By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Research has shown that day-in and day-out stresses negatively impact sexual functioning for both men and women. A 2014 study confirms these findings, and has explored the connection further, showing that daily stressors predict lower levels of sexual satisfaction for men and women, as well as sexual activity for women. The study was conducted by Lisa Hamilton, an expert on human sexuality and stress, at Canada’s Mount Allison University.
Interestingly, her research found that financial stressors as well as stressors related to low socioeconomic status were associated with sexual interference among women but not men. She also found that women’s sexual functioning was more strongly affected by stress and depression than men’s scores.
In an earlier 2013 study with women, Hamilton found that higher levels of chronic stress related to lower levels of genital sexual arousal (not, however, of psychological arousal) and higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Elevated cortisol, it turns out, inhibits testosterone, which is not only important to men but also to women because lower testosterone can impair both psychological and genital arousal.
My Viewpoint: There’s no doubt about the connection between higher stress levels and lowered interest in sexual intimacy. In my medical practice, I heard from time-to-time from both male and female patients how stress created a wedge between themselves and their partners resulting in an inability to connect sexually. When couples are fighting, it is impossible to resume normal sex. However, if the battle is short-lived, sexual activity afterward may be an especially welcomed and rewarding way to re-connect and relieve stress.
What This Means to You: When people complain of problems in their sex life, they need to consider the influence that stress may be playing. Daily hassles and depression can definitely play a role, as can constant arguing. Too much stress can undermine arousal and thinking about sex. It can be a big source of distraction.
Recommendation: Look outward to the stresses in your life and figure out how to deal with them. Are you working too much and not allowing enough time for your partner? Are you overly invested in caring for others while not caring for yourself? In addition to affecting your sex life, stress can deplete your immune system, leave you susceptible to colds and flu, and also contribute to heart attacks. The most important thing is to take responsibility for what’s going on and set a new course. Psychological counseling may be in order. Look inward as well, with tried and true techniques such as meditation and yoga that can help you deal with stress and calm a chronically agitated nervous system.
- Hamilton LD. The Affects of Acute and Chronic Stress on Sexual Arousal in Women. PhD diss., University of Texas at Austin, 2010.
- Hamilton LD & Julian AM. The Relationship Between Daily Hassles and Sexual Function in Men and Women. J Sex Marital Ther. 2014;40(5):379-395.
- Hamilton LD & Meston CM. Chronic Stress and Sexual Function in Women. J Sex Med. 2013;10(10):2443-54.
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