How to treat low libido caused by chronic stress

It’s no secret that the past few months have been nothing short of stressful. And it’s no secret that our stress levels can take a toll on our overall mood and energy. But if there’s something that seems to be more of a hushed topic, however, it’s how stress can negatively affect your sex drive, too.  

While I can’t tout in-depth studies on exactly how many people are experiencing this during quarantine, speaking candidly with my friends has brought an interesting topic to the forefront: namely, how we felt an initial horniness at the beginning of quarantine and how quickly it dissipated into a low libido.

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. In fact, I spoke with a handful of sex therapists, and they say it’s totally normal to notice a dip in desire when stress takes control. Keep reading to find out why.   

Is a lower libido normal during chaotic times?

As you might have guessed, stress isn’t exactly conducive to pleasurable sex. “Lower libido and even less-satisfying sex are very common during chaotic times,” says Caitlin V. Neal, M.P.H., clinical sexologist for Royal, a vegan-friendly condom and lubricant company. “Think about it in terms of our ancestors. If you were being chased by a sabertooth tiger, it wouldn’t do you much good to be sexually aroused at the same time. Your body diverts highly oxygenated blood and other resources away from your genitals and towards your extremities so that you can either fight or flee from the threat.”  

While we’re not currently dealing with flesh-hungry tigers (well, except in the case of Carole Baskin—sorry, had to), the threat we’re facing is even more terrifying, as the coronavirus (COVID-19)—and news surrounding it—doesn’t stop chasing us. It’s everywhere we look. And, according to Neal, if you perceive a threat every time you open social media, turn on the television, or step outside, your body is in a constant state of fight or flight, which can make it pretty difficult to get aroused.  

And that’s not even touching on thoughts beyond the virus itself. When you start taking all of the side effects of COVID-19 into account—including your health, the health of your loved ones, job security, the inability to congregate and socialize as you once did—it’s no wonder you might have noticed a lower libido over the past few months.  

“While sex can be a great distraction for some, many of us find that all the uncertainty in the world right now is prohibiting us from tapping into our sensual side enough to enjoy sex,” says Searah Deysach, longtime sex educator and owner of sex toy store Early to Bed.   

What about a libido that ebbs and flows?

All that said, Deysach says that it’s not uncommon for someone to have a high libido one day (or days) and a low libido the next. “For some of us, the beginning of staying at home meant being around a lover all the time or home with not much else to do, so people may have been more into sex. But as the weeks have worn us down, it can be harder to drum up enthusiasm for sex,” she explains.   

Of course, it’s impossible to say that everyone experiences this sexual variation. After all, sex drives are rather unique and often counterintuitive in that they act one way for one person and a completely different way for someone else—and that’s totally fine (not to mention normal). 

“Many people feel their sex drive kick in during times of complete emotional overwhelm, stress, or sadness (like after funerals—it’s a thing),” says Dr. Jill McDevitt, resident sexologist for sex toy emporium CalExotics. “And many people also feel their sex drive totally shoot down during times of high stress. But with chronic stress—when the body is under regular, ongoing stress—the sex drive is diminished. Along with desire, chronic stress is also associated with lower levels of sexual arousal, sexual satisfaction, and sexual activity.”   

Okay, but how does stress actually affect one’s sex drive?

Point blank: Stress and sex don’t mix. At least not in the long term.  

Stress spikes cortisol, a very useful and important hormone for facing temporary stressful events—like misreading the walk sign and accidentally stepping out in front of a moving car,” says Dr. Jordin Wiggins, naturopathic doctor and sexual health evolver. “Your body needs stress in situations like these to keep you alert, but the problem is our bodies don’t know the difference between life-threatening, isolated stress and long-lasting, chronic stress. They just react the same way to all stress.” 

She goes on to note that when cortisol increases for long periods of time—say, during a worldwide pandemic—it affects everything from digestion and immune function to body fat storage and the ability for your brain to process and react to sexual cues. “You are fighting an uphill battle against your brain, body, and hormones when you’re stressed, because when you’re in a state of constant stress, they have more important things to worry about than getting turned on.”  

Is it bad if my sex drive spikes in times of stress?

Let’s be clear: If you don’t experience a diminished sex drive in chaotic times, it doesn’t mean something’s wrong with you. Remember: As McDevitt points out, there’s no universal baseline of what a sex drive should be.  

Neal tacks on to this, noting that if you’re someone who experiences an increase in their sex drive during stressful times, you’re not alone. However, in the case of a worldwide viral pandemic, you may just want to take extra precautions—like having a limited number of sexual partners and practicing using protection with anyone you do engage with—so that you can avoid unnecessary risk-taking. 

What are the best ways to enhance your libido during stressful times?

Now that you know that whatever you’re feeling is A-okay, you might be feeling more at ease. And the more laidback you feel, the more likely you’ll be able to climax. So, with that in mind, scroll below for a few ways to boost your libido in chaotic times (so long as that’s what you’re looking to do—no pressure).

1Remove arousal inhibitors from your home.

According to Ohnut founder and CEO Emily Sauer, it’s essential to diminish any libido roadblocks from your routine if you want to be aroused—like cleaning a messy home or getting intimate even when a relative is sharing close quarters with you. “Expecting sex to gracefully happen when these factors work against us is neither realistic nor appealing,” she says.

2Be intentional with what you can control.

McDevitt says the most straightforward thing you can do is eliminate the stressor. “If that’s not possible (because, for instance, your stressor is a global pandemic), then be intentional about the parts you can control—such as limiting how much time you spend reading the news or how often you talk about it. Be deliberate with setting aside time for stress prevention and management, such as exercise (hey, endorphins!) or mindful meditation,” she says.

Also, set aside time for intimacy. It’s important to not always pressure yourself to get your libido up or try to have sex. Instead, try cuddling, giving a shoulder massage, kissing, or just lying in bed with sensual music playing in the background, McDevitt suggests. “What you might find is that these things are really fun and really enjoyable! And without the pressure, you might also find your sex drive kicks up in response, anyway. I call this ‘fake it til you make it’ (the technical term is ‘responsive desire’), and you’d be amazed at how well it works.”

3Cater to your senses.

Sauer suggests spicing things up by focusing on all five senses. “One fun thing to try is a suggestion by a favorite sex therapist of mine named Heather Davidson which is called ‘The 5 Senses’ activity; you set a timer and write down five things that turn you on sexually for each sense,” she says. “[Then dedicate] 30 seconds for each sense: touch, taste, smell, see, hear. Some senses might be blank, it’s up to you to figure out what does the trick.”

4Try scheduling and prioritizing pleasure.

Just like you have to make time for exercise, you have to do the same for sex—even if it sounds less than sexy and spontaneous to do so. “If we don’t set aside time for ourselves to experience pleasure, we won’t do it, because our brains and bodies will keep us on heightened alert for incoming threats,” Neal says. “Also, be sure to schedule lots of time (think in terms of hours if you can) for pleasure so that your nervous system has time to switch from fight or flight mode to rest and digest mode, which is where arousal takes place.”

“Instead of focusing on sex, which can feel like a lot of pressure for someone with a low libido, focus on making each other feel good by exchanging massages, taking a hot bath, cuddling in bed, and other activities that help decrease stress,” she continues. “Then if sex happens, it’s a bonus.”

5Don’t knock self-pleasure.

No partner? No problem. With an abundance of sex toys on the market (the SONA™ 2 Cruise Cerise, the Pom, and b. Vibe’s Petite Rimming Plug are a few of our faves), there’s no time like the present to get a little hands-on with yourself. Beyond making yourself feel good, it can actually help set yourself up for pleasure success with a partner down the road. “If you don’t already have a self-pleasure practice in place, it’s vital to start one,” Neal says. “Just like it’s easier to get a pot of water boiling if it’s already on simmer, it’s easier for us to want sex when we’re keeping ourselves aroused. If you’re not filling up your own cup and instead only approaching pleasure when a partner is involved, you’re setting both of you up to fail.”

Dr. Wiggins tacks onto this with a touch of science to really drive the point home. “Self-pleasure has been proven to lead to better communication and intimacy in relationships and improves relaxation, sleep, dopamine production, and mood.”   

In other words, don’t shy away from rubbing one out. It’s doctor’s orders.   

A final word

At the end of the day, it’s important that the terms used to describe sex drive are entirely comparative. Think about it like this: A low sex drive for you might be a high sex drive for someone else. Whatever you’re experiencing—or whatever you’re feeling or are incapable of feeling during times of stress—is totally normal. 

“If quarantine is making you more horny than usual, that’s normal; if you’re deep in doomsday vibes and you haven’t felt so much as a sexual twinge in two months, that’s normal too,” McDevitt says. “I have coaching clients who are experiencing both—and everything in between. The key is self-compassion, understanding that your libido fluctuates throughout your entire life, and meeting yourself where you’re at right now.” 

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