We’ve all been stressed at one point or another. And while there’s a certain amount of good stress that can help us function in our day-to-day, it can also disrupt our sleep and lead to overwhelm. Because many of us have experienced it firsthand, it should come as no surprise that stress and libido are linked. Feeling stressed and unsexy? Know you’re not to blame for not being in the mood. Your lack of desire is so much more about internal hormone balance than you may have realized.
Stress and not feeling sexy go together like PB&J—or should I say Barbie and Ken. (But make it Barbie and Ken with racing minds, insomnia, and an inability to focus while also donning a pair of sweats—and not the cute kind.) When we’re stressed, getting turned on requires defeating a hormonal slump. You’re faced with fighting the downstream effect of unregulated stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline).
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Hormones aside, we also don’t feel like having sex when we’re stressed because we’re distracted and worried, and we have a lower-than-normal threshold for tolerating just about anything. Emotionally, we’re not there for it.
Today, I’m sharing the science behind what’s really going on when our bodies undergo stress and how that impacts libido. Then, I’ll wrap it all up with ideas on how to cut the tension and begin to heal your nervous system so there’s nothing keeping your libido down when you’re ready to get busy. Let’s dig in.
Understanding the Sex-Hormone Connection
Women’s sex drive is fueled by the hormones estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone as they move and shift throughout the month. Estrogen rises and falls at the beginning of our cycle, triggering testosterone to peak around the time we ovulate. This causes the oh-so-familiar feelings of desire, followed by a drop in testosterone and a rise in progesterone. As progesterone rises, so does blood flow to the uterus and reproductive organs, which can also increase libido. It’s a beautiful dance to the internal rhythm of life.
It’s also a delicate dance at that! Our nervous system (which takes the brunt impact of high stress) and our endocrine system (responsible for balancing hormones) work together to connect our stress and sex drive.
It works like this: When our bodies sense stress, a small portion of the brain called the amygdala fires into overdrive. The amygdala is responsible for signaling the release of cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol sends our cells into overdrive to help us think and act quickly (giving you the best chance at survival).
In a temporary, dangerous situation, our body does what it can to keep us safe. But in our normal, modern-day life, facing repetitive stressors (getting cut off in traffic, reading an upsetting text message, being late for work) can become harmful. When cortisol levels are high, our brains tell our sex hormones to simmer down. After all, why waste energy if you’re in fight-or-flight mode?
With consistently high stress levels and more cortisol than our body needs to survive, our endocrine system senses that sex hormones are no longer needed. It begins to suppress the production of these hormones, making it harder to orgasm and decreasing pleasure and blood flow when engaging in sex.
In a 2013 study by the Journal of Sexual Medicine, researchers looked at the relationship between chronic stress and sexual arousal. The study found that women with higher levels of chronic stress displayed lower levels of sexual arousal. Furthermore, it’s well understood that high levels of stress can be linked to reproductive issues in both human and animal studies. Chronic stress that is never alleviated will suppress sex hormones in the long term, causing imbalances that leave you chronically disinterested or less capable of experiencing pleasure.
Tips for Getting Your Groove Back
Managing chronic or high levels of stress isn’t easy. Oftentimes, our busy lifestyles breed stress, and not everyone is in a position to snap their fingers to fix it. That being said, prioritizing connection and actively aiming to decrease stress in your life is a great place to start.
Practice Physical touch
Physical touch is an excellent way not only to melt away stress but to boost connection as well. Try hugging your partner for a full 30 seconds to a minute when you greet them. My partner and I love to connect after a long day by making time for a “heart-to-heart hug.” Hugging heart-to-heart is an intentional embrace where you physically align your hearts while you hug. It only takes a quick second but it feels a million times better a regular hug! You may not feel one another’s hearts beat per se, but there’s something about slowing down for a deep embrace that fills the soul. It’s a surefire way to eliminate any tension.
Physical touch is something most humans crave, need, and benefit from. Spending intentional time with a partner or friend giving or receiving a back massage, holding hands, stroking a leg, or just placing a hand on someone’s arm while you talk releases oxytocin, the love hormone.
Get outside and exercise
Consider moving your body every day. It doesn’t have to be regimented exercise—simply walking and breathing fresh air will do! Consider spending more time outdoors and in green spaces, too. Data shows that spending time outside, “nature bathing,” and exercising all help reduce stress hormones, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and release increased serotonin, the happy hormone.
It’s hard to heal a stressed body when it’s working overtime. Go to bed well before midnight if possible and start sussing out how many hours of sleep your body needs to feel calm, rejuvenated, and rested when you wake up. I suggest starting with 7-9 and seeing how you feel.
Try Breathwork and meditation for at least 8 weeks
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: mindfulness and meditation are the strongest tools you can use to reduce stress. MRI data shows that a breathwork practice of eight weeks regularly reshapes the way our brain functions and helps calm and ground us during stress. For guidance when it comes to practicing breathwork, check out this article for all the info you need.
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