Forget lying back and thinking of England. These days most of us are lying back and thinking of ways to pay for the weekly supermarket shop now that all our credit cards are maxed out. The competing demands of modern life tie us all up in knots, but ironically, the one activity that could help us all unwind is generally the first casualty of our stressful lives.
Stress hormones are supposed to be a short blast response to threat -they are meant to give us the oomph to get ourselves out of trouble – but the kind of ongoing everyday angst that most of us experience means that the level of cortisol and adrenaline in our bloodstream are perpetually elevated. Besides wearing us out, this chemical imbalance interferes with the hormones involved in libido (our desire for sex) and arousal (our physical response to sexual stimulation).
Though stress, in all its myriad of disguises, has a negative effect on both sexes, in women it tends to have a greater effect on desire, whereas in men, it tends to impact the body’s physical response to arousal. While women under pressure almost universally manifest less interest in having sex, one in five stressed men have the opposite response. In a study of 919 males carried out by the Kinsey Institute, 28 percent said that stress and anxiety lessened sexual desire, but 21 percent said it actually increased their interest in sex. Their response may reflect the fact that sex has been scientifically proven to decrease stress levels.
The effects of stress on sex and the sex organs
* In men stress can cause temporary impotence. As the body prepares to ‘fight or flight’, blood flow is targeted towards the heart and the muscles and away from the penis. The muscles and arteries in the penis constrict to reduce blood flow to the penis to prevent erection.
* Stress hormones affect testosterone production which hinders desire, however this effect may not be as pronounced in men because they have so much more testosterone than women. Lower testosterone levels are thought to impede sperm formation potentially causing male infertility.
* In women, stress hormones and decreased testosterone reduce sexual desire. Because the brain plays such an important role in female sexual arousal, a woman who is too stressed or distracted to maintain her erotic focus is less likely to lubricate and have an orgasm.
* Stress hormones can delay ovulation and if cortisol levels are remain elevated over a sustained period of time, menstruation can cease completely. Women with stressful jobs tend to have shorter periods than women with low-stress jobs and there is a significantly higher incidence of miscarriage in women who experience high levels of stress.
Physical affection and intimacy reduces stress levels.
Research carried out by Laura Berman, Ph.D., director of the Berman Center for women’s sexual health in Chicago found that couples who kiss and cuddle a lot are eight times less likely to be tense or depressed.
And in 2008, Swiss researchers equipped 51 couples with pocket computers to analyse their exposure to stress and measure their levels of intimacy. Over a period of six days the couples were prompted to record their emotional state and they also took saliva samples every three hours (except when sleeping) to test their cortisol levels. The results showed that couples with higher levels of sexual intimacy had lower cortisol level throughout the day and decreased cortisol responses to stressful situations when they arose. In other words, people in actively sexual relationships dealt much better with stress than those that had lower levels of sexual intimacy in their relationships.