People often speak of the human body as though it were nothing but a machine, and yet arousal begins in, and depends on, the brain. Confidence, intimacy, even self-esteem, all play their part.
Erections and Libido
The penis contains two cylindrical chambers known as the “corpora cavernosa” that extend from the head of the penis to the pelvis. Until the later part of the 20th century, no one understood how the blood became trapped. Clearly, blood filled the penis and caused it to harden, but why didn’t it simply flow away again? What enabled the blood to remain there long enough to perform the sexual act?
First, the man becomes aroused. Once that happens, a brain chemical known as nitric oxide releases. This functions as a neurotransmitter and causes the enzyme guanylate cyclase to produce the messenger cGMP, which increases the size of the blood vessels carrying blood to the penis. It also decreases the size of the vessels carrying the blood away. Thus blood builds, allowing an erection to form.
As can be seen, an erection is a complex business. Indeed, it is a question of team work: brain, nerves, hormones, and blood vessels all working together. Unsurprisingly, things often go wrong, and many people with complaints like diabetes or high blood pressure find it difficult to maintain or even form an erection.
Of course, erections depend on desire. If the man has a low libido, his erections will be weak. Stress can lower libido, so can poor diet, and of course the aging process. Sometimes, there may be a physical problem requiring medical intervention; if your libido has vanished, get yourself checked out. Too often, people put it down to age. But there is no reason why a man in his 50s or 60s should no longer enjoy a sex life.
Anxiety and Depression
Most men know that anxiety and depression affect their sex life. Indeed, most have experienced this at some point: problems at work, mounting debt, health concerns, even a dreaded birthday, can all trigger stress or depression.
The problem lies in the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). This is made up of two parts, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, that need to work in unison. Stress and depression interfere with their functioning.
The sympathetic nervous system both helps your body become aroused and prepares it to take action (the so-called “fight or flight” response). The parasympathetic part helps the body calm down once the stimulus has gone.
When sexually aroused, these two work together to produce an erection. Imagine you meet a new partner and, after a few dates, decide to move things to the bedroom. As she, or he, undresses, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, calming you down so that the sympathetic part can arouse you and send messages to the penis to engorge with blood.
When you are under stress, however, the parasympathetic part struggles to calm the body. That is because the sympathetic nervous system is responding to the fight or flight stimulus and preparing the body to attack or run away. In other words, it is preoccupied with the stressor. Meanwhile, the new stressor, which is trying to send the message that this man or woman is attractive and that the penis ought to engorge, cannot get through.
As if this weren’t bad enough, stress also floods the body with a hormone known as cortisol. Studies suggest that its effect on a man’s sex drive can be disastrous. To make it even worse, while stress increases the amount of cortisol, it decreases the amount of testosterone.
Fear of Intimacy
Fear of intimacy is another common problem. Of course, many men are able to have sex without intimacy. If they weren’t, prostitution would not exist, and no one would ever have a one night stand. Some men, however, find this simply doesn’t work and are unable to perform unless there is trust and affection. Others are able to go through with casual sex but find it pleasureless, even boring. In general, men find the sensations more enjoyable when they love or care for the person they are with, and when that love and care is returned.
Unfortunately, many people associate sex and intimacy with shame. And this can begin very early. Someone whose mother regarded sex as a dirty and unpleasant thing may instill the same belief in her son. And she need not be explicit. A parent need not inform their child that sex is disgusting in order to damage them. Silence and discomfort may be enough.
Parents can also cause damage by going too far the other way. Some boys feel intense shame at an early age and hate any talk of sex or relationships. If their father or uncle jokes about sex all the time, the boy may withdraw into himself. He feels watched and judged and, in some cases, will shut down sexually in order to punish them.
When someone says they need to learn trust, they often mean they worry that lowering their defences will result in humiliation. And this need not be related to sex. A man who was badly bullied, either at home or at school, may harbor a lifelong dread of humiliation. A couple of bad early experiences in the bedroom (not uncommon of course) then forms a link in his mind between sex, intimacy, and humiliation.
Fear of Failure
The problem with sexual dysfunction is that it tends to snowball. The man has a bad sexual experience. He meets a woman, they rush to the bedroom, and he can’t get an erection. His partner feels rejected and accuses him of not being a real man, of wasting her time, and so on. That in turn causes him intense stress and pain.
The next sexual encounter is approached with fear and trepidation instead of excitement and joy. He then tenses up, and that tension makes it impossible for him to get an erection. The fear now takes over and each subsequent experience is a failure. In turn, that means depression, which obviously makes everything worse, and on it goes.
The Ideal Psychological State
The mind is complex and our problems are often unconscious. For example, a man goes to counselling only to discover that his problems stem from a sexual assault by a babysitter, which he had repressed for 20 years.
One psychosexual counsellor found that her client’s problems began when his brother got promotion! His self-esteem was rocked and he felt unworthy of his wife (who was a very materialistic lady). Thus he couldn’t get an erection. Unsurprisingly, that lowered his self-esteem further and made him feel even more belittled, which in turn caused tension, fear, stress, and depression. All of this lowered his libido still further and made erections all but impossible.
Now for the good news. The brain is plastic, meaning that it constantly updates and rewires in response to new experiences. If those new experiences are bad, the rewiring will be bad; if good, the rewiring will be good. So be careful what you expose yourself to. It has long been known that the first sexual experience has a lasting impact, so if yours was negative, you may want to look into therapy for this.
The ideal state for a man is relaxed but aroused. Unfortunately, the latter depends on the former. If you are not relaxed, chances are you won’t be aroused either. For example, men often find that a couple of weeks vacation in the sun does wonders for their libido and erections. Free from the stress of the office, with the warm sun on their skin, their body begins to relax. And as it relaxes, their libido increases.
Finding the right partner is key. The kinder, gentler, and more patient they are, the more chance you have of recovering. How you treat that partner also counts. Some men, when they have sexual problems, panic and search for someone to experiment on. But using people in this way will lower your self-esteem. If she, or he, seems to want more, the knowledge that you are using them will create inner tension and subconscious guilt.
Ultimately, you need to have faith in your own body, so treat it with respect. Begin by eating healthily. Cut down on alcohol, sugar, caffeine, and junk food and begin a new diet filled with natural, whole foods. It may sound a little hippyish, but your body is part of the Earth and responds best to the foods that grow around you, ideally in their raw, natural state. Eat plenty of salads, nuts, etc, and try meditation and exercise as well.
When your body is in good shape, your mind will respond. Clean both body and mind of all toxins, from junk food to pornography. Find a partner with whom you feel happy and relaxed and to whom you can explain your problems. Tell them that you need time and that if they cannot offer this you will understand.
Next, get yourself checked out by a doctor so as to rule out any physiological problem. Again, this will increase your confidence.
Losing libido and erections can be devastating. Indeed, for many it means the end of their relationship. But, if you are willing to put in the time and effort, progress can be made.