Why You Might Be Able To Blame Your Brain Fog on Pent-Up Horniness, According to a Neuroscientist

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Photo: Getty Images/Francesco Carta fotografo
We already know that brain fog in general is an all-too-common affliction of the pandemic. And, as if that weren't bad enough, it turns out that horniness can make "sex brain" (the arousal-induced fogginess you experience when NSFW thoughts are on your mind) even more severe in effect. This is novel in the midst of the pandemic because research has connected arousal to "risky" behavior, and no one needs reminding that, for public-health reasons, right now is not an ideal time for experimenting with risky sexual behavior. So, depending on your living situation and sexual preferences, you may have fewer opportunities than you're used to for a release that'll clear up your sexual brain fog.

Experts In This Article
  • Nan Wise, PhD, licensed psychotherapist, cognitive neuroscientist, and certified sex therapist

The pandemic has indeed changed many of the ways in which we interact with one another. And if you're living alone and prefer to have partnered sex, the deprivation of that—which comes with following social distancing and quarantine guidelines—can indeed lead to an increase in brain fog. "For some, the challenges of the pandemic will shut down their sexual systems, as they are flooded with stress hormones that can also result in brain fog," says cognitive neuroscientist Nan Wise, PhD, author of Why Good Sex Matters: Understanding the Neuroscience of Pleasure for a Smarter, Happier, and More Purpose-Filled Life. "For others, sexual deprivation induced by the coronavirus will itself become a stressor, and actually cause more brain fog." Of course, she adds, "differences in how our core emotional systems are wired loom large" in terms of whether or not sexual brain fog effects you period and, if so, to what degree.

"Sexual deprivation induced by the coronavirus can itself become a stressor, and actually cause more brain fog." —neuroscientist Nan Wise, PhD

So while stress itself is core to why you may experience pandemic brain fog of any iteration, its subsection of sexual brain fog stands to also be heightened under pandemic conditions. To clear the fog, for your brain and pleasure center alike, though, the solution differs from person to person and relies on emotional systems of the brain. Humans (and other mammals) have seven core emotions associated with wired-in "emotional instincts" that help us survive by mobilizing us to meet our needs. These systems come in two different flavors: defensive systems and connection or attachment systems, which notes that connecting with others can help with survival.

Sex focuses on two connection systems: LUST, which Dr. Wise characterizes as "the urge to merge," and the dopamine-fueled SEEKING system, which "gets us going forward, depending on circumstances, to either defend ourselves, or connect with others to meet our needs," she adds.

But, when you…can't connect or merge because a pandemic stipulates doing so would be gravely dangerous? Emotional pain, longing, yearning, sadness, emptiness, and a denser sense of brain fog due to that stress may result. So, if this describes how you feel, should you find a way—any way—to just have some partnered sex?

Mmmm, well, maybe not. Beyond the safe-sex concerns that come from us being in the middle of a pandemic, it's also worth noting that a sex response can spark a whole hurricane of chemicals and potent neuropeptides. This can result in good or not-so-good feelings, and what determines that difference boils down to individual differences. "The individual looking for relief might find it," say Dr. Wise. "Or they might find they're opening up a can of worms, which I call 'New Relationship Energy.'"

If you’re actually creating a new relationship, these chemical responses can be really useful, but if you’re having sex for sport, you can be left with what Dr. Wise refers to as a "hook-up hangover." "There are big individual differences in how our core emotional systems are wired," she says. "Some of us seek sex when stressed; for others, stress snuffs out sexual desire; and for some, sex can be a sporting event that is casually enjoyed; and others' attachment systems make them quite susceptible to New Relationship Energy and the stress of disconnect."

The bottom line on sexual brain fog is that personal differences factor in regarding how we respond to stress, which is key, considering that stress is a major contributor to brain fog, period. In terms of how to best proceed if you find yourself feeling off or down because you're in need of some literal sexual healing, introspect about your personal needs as they relate to sex. Understanding your relationship to sex is, after all, necessary for being an intelligent operator of your own emotional systems.

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