It is highly unusual for someone to never experience a sexual concern, with such concerns ranging from commonplace (e.g., worries about being “normal”) to more debilitating (e.g., painful intercourse). Likewise, most of us experience worry and stress, although, obviously, some people are more prone to worry more than others. The bottom line is that concerns about both stress and sex are commonplace. Importantly, they also share a great deal of overlap in terms of causes and solutions.
The most important shared cause is our brain. In terms of sex, your most important sex organ is between your ears. In fact, if your head's not in the game, it does not really matter what's happening between your legs. Satisfying sex requires letting go of self-observation and critique during sex (e.g., worries about looking good, “doing it right” and the like). Similarly, shameful thoughts have no place in a sexual encounter.
Similarly, our thoughts can also be one of the most powerful causes of worry and stress. We humans can think about the past and the future, and this unique ability has both positive and negative consequences. Our ability to think beyond the present enables both learning from our mistakes and problem-solving. But our thoughts can also transport us away from the present moment and contribute to our stress. Active problem-solving (e.g., thinking ahead to "If I do this, I can solve that") is different than worry that can spiral out of control (e.g., thinking ahead to our worst fears with no problem solving entailed).
In essence, then, our thinking brains can cause both sexual problems and stress. We also have the capacity to solve both with overlapping solutions! Three strategies for great sex and serenity are listed and explained below.
Mindfulness. As I say in Becoming Cliterate, “Mindfulness is sex's best friend!" Mindfulness is being in the present moment and noticing, without judgment, when one’s mind invariably wanders and brining it back to the moment. Some recent brain studies report that the mind-state one enters directly prior to orgasm is the same one as found in deep mindful meditation. Indeed, orgasm requires turning your brain off and focusing in the present—and this is what mindfulness is.
Mindfulness has also been found to decrease stress. While most people think that you must meditate (for at least 20 minutes to an hour) daily to learn mindfulness, you can actually get the benefits by practicing mindfulness during daily tasks. For example, the next time you wash your hands, totally immerse in the physical sensations of the water and soap on your hands and bring your mind back when it wanders. Of course, a daily meditation practice can also help—and it does not need to take hours. In fact, I have a short and effective daily mindfulness practice. Each day when I wake up, I get a cup of coffee and take it to my "meditation corner" which is a pillow I sit on in front of a table filled with candles. I light the candles, sit down, turn on my favorite six-minute music meditation and drink my coffee. I immerse in watching and hearing the flickering candles and the music, as well as the warmth of the cup in my hands and the flavor of the coffee as it hits my taste buds. Inevitably, during my very short morning meditation, my mind wanders (e.g., to tasks of the day or worries from yesterday). Still, in line with the principles of mindfulness, I notice this without judgment and consciously return to the present moment.
The take-away message here is that mindfulness is a scientifically proven strategy to lessen worry and enhance sex.
Exercise: Research shows that exercise decreases both long-term and short-term stress. The positive effects of exercise on stress are in large part due to the feel-good hormones released during exercise, which seem to have both an immediate and a cumulative effect if one develops and sticks with an ongoing, consistent exercise program. These same hormones are responsible for exercise having a positive effect on sexual functioning. Indeed, according to one article, "A vigorous workout affects hormones, neurotransmitters, and autonomic nervous system activity. It also raises and sustains levels of an enzyme in women that increases genital blood flow and arousal. Just 20 minutes of exercise could boost sexual arousal by 169 percent." These effects are short-lived, however, and so one great strategy for better sex is to exercise directly before getting it on.
Also, one form of exercise has been linked to more long-term benefits in sexual satisfaction. That exercise is yoga. This could be due to the mindfulness that yoga helps to cultivate.
The take-away message here is that moving your body is good for quieting your worry and for enhancing what you do with that body between the sheets.
Sleep: As long as we’re talking about the bedsheets, guess what? A good night of sleep is effective for both diminishing stress and enhancing sex. One study found that the longer women slept, the more interested in sex they were the next day. In fact, only one extra hour of sleep led to a 14% increase in the chances of having a sexual encounter the following day. This same study found that better sleep was related to better genital arousal.
Of relevance to the stress and sex connection, one of main culprits of insomnia is stress. Ironically, however, lack of sleep renders us less able to deal with stress. An article by the American Psychological Association explains that "When they do not get enough sleep, 21 percent of adults report feeling more anxiety.
It seems, however, that getting a restful night of sleep is more elusive for many people than starting an exercise or meditation program. But it’s well-worth the effort. Put "sleep hygiene" into an internet search engine and you will come up with many helpful resources, such as this one.
The take-to-bed message here is that sleep will help quell and prevent anxiety and enhance your interest in and pleasure in sex.
In sum—mindfulness, exercise, and good sleep—are almost guaranteed to make you feel better by decreasing your stress and enhancing your sex. Try one, two, or better yet—all three of them—today.