Can Stress and Anxiety Cause Sexual Dysfunction?

Stress can have a devastating effect on an individual’s sex life, affecting not only performance but also arousal and even desire. Unfortunately, as our world grows ever more crowded and fast-paced, stress rates look certain to increase.

Stress and its Causes

The word “stress,” like the word “depression,” is used far too casually. To begin with, a distinction must be made between healthy and unhealthy stress. Everyone suffers stress at some point. Indeed, in certain circumstances it can even be helpful – motivating us to fight an enemy, run away from predators, or simply get to the office on time. The problems begin when this so-called “fight or flight” response becomes jammed. In other words, instead of being triggered occasionally, in extreme circumstances, it is being set off repeatedly, throughout the day (some even find their heart pounding as they lie in bed at night). Of course, the reasons for this vary, from money worries to chronic illness, but the effect on someone’s sex life is always negative.

Begin by identifying the source of your stress. For some it can be a single trauma, like divorce, the death of a partner, or a severe injury. More often, stress is caused by the accumulation of problems. For example, someone may have a badly-behaved child, ageing and infirm parents, and a demanding and unreasonable boss. Add in an exhausting commute and chronic money-worries and stress is inevitable.

Once you know the cause, you can try to catch it before it spirals out of control. If you do not, stress tends to build in stages. First, you feel slightly hyped-up and energized. You may even feel able to act more decisively than usual. The adrenaline courses through the body and away you go. But this is only temporary. If the stress continues, you will begin to feel wired and edgy, and yet simultaneously flat and tearful. This is the moment to take action. You need to recognize what is happening and get things under control. If you do not, you will slip into stage three, where stress overwhelms you and you feel detached – as if nothing is quite real. Sleep is then interrupted and you wake in the middle of the night with pounding heart. Concentration also becomes difficult and, after a few weeks of this, the black cloud of depression descends.

When men are stressed, they often find that morning erections disappear as well. One of the problems with stress is that it increases the amount of cortisol in the body. This is a hormone produced in the cortex of the adrenal glands and, like other hormones, it has a dramatic effect on the body. To put it simply, stress means increased cortisol, increased cortisol means suppressed sex hormones, and suppressed sex hormones mean lower libido.

Practical Steps

First, you must be clear what is causing your stress. If you are worried about losing your job, for example, then obviously you must do what you can to improve the situation. Therapy or mindfulness may also help. Exercise is another excellent way to de-stress. But be careful – some forms of exercise are better than others; try things like yoga, swimming, and T’ai Chi, preferably outside in natural light. In general it is best to do your exercise as close to nature as possible. Stressed people tense up and withdraw into themselves, often feeling alienated and cut off. So if you decide to take up swimming, swim in the sea rather than in a sterilized pool lit by artificial light. In fact, anything that reconnects you with nature, like growing your own vegetables or hiking across rainy moorland, will help.

And look to your diet. Cut caffeine, sugar, processed food and refined carbs. Also, cut down on alcohol and fizzy drinks. Changing your diet is an effective way to lower cortisol as well. Whole foods, for example, have an anti-inflammatory effect. And a diet packed with adaptogens will help, so try eating things like reishi mushrooms (raw if possible). You could also try herbs like rhodiola, licorice root, and holy basil.

Body Awareness

Another problem with stress is that it imprisons people in their mind, leaving them trapped in what is sometimes referred to as “thinking-tense mode.” This is especially common when stress causes erectile dysfunction. That in turn leads to performance anxiety, which is another way of saying that the man worries whether he will become hard or not. For women it is different. If stress has lowered a woman’s libido, she can at least fake her arousal and enthusiasm until things improve. A man, for obvious anatomical reasons, cannot.

If stress has affected you in this way, you may need to reconnect with your body. Mindfulness meditation, for example, often incorporates a technique known as “the body scan.” You lie flat on your back and become aware of your body, feeling it from within. Then you focus intensely on one particular area, usually the toes or soles of the feet, becoming conscious of every sensation. Once you have done so, breathe in deeply and, as you breathe out, imagine that part of the body dissolving into sparkling light. Now focus on your ankles, again becoming aware of every sensation, repeating the exercise all the way up through the body.

Above all, do not put too much pressure on yourself. The more you do, the more the tension will build, increasing stress and making everything worse. Talk to your partner. This cannot be overemphasized. In any relationship, communication is key. Men in particular tend to be very bad at this. When your libido drops and things are not happening in the bedroom, you must explain why. If you do not, your partner will assume you no longer find him or her attractive and begin to withdraw.


If stress is causing problems, take things slowly. When tense and stressed, people do everything in a quick, panicky way. One of the reasons stressed people suffer IBS and digestive problems, for example, is that they often gulp down their food. And sex is no different. A man may become so frustrated by his weak erection, and so distracted by whatever it is that’s troubling him, that he rushes for penetration, has quick, unsatisfying intercourse, and then falls into a light, troubled sleep.

Instead, pay attention to the touch, smell, and warmth of your partner. Touch in itself can lower anxiety and stress levels. Obviously it won’t always be possible to carry out the following routine, especially not if you have small children or come home each night exhausted, but try. Assuming that you and your partner are alone in the house or apartment, begin by switching off all electronic devices: not just phones but computers screens, laptops, tablets, even TVs. Next, tidy and hoover the bedroom and make the bed. This may seem trivial, but clutter in itself can be distracting and stressful. Now take a long, hot bath or shower. Once you have done so, move into the bedroom with your partner. Light the room with candles and give one another a massage. If you’d rather not, just climb into bed and touch. Do so gently and lightly. And kiss your partner’s arms and face. Again, do so slowly.

As you lie there, keep your voices soft and gentle and do everything without the expectation of intercourse. If erections appear, just let them come and go. Do not rush for penetration. Instead, acknowledge and celebrate them. Tell your partner that he or she has caused this because they are so beautiful. All this is a way of fighting back. Stress, like depression, not only creates tension but forces people into themselves. The more intimate you can be, the lower your stress rates are likely to become.

Ask any psychosexual counsellor to list the problems they most often deal with and you can be sure that stress will be somewhere near the top. Not only does it weaken erections, it also lowers libido, blocks arousal, and makes intimacy difficult. Recognizing that stress may be to blame is the first and most important step.

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Keith Hillman

Keith Hillman is a full time writer specializing in psychology as well as the broader health niche. He has a BSc degree in psychology from Surrey University, where he particularly focused on neuroscience and biological psychology. Since then, he has written countless articles on a range of topics within psychology for numerous of magazines and websites. He continues to be an avid reader of the latest studies and books on the subject, as well as self-development literature.

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