Relationship Tips

Stress Can Be Unavoidable—Here Are 4 Ways To Keep It From Ruining Sexual Intimacy

Kells McPhillips

Photo: Getty Images/Adene Sanchez
There are many adjectives that could aptly describe the past year (like "unprecedented," "bizarre," and "catastrophic," for a few examples), but "sensual" certainly isn't one of them—and it makes sense why. Pandemic times aren't exactly a turn-on, after all. "Although sexual frequency can either increase or decrease in times of prolonged stress, the quality of and satisfaction with sex will generally decrease," wrote Marieke Dewitte, assistant professor of experimental health psychology at the Maastricht University in the Netherlands, in a 2020 journal. But while cultivating a sense of sexual intimacy during the pandemic in a partnered relationship structure may require a concerted effort, it's certainly not impossible with the help of some communication and self care.

But how can we communicate effectively when we're so stressed? According to Mia Sabat, a sex therapist at Emjoy, a sexual well-being audio app for vulva-owners and women, it's not a cut-and-dry pursuit. "Stressful conditions often cause us to feel exhausted, overwhelmed, distracted, and even discouraged. Needless to say, this can take a toll on our physical, psychological, and emotional state," she says. Keep in mind that on a basic biological level, stress can manifest as symptoms like headaches and general fatigue that serve to decrease a person's desire to have sex. It can also make reaching orgasm difficult for people who have a clitoris, even when they do get it on, adds Sabat.

Of course, partnered intimacy isn't just about sex. Emotional, mental, and spiritual intimacy are all part of the feel-good equation—and, unfortunately, all of those also stand to get disrupted during the pandemic. "Mentally, feeling distracted or struggling to be present during intimate moments can make your partner(s) feel upset, which typically results in a discouraging experience for everyone involved," says Sabat. "Stress often causes changes in our character, mood, emotions, irritability, and tension levels, which make all of the previously mentioned challenges even more difficult."

"It’s so important to not blame yourself when dealing with stress and its effects on your mind, body, and sex life." —Mia Sabat

So in order to care for all four segments of intimacy—physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual—during the pandemic, Sabat has a few exercises to keep you and your partner(s) in sync. Just make sure that throughout the months ahead, you're also giving yourself plenty of understanding for this, shall we say, unique situation. "It’s so important to not blame yourself when dealing with stress and its effects on your mind, body, and sex life," says Sabat. "Allow yourself to feel your emotions, and don’t push yourself to overcome your feelings before you’re ready."

4 strategies for safeguarding sexual intimacy during the pandemic

1. Invest your time in simple pleasures

"Daily pleasures and their power should not be underestimated. Start small by focusing on simple activities that bring you peace of mind. Eat something you love, spend time in nature, watch a movie, and dance around your bedroom to your favorite song," says Sabat.

When we actively invite joy into our days, we help our body interrupt the stress-chemical producing process in favor of the endorphin-production process. A quick bout of exercise is a great place to start.

Insert joy into your day with this beginner dance class:

2. Masturbate

According to Sabat, pleasure is contagious: Once you have a little, you just want more. "Connect with self-pleasure, engage with erotica that speaks to you, and let your imagination have the freedom to explore pleasure as it appeals to you. Remember, pleasure itself helps to generate a desire for pleasure. The more we engage with it, the more we’ll recognize pleasure in our daily lives, and the more comfortable and excited we’ll feel interacting with it," she says.

If that's not express permission to buy a new vibrator, I don't what is.

3. Notice and note when you feel stressed—and get to the root cause

For so many of us, stress can feel as ever-present as, say, breathing or eating. But, whether we like to think about it or not, every stress has a guiding stressor behind it—and Sabat wants you to go looking for yours.

"When you notice you are feeling stressed, take a moment to ask yourself a few questions: What is causing my stress? How can I lower my stress level? What actions can I take to counteract my stress levels right now? Sourcing the cause will help you to stop it from overwhelming you," she says. Then, once you've determined the cause, go ahead and take care of yourself using the coping mechanisms that work for you.

4. Be transparent with your partner(s) when you're feeling stressed

There's no need to put on a show for your partner(s) to make them think everything's "just fine!" if it's not. In fact, you stand to gain emotional intimacy by telling them when your mindset feels off. "See if there are things you can do to both relieve stress and rekindle your desire through new techniques, positions, fantasies, or toys. Even intimate acts like kissing or hugging your partner will help you reduce stress levels and mitigate the negative effects stress might have on your sex life," says Sabat.

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