasons we might feel stressed. In fact, just dealing with daily life can often feel too much. Especially during these current times when it seems there’s so much around us that’s out of our control.

If you’re noticing your stress levels are rising on a regular basis and your head is filled with constant ‘noise’, it’s important to know you’re not alone. But it’s also useful to recognize just how those feelings of stress might be impacting not just your health but your relationships with those around you. Particularly when it comes to physical intimacy and emotional connection.

Can stress really affect our sex lives?

In a word, yes.

From lack of sleep to heart palpitations, and anxiety to erectile dysfunction, stress can impact our physical health and mental wellbeing in equal measure. It affects our zest for life and positivity, wreaking havoc on our relationships with others as well as our feelings about ourselves.

But how can something as ‘simple’ as stress get in the way of a previously healthy sex life? And what can we do to undo the damage?  

Fight or flight

The term ‘fight or flight’ will not be a new one for you. It’s a term we frequently use to describe the body's very natural response to danger. It describes the raised heart rate, heightened state of alertness, and the increase in blood flow to our major organs. In readiness to attack. Or failing that, to run. It’s the automatic response our ancestors relied on as they hunted and gathered food for their families. It literally kept them alive.

The trouble is, the blood pressure raising situations we now find ourselves in on a day-to-day basis – the presentation to 500 people, the delayed train when we’re rushing back for school pick up, the boiler that breaks down in the middle of winter. These things don’t require a fight or flight response, they need a very different reaction. But our body doesn’t know that.

In times of stress our body systems respond in the only way they know how. By preparing for battle. And when that’s happening multiple times per day? Well, that can get pretty tiring.

The impact of long-term stress on the body

Of course, we can’t avoid all stressful situations, they are a fact of life. The problem comes when we don’t manage that stress properly and allow it to become the norm. Extended periods of stress can have a very real impact on our health.

­Changing hormone levels

When you experience chronic stress - an elevated level of stress over a long period of time –it can lead to changes in hormone levels within your body. The hormone cortisol plays an important part in this process. When everything is working in balance, cortisol helps to regulate metabolism and blood sugar levels among other things. But when we become anxious or stressed, it’s cortisol that kicks things up a gear. This ‘stress hormone’ works by instigating the fight or flight mechanism and shutting down any non-essential functions so we can concentrate on the ‘battle’ ahead.

Of course, this isn’t a problem when it happens infrequently, the body is designed to work in this way after all. But with modern life as it is, cortisol levels in many people can rise so regularly they stay elevated. The stress response can simply ‘forget’ to shut off. And over time that can cause a number of different health problems including heart disease and a lowered immune system.

Sexual function can also be affected, as the rise in cortisol production has a direct impact on testosterone production. And while we often think of testosterone as the male sex hormone, a lack of testosterone is thought to also reduce sexual desire in women.

And it’s not just this physiological reaction that impacts sexual function.

Stress on the brain

You know the scenario. You’re completely preoccupied with something, perhaps it’s an issue with a colleague at work or your child is having problems at school. Your partner tries to initiate sex but it couldn’t be further from your mind.

Perhaps you persevere but can’t stop getting distracted. You struggle to stay in the moment and gain little pleasure from the sexual encounter.

When our brains are full to bursting, when our mental capacity is at its maximum, it can be difficult to make space for others. It can be difficult to prioritize anything other than our own survival. That may sound dramatic but it’s true. When we are stressed out, we focus on getting through each day. We don’t think about others, we forget to put effort into forging those human connections that are so vital to us. Instead, we disappear inside our own heads and think of nothing but ourselves.

When it comes to our most important relationships though, this can be devastating. Our partner feels us pulling away, distancing ourselves. They begin to worry that there’s a problem, perhaps feelings of insecurity set in. And we start to lose the intimacy and the connection we once had. Worse still, sex becomes yet another stressor.

They say that much of sexual arousal, particularly in women, starts in the brain. So when we’re distracted by stress and begin to experience a lack of connection, loss of libido or sexual dysfunction will often follow.

How to de-stress and rekindle that desire for sex?

The good news is that most stress-related sexual issues will resolve once you address the root of the problem.

Take a long hard look at what’s causing the stress in your life? Is it too much work? A particular colleague? A situation with a parent or dependent?

Work on the problem as a team to attack the stress together. Look at the triggers - what can you do to reduce or even remove them? If the chores are becoming a point of contention, could you buy in help or create a checklist and divide up responsibilities between all members of the family? Yes, the kids can do their part too.

Or if there’s a big event coming up that needs some organization, could you both take a day off to really break the back of it and tackle it as a twosome?

These may seem like simplistic examples but they serve to illustrate a point. Establish your stressors, look at them together, help one another to rationalize them and look for solutions. Of course, it’s not easy and issues are unlikely to be solved overnight. But the very act of working together can re-establish some of that lost connection and put you on the right road.

The importance of physical touch

While it might be the last thing on your mind, try to make a little space for small acts of physical touch. Gentle hugging, arm touching or kissing, without expectation that it will lead to more, can encourage the body to break out of its stressed state and begin to relax. If you know your partner is feeling stressed, simply providing reassurance, empathy and understanding may be enough.      

Find ways to have fun together, try an activity you’ve not done before, open a bottle of wine and give our sex questions a go or check out the Blueheart app for more touch-based exercises to help you rekindle that connection in the privacy of your home.

In time, you'll find these small steps can become one of your best weapons against the effects of stress on both your body and your sex life.

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