Stress, Sexual Desire and Mindfulness by Lori Brotto

According to the Stress in America Survey, which has been carried out by the American Psychological Association annually since 2007, up to one-third of Americans have reported extreme stress in their daily lives since 2013. The main sources of stress are money, work, and the economy, and when asked about what types of stress they anticipate in the years to come, personal health and the health of loved ones rose to the top. Over half of those surveyed stated that they would like more emotional support to deal with daily stress. Increasingly, we rely on technological advances to accomplish the never-ending list of tasks on our to-do list and multitask.” Being able” to eat, respond to emails, surf the Internet, check Facebook, and help a child with homework all at the same time makes many of us feel proficient, and we take pride in balancing all these different activities at the same time. How many times have you responded to the question How are you?” with I’m so busy!” Being busy is the norm, and if you are not busy, what are you?

But research suggests that the daily grind can be extremely stressful for many of us, and multitasking may contribute to our feeling that we cannot get our head above water. If we are doing more and juggling multiple tasks on our to-do list at the same time, why do we perpetually feel like we are falling behind? Neuroscientists have shown that multitasking may not be as productive as we think it is, and the term itself is a misnomer, because we don’t actually multitask, or complete multiple tasks at the same time. We shift between tasks in rapid serial progression. This rapid shifting carries a cognitive load,” or certain amount of mental effort, and each switch” is associated with a cost in our brain’s processing ability and speed. Research sponsored by Hewlett-Packard assigned workers to carry out mentally demanding tests in two environments—one in which all distracting devices were removed, and one in which phones were left on and email alerts were audible. The findings indicate that the presence of phones and other electronic devices that issued, for example, email alerts, caused significant distraction, which amounted to about the same as a 10-point drop in IQ. The author referred to this phenomenon as infomania.” Along with the drop in IQ, women self-reported a striking increase in how much stress they felt during this task.

In addition to our tendency to multitask, which may fuel our feelings of stress, it seems that we are not very good at either managing stress or preventing it. According to the Stress in America Survey, Americans tend to choose sedentary activities as a means of stress management, with listening to music, reading, and napping being cited as some of the most common ways people relieve stress. The symptoms of stress most often described include irritability or anger, feeling nervous or anxious, feeling tired, feeling sad, and lacking energy. Lack of time was cited as both a major contributor to stress and a major barrier to stress-reduction. Paradoxically, our multitasking tendencies and increased capacity to be in multiple places at the same time (albeit virtually) have not saved us time. And this may contribute to our feeling more stressed than ever before.

So, how are dealing with never-ending to-do lists, floundering in a sea of tasks, and feeling the burden of daily challenges relevant to sexuality? It turns out that they are implicated in the loss of desire for sex in particular. If our brains are perpetually engaged in multitasking, as we continually attend to numerous competing demands on our attention, we actually spend very little time living in the present moment. We vacillate between thinking about the future (planning, worrying, strategizing) and living in the past (replaying scenes, ruminating over conversations, mourning missed opportunities). We spend far more time living outside of the present moment than in the present moment.

Brain-imaging studies show that distraction and inattention impair our ability to attend to and process sexual cues. Even in a highly sexually arousing situation, our brains may not be paying attention to sexual triggers that are necessary to elicit a sexual response, such as viewing an erotic scene in a movie or detecting the flirtatious gaze of a potential partner. It is as if the body is present but the mind is elsewhere—lost in thoughts, memories, or plans.

My bet is that most, or perhaps all, of you reading this have experienced at least one situation in which stress suppressed their sexual desire. In fact, it is likely that we are hardwired to respond this way as a result of our evolutionary history. The fight or flight response, which is triggered when we are faced with a stressor, activates our sympathetic nervous system—the branch of our brain that has evolved over time to help us cope in an adaptive way to serious life stressors. Blood gets shunted to our major muscles to mobilize us to fight or flee. However, the physiological changes that take place when we are under stress backfire when stress is chronic. Have you ever felt stressed day after day, with no letting up? It is likely that your muscles were constantly tense, that you experienced changes in blood flow and that the stress hormone cortisol was being secreted at high levels all day long without the normal return to a baseline state. Over the many months your mood may have dipped, your feelings of stress may have intensified, all of these physiological changes likely coalesced to interfere with your body’s ability to become sexually aroused. As a result, your motivation for sex and your feelings of pleasure during sex were dampened.

If you can relate somewhat, or perhaps find yourself challenged by a never-ending to-do list and its devastating dampening effects on desire, then join me as we explore what you can do to make sex fabulous and fulfilling again:

Noticing the Breath: Simple Mindfulness Exercise for Boosting Sexual Desire

1.     Close your eyes and get into a comfortable position, taking notice of your posture and the points of contact between your body and your surroundings.

2.     Gently move your attention toward the breath. This may include paying attention to each in-breath and each out-breath, as well as the types of sensations in your nostrils, your chest, and elsewhere.

3.     As you continue to focus on the sensations associated with breathing, you may start to notice when the in-breath changes to the out-breath and when the out-breath circles around to the next in-breath. You may become quite skilled at deciphering all of the individual sensations associated with breathing, including the breath’s rate, pace, depth, and location, as well as whether there are sounds associated with breathing, whether there is tension in the body, and whether you want to continue noticing your breath or you want to move away from noticing it.

During a typical mindfulness practice, whether you are paying attention to your breath or to a specific location in the body, your mind will remain present for a while but then will likely drift—to other physical locations in the body, to sounds inside the room or outside the window, and almost inevitably to thoughts such as Am I doing this correctly?” “Is this relaxing me?” “Has it improved my sexual functioning yet?” “Why do I find this so difficult?” “I am not cut out to meditate.” “How am I going to deal with this difficult situation with my boss?” “Are we out of milk?” And on and on. Mindfulness is not only about paying attention, it is also about how we pay attention—nonjudgmentally.

Excerpted from Better Sex through Mindfulness: How Women Can Cultivate Desire by Lori A. Brotto, PhD (Greystone Books, April 2018). Adapted and reproduced with permission from the publisher.


Dr. Lori Brotto is one of Canada’s top sexuality scientists and a thought-leader in the realm of women’s health and sexuality.  In this book, she discusses why a third of all women experience problems with desire—almost double the number of men—and offers simple, evidence-based mindfulness techniques that women can use to increase desire, arousal, and satisfaction. Drawing from more than 15 years of research, she offers a groundbreaking look women’s desire: how it works, why it sometimes fails, and how practicing mindfulness can help turn it around.

photo credit: Martin Dee

One thought

  1. Important and relevant for so many of us! I look forward to reading Dr. Brotto’s book and passing on this nugget of insight to my friends/sisters who will appreciate the mindfulness & cultivating sexual desire connection.

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