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How stress affects our sex lives (& what to do about it)

Stress is a nearly constant force in human life, and always has been. We may not (typically) need to sprint away from hungry lions or fight off enemy factions like our long-ago ancestors did, but we have stressors of our own that they didn’t have to worry about: money, work, the internet, the climate crisis, and more. And just like them (one can assume), our stressors sometimes have an impact on our sex lives.

Sex educator Emily Nagoski teaches a model of sexuality predicated on the idea that each of us has a “sexual accelerator” and “sexual brakes.” Your accelerator is the part of you that responds favorably to sexual stimulation – it creates excitement and arousal when, for example, you watch porn, read erotica, or give your partner a passionate kiss.

Your sexual brakes, on the other hand, make it more difficult for you to get turned on when they’re engaged – just like it’d be hard to cruise down the road if you kept stomping on the brake pedal every few feet. Sexual brakes can be activated by body image issues, relationship tensions, medical problems, and anything else in your life that stresses you out. Science has shown us that an increase in cortisol, the stress hormone, interferes with our ability to get turned on, both physically and psychologically – as you’ve no doubt noticed, if you’ve found yourself feeling utterly unenthused about sex after a hard day at work or a daunting series of social interactions.

A lot of advice aimed at people with waning libidos, Nagoski argues, is focused on their sexual accelerator. We might advise these people, for instance, to watch more porn, experiment with BDSM, or try some roleplay. While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this approach, for many people it’s not all that helpful because their problem is actually their sexual brakes. They need to ease their foot off that brake pedal before they’ll be able to pick up speed.

So how can you stop your stress from messing up your sex life? Here are some suggestions…

● Create a de-stressing ritual (or a whole toolbox of different ones to choose from) that you can do before sex to calm your nervous system and get you into the right headspace for pleasure. Some people might do this by going for a run and then taking a hot shower; some might prefer to read a good book in a candlelit bath; some might want to do some knitting while watching a comedy TV show… Whatever works for you, make it a priority!
● Do some physical activity together with your partner before sex. Physical exertion helps complete your body’s stress cycle, according to Nagoski – i.e. it flushes out accumulated stress hormones and helps your body understand that you are not being chased by a lion or in any equivalent danger. Doing this together with your partner can prime your bodies and brains for intimacy. Try going for a walk or run together, dancing together, wrestling, or tickling one another.
● Practice mindfulness during sex. Nagoski says, for example, that you’ll tend to have better results if you focus on how your body is feeling during sex (which can activate your sexual accelerator) and avoid focusing on how your body looks during sex (which hits the brakes pretty hard for many people). The more you can focus on what you’re actually experiencing, the more you’ll be able to enjoy it.


Kate Sloan is a journalist, blogger, podcaster, and educator who has been writing about sex online and in print for over five years. She writes about sex, kink, relationships, fashion, beauty, writing, and mental health. She has been voted a Sex Blogging Superhero for four years running, and her words reach over 22,000 sex nerds, weirdos and queerdos every month. As a journalist and essayist, Kate has written for Glamour, Teen Vogue, Daily Xtra, the Establishment, Maisonneuve, Herizons, the Plaid Zebra, xoJane, and more.

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