Opinion: Good mental health can promote a good sex life and vice versa

Society has historically stigmatized both sex and mental health, but recently there has been work to have more open conversations about both topics. As we fight against the stigma that surrounds them, there is a need to talk about the prominent and profound link between sex and mental health.

Many of us are taught about sex in high school, and some programs are more effective than others, but one thing that is often overlooked by sex education is that sex is also a mental issue. Positive emotions, whether elicited through sex or not, help increase pleasure and satisfaction, while negative emotions like stress can reduce these beneficial effects.

When it comes to mind-body connections, changes in one area directly influence the other. And just as mental health can affect your sex life, your sex life can also affect your mental health. A good sex life can have a positive impact on your mental health by increasing serotonin or promoting better sleep, among other effects.

Mental health problems can affect sex life

For all genders, thoughts and feelings play a role in arousal and sex. For example, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, and substance use can all affect a person’s ability to experience pleasure during sex. Also, anxiety and depression can make it hard for people to have a good sex life.

Anxiety disorders affect 4.6 percent of the Canadian population, with most people dealing with general feelings of anxiety or stress from time to time. An anxious mind prevents you from relaxing or experiencing pleasure in the moment.

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In the realm of sex, anxiety can reduce libido because anxiety causes increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can affect the desire for sexual activity. Anxiety can also make people feel insecure about their bodies, which can prevent them from enjoying sex, since they spend most of their time obsessing over how they look to their partner. This fixation can restrict a person’s ability to be fully emotionally and physically present in the moment. Having sex when you’re anxious can be overwhelming to your mind.

However, the most anxious among us should not be discouraged. The data also seems to show that, for some people, anxiety can increase libido. Plus, there are ways to keep anxiety from affecting your sex life. Participating in self-exploration and mindfulness activities, such as meditation and yoga, can reduce feelings of anxiety. Communicating with your partner can also go a long way in calming your anxious mind.

Major depressive disorders can also have serious effects on sex, including erectile dysfunction and an increased risk of sexual pain. Major depression affects about 5.4 percent of Canadians, and about one percent of Canadians have bipolar disorder. To reduce the negative effects of sex, people with depression should talk to their provider about the possible side effects of any medications they’re taking, if there are alternatives, and consider working with a therapist to overcome their depression.

In general, battling mental illness can affect a person’s self-esteem and how they see themselves physically. A general state of distress can also affect her ability to feel pleasure and enjoy sex.

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One of the best things you can do in these situations is to educate yourself about the relationship between mental well-being and sex. We should also encourage and practice sex positivity, an attitude toward consensual sex that sees it as healthy and pleasurable rather than shameful. Sex positivity is an important first step in recognizing the impact of mental illness on pleasure.

Healthy sex life, happy mind

However, the relationship between mental health and sex goes both ways: just as good mental health can improve sex, a good sex life can promote a healthy mind.

To understand the impact of sex on your mental health, you need to know what hormones sex produces. In response to sexual stimulation, your body releases dopamine, which triggers feelings of pleasure. Endorphins and oxytocin are two other feel-good hormones that are released during sex, activating pleasure centers in the brain and causing relaxation. Oxytocin can increase trust and induce feelings of longing for our partner, which can make us feel more connected to them. Sex can also increase serotonin, which is linked to a better mood.

While we discussed earlier how anxiety and depression can negatively affect sex, sex can also work to improve anxiety and depression. The hormones and feel-good chemicals that are released during sex can reduce feelings of anxiety and depression by increasing your relaxation and improving your mood. While sex is not a cure and the emotions brought on during sex are only temporary, the hormones it releases can help you feel relaxed and fall asleep more easily, and as we all know, sleeping better has positive effects on mental and physical health.

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Mental well-being and sex form a cycle of pleasure: what is good for mental health promotes a good sex life, which, in turn, can promote mental health. As we continue to be more open about our mental health issues and our sexuality, we must also continue to discuss and educate ourselves about this cycle. Sex is a matter of the mind, it is important beyond pleasure.

Shreya Vanwari is a second-year psychology student at Woodsworth College.

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