Ask Rena

Questions about PrEP? Should lesbians use condoms? Our clinical sexologist, Rena McDaniel, answers questions ranging from open relationships to orgasms. Looking for expert advice on low libido? Ask Rena.

Three Ways to Reconnect with Your Erotic Self During Times of Stress

Between holidays, the election results, dealing with family, travel, year-end gotta-get-it-together craziness, and (depending on where you live) dealing with the first round of winter weather, this time of year can induce a lot of stress. Often the last thing on people’s mind when they are experiencing a lot of stress is eroticism or sex. This makes a lot of sense because the stress hormone, cortisol, performs the very important function of helping us escape dangerous situations by activating our sympathetic nervous system (ala fight or flight). This was really helpful when our ancestors were running from saber tooth tigers, but slightly less helpful when your “danger” is trying to make it to the airport on time or, very real but not immediately life-threatening threats, such as financial strain, political recourse, or having to deal with difficult family relationships.

As a result, many folks feel disconnected from their partners, their bodies, and their erotic self during times of stress. However, there are simple things we can do that make a huge difference in connecting with this important and powerful part of ourselves even in the midst of the craziness.

1. Get In Touch With Your Senses
It’s so easy when we are feeling overwhelmed and stressed to rush around and forget to pay attention to our bodies, specifically to our senses. Getting in touch with our senses is our easiest way to reconnect with our erotic self. There is a reason we call it “sensuality.” We think of eroticism as something that happens to us, but in fact, our brains pay attention to what we focus on. When we fill our senses with things that are pleasurable to us (good music, good food, a hot bath, a house that smells good, dancing, etc.) and really pay attention to how we are experiencing those things, we remind our brain to slow down and pay attention to other pleasurable sensations. Reducing stress and paying attention to how our bodies actually feel tells our brains to respond by sending blood to those areas. And blood flow is a cornerstone of arousal. If you want fire, you have to let it have some air.

2. Embrace Responsive Desire
Often we think of eroticism and desire as a “lightning bolt to the genitals” kind of thing. And this is definitely true sometimes. I think we have all experienced that feeling of being “horny.” However, there is another type of desire that doesn’t get very much attention but is just as valid as the more spontaneous type: responsive desire. Responsive desire is less a “lightning bolt to the genitals” type of thing and more of a cuddle-up-with-your-sweetie-on-the-couch-and-oh-hello type of desire. Responsive desire is the idea of putting yourself in a sexy context (cuddling, making out, dancing together, massage, seeing a sexy performance) and just seeing how your body responds. Often, if the pressure is off and we put ourselves in a sexy context, our bodies will respond to that erotic context. Figure out what contexts work for you, make those contexts happen, and pay attention to how your body responds and you might be surprised at how the stress can fade away for a little while.

3. Work Your Erotic Muscle
Eroticism is like a muscle. If we ignore it, it loses strength. However, with focused attention and time, we can build our erotic muscle. The SKYN Millennial Sex Survey of 2015 found that only 26% of millennials incorporated porn into their sexual routine. Y’all. What are you doing with your life? There is a world of stunning, well-made, ethical porn out there just waiting for you. Here is a pro-tip: If you want good porn, you have to pay for it.. If the visual aesthetic isn’t your thing, find some good erotica to read (maybe with a sweetie). Another great way to work out that erotic muscle is to masturbate more. Researchers have found that one of biggest factors in the differences between “male” and “female” sexual desire is that folks with penis’ tend to masturbate more. So, vulva-owners, get to it.

References:

van Anders, S.M. Arch Sex Behav (2012). Testosterone and Sexual Desire in Healthy Women and Men. 41: 1471. doi:10.1007/s10508-012-9946-2
Hamilton, L. D., & Meston, C. M. (2013). Chronic stress and sexual function in women. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 10(10), 2443–2454. http://doi.org/10.1111/jsm.12249

Nagoski, Emily, author. (2015). Come as you are : the surprising new science that will transform your sex life. New York :Simon & Schuster Paperbacks,

The Physiology of Stress: Cortisol and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis
http://dujs.dartmouth.edu/2011/02/the-physiology-of-stress-cortisol-and-the-hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-axis/#.WHfZw7YrL-Y

The Body’s Response
http://www.nytimes.com/health/guides/symptoms/stress-and-anxiety/the-body’s-response.html

Horizontal rule