Why Sexual Function is Impacted by Chronic Stress

medical conditions Dec 03, 2018

This week's blog post is a repost from Mercedes at Vida Health and Wellness. It's a great article that talks about how sexual function has many components to it. Mercedes is a physiotherapist in Calgary who specializes in women's health issues such as painful intercourse, embarrassing leaks, pelvic floor health for any stage of pregnancy, breastfeeding support and more. Be sure to check her out!

And now for the post....

The status quo

Many of the world’s academics will agree that physical and emotional intimacy are basic human needs. We are a social species and we seek relationships that fulfill these needs. Friendships make us happy and are integral to our social fabric, but many people also seek a different type of connection: a physical one. This drives us to find a partner, a mate, and ultimately a fellow parent. The enjoyment of a sexual relationship is human nature for a reason.

If this is the case, though, why were we (collectively) having 15% less sex in 2010 than in 1990? You might look to technology and the lack of face to face interactions, fast-paced life, long work days, or demands of two working parents. I believe that every couple has its own reasons for the level of intimacy in the relationship. However, if we look at potential contributors to low libido or sexual function, there appears to be a common thread.

A brief look at human physiology

The idea of fight or flight is a well known one. We know that if we are confronted by a lion, our body will go into a survival mode and we will choose to run or to attack. Similarly, we intuitively know that there are other options in a situation of high stress. We might also freeze. (Think of a deer in the headlights type of scenario.) How does this apply to our modern world? As a physiotherapist who’s worked in emergency situations, I know that witnessing a major medical event will trigger a fight/flight/freeze response. First responders will “fight” by running toward the scene and helping. Others will have a natural tendency for flight and will walk away. Once they feel safe, they might call for someone else to help. Lastly, some people will freeze and become essentially paralyzed by the situation.

Unless you’re a paramedic or in a similar profession, you’re not likely to face these scenarios on a daily basis. That doesn’t mean that your body won’t enter into these fight/flight/freeze decisions, though. We have things going on all the time that our body perceives as threats. We call these stressors.

When you’re dealing with stress, your sympathetic nervous system takes over. Its primary role is to direct blood (and oxygen) from non-essential body areas to those that play a role in the fight/flight/freeze response. This means that the skin and the gut have fewer resources, while the heart, lungs, muscles, and brain get more. At the same time, blood pressure and heart rate go up. Think of it this way: when a lion is chasing you, would your body prefer to fuel your leg muscles or to digest your last meal?

On the other end of the spectrum is the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s responsible for “rest and digest” and “feed and breed.” Once the lion is gone, you can focus on sleep, digestion and urination, eating, and sexual desire. These are the activities we do when our bodies are not under stress.

Talking about the lion in the room

Given these basic facts about human nature, is it any surprise that we’re less physically intimate than we used to be? Does it make sense why two people working full time and raising children are too tired to focus on this part of their relationship?

The first step is to recognize that chronic stress is affecting our mental, physical, and sexual wellbeing. A near-constant state of fight/flight/freeze is not what our “emergency” system is intended for. As humans, we need — we require — time to rest, digest, feed, and breed.

What now?

Once we acknowledge this state of chronic stress, the key is to break the pattern. I challenge you to introduce moments of stillness into your life. This may be mental stillness, physical stillness, or both. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be writing about different strategies to evoke relaxation and turn down the knob on stress. I promise that these are simple and practical activities, and the difference that you will notice in your body will be profound.

Stay tuned! As each strategy is described, Mercedes will add the links here.

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