Maintaining a satisfying sex life with your chosen partner is a significant pillar of any healthy relationship. But research suggests it also has a surprising impact on your overall mental health. On the flip side, a sudden change in your libido could indicate the presence of a mental health concern, including depression, anxiety, or a mood disorder. Here’s everything the science has revealed so far about the connection between sex and mental health.
Depression and Intimacy
Low sex drive is among the most common complaints of those living with depression. Depression can cause you to lose interest in many of the things you used to find enjoyable - including intimacy with your partner. In addition, many of the medications prescribed to treat depression can also cause a lowered libido.
The lack of intimacy that accompanies mental illness can exacerbate feelings of isolation, ultimately worsening symptoms. It can also be a source of contention in your relationship.
Anxiety and Intimacy
Anxiety can also negatively affect your libido. When you're stressed, your body releases a hormone called cortisol, which has a dampening effect on your desire for intimacy. Furthermore, it can be hard to relax and enjoy much of anything, especially intimate encounters, when you have other things on your mind.
Mood Disorders, Addiction, and Risky Behaviors
On the opposite end of the spectrum, people suffering from mood disorders or addiction risk taking their desires too far. People who suffer from mood disorders are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as unprotected sex, drug use, and driving under the influence.
For example, some people engage in risky sexual behaviors during a manic episode, putting themselves at risk of contracting STIs or damaging their relationship with their partner.
The interplay between your relationships, sex and mental health means it's vital to be proactive about practicing mental hygiene. You should never hesitate to seek professional help if you experience an uncharacteristic slump in your mood and libido.
Is Sex Good for Mental Health?
Physical intimacy with your chosen partner has several benefits for your mental health and overall relationship satisfaction.
It Releases Feel-Good Hormones
Your brain responds to physical affection and intimacy by releasing hormones that elevate your mood by activating "pleasure centers" in your brain. These hormones include:
Oxytocin - The Love Hormone: Oxytocin is often referred to as the love hormone because it plays a role in social bonding, reproduction, and child-rearing. Oxytocin is released when you engage in intimate behaviors. Oxytocin has many benefits, including reducing anxiety and stress, promoting relaxation, and increasing feelings of trust, love, and empathy.
Serotonin -The Happy Hormone: Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in mood, sleep, memory, and learning. It's often referred to as the 'happy hormone' because it's associated with feelings of well-being and happiness. A lack of serotonin is a major contributing factor to depression.
Dopamine - The Reward Hormone: Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in the brain's reward system. It's released when we eat, exercise, or experience pleasure. Dopamine is also involved in learning and memory. A lack of dopamine is associated with depression, Parkinson's disease, and other conditions.
Flooding a sad brain with these feel-good hormones creates feelings of relaxation and contentment while helping fight off bouts of depression and anxiety.
It Boosts Confidence
Spending more time wrapped up between the sheets with your partner does more than stimulate the release of feel-good hormones. Physical intimacy also boosts self-confidence and improves self-perception, leading you to have an overall more positive attitude about yourself.
It's unclear whether the confidence results from the surge of positive hormones or the mere knowledge that someone you're attracted to is also attracted to you. But either way, self-confidence is a crucial ingredient for breaking a depressive spell.
It Strengthens Emotional Connections
One more bonus side effect of all those feel-good hormones is that they help you feel closely bonded to your partner, which fights off the feelings of loneliness that often accompany depression. If you want to break love down into a science, oxytocin is the magic neurotransmitter that activates sensations of trust, togetherness, and happiness, and being intimate triggers its release.
Improve Your Mental Health and Your Love Life Will Follow
When you feel depressed or anxious, it can be tough to find the energy to connect with your partner in a meaningful way. Luckily, working on your mental health can help improve your relationship both in the bedroom and out.
In turn, a strong relationship provides social support that can protect your mental health during tough times. Research has found that people in happy relationships and marriages are less likely to experience anxiety and depression.
While the connection between a happy, healthy sex life and mental health is undeniable, physical intimacy is no substitute for qualified mental health support. If your mental health is suffering, be sure to speak to a qualified mental health professional as soon as possible.
The science of intimacy is complex, but by improving your mental well-being, you can also improve the level of intimacy in your relationships. It's a win-win!
A couples counselor can help you and your partner work together to improve your mental health and physical intimacy. Opening the lines of communication about your needs and concerns when it comes to mental health and intimacy will ultimately help you reclaim your relationship and build a foundation of mutual support.
Sign up for your judgment-free session with a certified couples counselor today if you're ready to take control of your mental health and improve intimacy in your relationship.