Key Takeaways From This Article:
- Masturbation can improve mental health/self-esteem
- BDSM correlates with mental health
- Depression can decrease your sex drive
- OCD can correlate with hypersexuality
- Casual sex can impact your mental health
- Sex can ease depressive symptoms
- Sex can ease anxiety symptoms
Sex and mental health a rich topic because of how directly correlated they are to each other. We see articles one day touting how sex can improve our mental health, claiming regular sex to be the cure for everything from depression to diabetes. And then the next day, seeing articles warning against sex destroying our mental health, calling too much sex taxing on our bodies and our minds.
It’s a topic often discussed because both sex and mental health are such personal topics to the individual. They are still considered taboo areas of conversation and are still not often discussed openly and honestly amongst friends or family. But we will all at some point experience sex and how it will impact our mental health. Whether the impact is negatively or positively felt depends on how much we understand the relationship we have with sex. And to understand this relationship, here are seven different ways sex and mental health relate to each other!
1. Masturbation can improve mental health/self-esteem
Masturbation is still a taboo topic. We can see just how taboo it still is by seeing how controversial it is to discuss masturbation in sex education classes for students. And yet masturbation is not only a normal part of our sex drives, it is also a healthy manifestation of it. Masturbation helps release stress, allows us to get in touch with our bodies, and to feel pleasure without any risk of disease or pregnancy.
For women in particular, studies have shown masturbation encourages body acceptance and fosters a more open mindset for new experiences. Girls who are shamed for seeking sexual pleasure on their own grow up into women who are too shy and uncomfortable with their own bodies to explore themselves sexually. The more comfortable women feel in their own bodies, the better they can advocate for those bodies. They can better communicate to their partners what they like or don’t like in the bedroom. Masturbation helps women get to know their bodies at a literally more intimate level, helping them feel more comfortable in themselves, which in turn also makes them better partners.
2. BDSM correlates with mental health
Gone are the old days of people classifying BDSM as some kind of sexual deviancy that could point to some kind of mental disorder. BDSM has become downright mainstream, being featured prominently in movies and TV shows. But it’s not just the relaxing of social norms that has allowed BDSM to take a more central spot in the world’s sexual stage. The understanding of BDSM and its participants has broadened and deepened over the years.
In a study released by the Journal of Sexual Medicine, the fundamental psychological characteristics of BDSM practitioners were compared against a control group. The results were quite surprising.
BDSM practitioners were shown to be less neurotic than their control group counterparts. They were more extroverted, more open to new experiences, more conscientious, and had higher subjective well-being.
A large part of these qualities come from the very nature of participating in a respectful and responsible BDSM scenario. BDSM can be dangerous if partners are not upfront and honest about their boundaries and desires. In a responsible BDSM setting, each partner must communicate clearly and develop a sense of trust before they engage in any sexual activity. This fosters a sense of openness and honesty much faster than perhaps is found in traditional, ‘vanilla’ scenarios.
3. Depression can decrease your sex drive
Depression is a condition that can affect every aspect of your life. From how you eat to how you sleep to how your sex drive functions, depression is known for throwing everything out of whack. Studies have shown a loss of libido in 25%-75% of depressed patients, with its prevalence being correlated with the severity of depression. Disorders of arousal also appear to be common amongst both men and women with approximately 25% of depressed patients reporting problems with erections or lubrications.
But it’s not just depression itself that can decrease sex drive. Often, a side effect of antidepressant medication is a decrease in sex drive. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are the most widely prescribed medication and have significant effects on arousal and orgasm. This decrease in sex drive is often the leading reason for premature discontinuation of drug treatment for many patients. But more varied options are coming out now. There are many antidepressant drugs that are being released that instead target norepinephrine, dopamine, and melatonin systems which cause less sexual dysfunction in patients.
But it’s important to remember, depression isn’t something one can overcome in a night. It is a condition that must be diligently worked through with some kind of combination of medication and talk therapy for several weeks to months. As frustrating as some of the side effects of antidepressants may be, it is important to keep with the regiment your doctor and/or therapist sets for you.
4. OCD can correlate with hypersexuality
Compulsive sexual behavior disorder is an impulse-control disorder. CSBD therefore shares clinical features with obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders and other behavioral addictions (compulsive shopping, pathological gambling, kleptomania, etc). Studies have shown that a substantive number of OCD sufferers also suffered from CSBD. Usually this overlap was found more in men than women with the severity of the OCD correlating with the likelihood of also suffering from CSBD.
Both disorders can be managed with medication and therapy. Through help and support, it can be possible to learn to maintain a healthy and normal sex life even with impulse-control disorders.
5. Casual sex can impact your mental health
If we were to judge casual sex simply based on movies and TV, we’d never come to an ultimate conclusion on whether it was a good or bad thing. In some spaces, it is portrayed as empowering and freeing while on other platforms, it is shown to be something dangerous and damaging. So which is it?
Well, studies have shown that our mindset is what dictates how positive or negative casual sex can be. When people engage in casual sex for autonomous motives (e.g., I want the fun and enjoyment; I want to explore my sexuality), they tend to walk away from the experience happier and with higher signs of self-esteem. But when people engage in casual sex for non-autonomous motives (e.g. I want to please someone else; I want to escape something unpleasant), researchers have found that these people walk away from the encounter with lower self-esteem and signs of depression.
Therefore agency, or lack thereof, has been found to be one of the most important factors in how casual sex can be interpreted and experienced for a person. So before you go out for that hook up or that fling, make sure that you are in the right headspace and mindset to engage in that act!
6. Sex can ease depressive symptoms
It may seem ironic after learning about the lowering of our sex drives in depressive states but it’s true that sex and intimacy can ease depressive symptoms. In fact, simple physical intimacy–intimate touching without engaging all the way to sex–can help ease depressive symptoms.
When we are depressed, we are at a chemical imbalance that leads to low moods. Studies have shown that physical intimacy can help, if just temporarily, spike up our serotonin and oxytocin levels. And the greater the relational intimacy, the better it can also help any sexual dysfunction we might be experiencing due to depression as well.
Science is essentially backing up what therapists have been telling their patients–you don’t have to do this alone. Let the people around you help.
7. Sex can ease anxiety symptoms
Just like sex can help with depressive symptoms, sex can also help with anxiety symptoms. Not only does sex increase our serotonin levels, sex can also help lower cortisol levels, our stress hormone. It also releases the hormone prolactin which is what makes us relaxed and sleepy after sex. Anxiety is our body just running on adrenaline and stress. Sex can help us unpack that energy, letting our body release the tension and stress in a fun and enjoyable way!
Sex is a deeply intimate, personal, and primal need in all of us. But so is our search for balanced mental health. We are all trying to figure ourselves out, understand our moods and our anxieties. Sex and mental health are intrinsincally linked and the better we understand how they are linked, the better we can enjoy healthier, happier sex and mental states!