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Why relaxation is important for arousal

We all know stress is bad for our bodies, but what about our sex drives?

Study after study finds that stress reduces our ability to become sexually aroused, and accordingly, reduces the frequency with which we have sex. Stress can also impact our ability to pay attention to erotic stimuli – meaning that even if you manage to push through your stress, become aroused, and initiate sex with a partner, you might still find your mind wandering to places you wish it wouldn’t go. Stress has also been found to reduce our satisfaction with our sex lives, and with our relationships as a whole. Suffice it to say that stress can really mess up your erotic life!

This is true both for acute stress – like the sudden loss of a family member, or adjusting to the responsibilities of a new job – and chronic stress, like the kind experienced by people living with long-term health conditions or subject to systemic sexism or racism. We live in a world full of stressors, many of which can be hard (or impossible) to eliminate entirely. So what should you do if stress is killing your sex drive, and you want to get it back?

Sex researcher Emily Nagoski (whose online stress worksheet is a useful resource) writes in her book Burnout, which she cowrote with her sister Amelia Nagoski, that “completing the stress response cycle” is crucial for managing stress in our bodies. This involves helping your body release the tension it accumulated from whatever’s making your cortisol levels spike.

One common way to do this is via physical exercise. Walking, running, swimming, dancing – whatever your preferred method is, exercise can be a wonderful way to let off steam so your body and mind can return to a more relaxed state.

But what if you’re too tired at the end of your work day to fit exercise into your schedule so you can relax enough to have sex? Some other methods of completing the stress response cycle are less effortful, such as doing deliberately slow breathing exercises, laughing at a hilarious comedy show or movie, and doing creative activities like painting or playing music. These endeavors may not seem directly sexual, but cultivating a relaxed state of mind makes it much easier for your arousal to ramp up when you’re ready.

Friendly social interaction and physical affection also help complete the stress cycle, so if you find yourself feeling too tense for sex, try instating a tradition of cuddly couch conversations after work, or a chill dinner date once a week. Feeling physically and emotionally intimate with your partner can be relaxing in and of itself, which explains why verbal intercourse leads to easily to sexual intercourse!

A massage with sensual oil can also help convince your body that you’re safe, as can a nice soak in the tub with some scented salts. These activities make for fantastic foreplay, and their slowness gives your body plenty of time to warm up to the idea of sex.

Studies show that sex reduces stress levels, so if you’re able to break through the barrier of tension and angst, you may find deliciously relaxing pleasures on the other side. Here’s to a low-stress, sexy future for you and your sweetheart(s)!


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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