Sex and Stress

Once upon a time there was a girl who lived on a diet of coffee, adrenaline and busyness. She worked in a somewhat un-fairy-tale-esque high pressured job in London, studied for an MA part-time and lived in a shabby shared flat in the East End.

That girl was me. And unlike in the movies where everything turns out hunky-dory, this girl ended up meeting a guy she liked, falling in love, looking forwards to bonking happily ever after… and then promptly and completely lost her sex drive.

If this has ever happened to you, you might know how soul (and relationship) destroying it can be to experience a drop in desire.

The constant disappointment, guilt, arguments and silence created through a mismatch in wanting sex is heart-breaking, and can leave the lower libido partner wondering what on earth is wrong with them, feeling very much broken and alone.

It is estimated that up to 43% of women experience a low libido at some point in their lives.

In our culture it’s normalised that these drops in desire might occur as we get older, but finding yourself in your late twenties with no palpable reason as to why your libido is suddenly MIA can feel quite overwhelming.

Especially because we live in a sexualised society in which the assumption is you should be “into sex”.

I felt like an outsider looking in– perplexed as to why other people wanted sex and I just…. didn’t.

Recovering my desire felt like an impossible task because I couldn’t conjure up any kind of feeling of sexuality inside– that part of me felt totally lost without any ability to find my way back to it.

After a year of feeling quite ashamed, and unable to relate to others in my life or find any resources that resonated with how I felt, I came across Emily Nagoski’s book “Come as You Are”.

Instead of giving quick fix tips of how eating broccoli or drinking sex coffee (yes, that’s a thing) would help, the book talks about how women’s sexuality is heavily intertwined with our mental health and lifestyles. And I realised to my astonishment she spoke about how much stress could close down desire.


Nagoski’s book taught me that stress is biologically designed to shut down your desire. A phrase I heard recently sums this up:

“if a tiger was chasing you, sex isn’t really the first thing on your mind”.

In the same way as running from a tiger, our bodies react to a stressor by getting us ready for flight or fight. Feeling horny is useless on this occasion, and our bodies instead concentrate on increasing our heart rate and blood flow to help us run away, and pumps cortisol (the stress hormone) around our bodies to keep us alert.

My lifestyle- giving work my all, studying in all of my spare time, trying to juggle socialising and chores and general staying alive- meant I was experiencing high stress levels that I hadn’t even identified weren’t normal. For me- that was just life.

But it was these stress levels and my inability to relax that were the cause of my bedroom blues.

My problem was I just never really bounced back as quickly as I thought I would when the stress was over, because my body, mind and lifestyle were running in a high gear and I just couldn’t bring them down without some work.

For some of us, stress just becomes the familiar weight we carry around with us everyday, and sometimes we need a reminder of how to set it down, look up, and enjoy ourselves instead.

It’s not an easy road to reducing stress, but know that it’s totally worth it. This is one of those lifelong seesaws where you’ll juggle this throughout your journey through work, kids, marriage, buying houses etc.

However, being aware of the impact of stress and a busy life, and having some coping strategies to manage, will help you keep a healthy balance.


So, the only way I found to resolve stress? To decrease the pressure.

So, here’s how I manage (and am always managing!) stress so that it doesn’t squash my libido:

#1 I learned about how to recognise stress

Stress used to be an infrequent experience for our ancestors- a passing lion, a hungry wolf, outrunning a bear…. but now for many of us it’s an everyday issue.

If you’re like me, you might carry around stress because the weight becomes so familiar that it feels somewhat comforting.

Perhaps you haven’t even noticed you feel stressed because it’s crept up on you so gradually you’re used to bearing the load.

There is a strange sense of satisfaction in being busy, so feeling frazzled just feels like the backing track to our lives- regular, normal, and expected.

My golden rule for recognising everyday stress is…

If you’re too busy to have a break, that’s when you really need one.

If you don’t have time for lunch, a cup of tea, to put your feet up and relax, or to have sex, you’re stressed.

And a break is likely what you need most in the whole world right now.

Listen to warning signs like irritability, anxiety or frustration when others interrupt or try and encourage you to take a break. They’re sending an SOS signal to you that it’s time to step back and reduce your stress levels.

Read this post for three things that I realised about stress and my sex drive that were super helpful!

#2 I exercise

If I said your sex life depends on your morning jog, would you believe me?

I used to moan like a mofo about doing exercise until I read Nagoski’s book and it all made sense to me about why it’s important. Obviously you run to increase your physical health. But it also has an invaluably positive effect on your mental heath because of, well, evolution!

If your body is in flight or fight mode because of stress, exercise tricks your brain into thinking you’ve outpaced that tiger and reached safety. So it relaxes, produces dopamine again, and you’ve got the green light for sex.

Because stress is cumulative, so too needs to be your exercise routine to continue to trick your body into feeling safe again.

#3 I change my perception- decrease the demand or increase the resource

Stress is so common because it occurs when a person feels that the perceived demands on them (work, family, parenting, life) exceed the resources they have to deal with them.

I’ve learned that it’s the “perceived” part of this that’s important. Often the levels of everyday stresses we have don’t change that much.

But our perception of them does.

So what one day we’d be as cool as a cucumber over the next could be the proverbial straw that cause us to go into nuclear meltdown.

The positive message behind that is, if you can change your perception of either the demands placed on you or the resources you have to cope, you can learn to manage everyday stress.

To change the demands, think about how tasks can be delegated, downgraded, forgotten or aren’t as life-threatening or time-critical as once thought.

To increase the resource, step away from the task and look after yourself (e.g. by talking it over with someone else, doing some exercise, taking a nap). Change the frame through which you’re viewing the issue by approaching it less panicked, flustered, pressurised, and the challenge will seem lessened.

#4: BE, don’t DO

I recently read an amazing article on the power of having a “to-be” list and not a “to-do list”. At first I thought it was cheesy as, but the more I thought about it, it makes sense. We measure our lives by the tasks achieved, we’re obsessed with multi-tasking and busyness, not our happiness, sense of peace or connection with others. And that’s not right.

Write a “to-be” list tomorrow instead which includes how you want your sex life to be, and start ticking off your dreams and memories rather than actions and tasks.

#5: Cull!

I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Cull the shit in your life that you don’t need.

Appointments. Stuff. People. There’s obviously a huge amount of thought that needs to go into this, but life is WAY too short to be spending your precious time and energy on things that don’t add to your life. I culled a lot and have so much more free time and head space. I spend it on rediscovering my sexuality and having great sex instead- you’ll thank me later!

As someone whose libido crumples under the weight of even the slightest hint of strife, to have a good and healthy sex life I need to take care of myself and remember to reduce my stress levels.

This is an ongoing battle and not something you ever “solve”- it’s a constant balance of self-care in the face of what life has to throw at you. And my sex drive is never static, so checking in with myself and how I feel is essential to me wanting to have sex.

How about you?

How does stress affect you and your sex drive?




P.S. if you found this section useful you might also want to check out the posts on making time for sex, anxiety, and learning how to relax and let go.

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