Stress and Sex Drive: How Stress Affects Libido

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Come As You Are" by Emily Nagoski. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What exactly is stress? How does stress affect sex drive?

Stress is an emotion-based systems in the mesolimbic cortex that greatly impacts our sexual arousal. It’s a process or system of changes in our minds and bodies that occurs in response to threats, and it underlies all types of negative emotions, including anxiety, fear, irritation, frustration, and anger.

In this article, we’ll explore the issues around sex and sex drive and how understanding and managing the stress systems can positively affect our sexual experience.

The Stress Response

Although stress used to be an evolutionary adaptation to respond to real, life-threatening situations—such as a lion chasing us or a neighboring tribe attacking ours—these days, it’s a response to more subtle things that threaten our well-being: bills to pay, problems at work, or tension between family members at home.

Nagoski maintains that regardless of the severity of the threats we’re exposed to, our bodies continue to respond in the same way: the perceived threat triggers a flood of adrenaline and cortisol to our bloodstream, preparing us to act. Physically, she adds, we experience an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration, suppressed immune and digestive functioning, and dilated pupils.

Nagoski asserts that, once physically prepared, we react to the threatening situation in one of three ways depending on the context:

  • Flight – We flee from threats that make us feel afraid. This could look like running from a bear or moving away from an apartment with a problematic landlord.
  • Fight – We fight threats that make us feel angry. This could look like stepping in to protect a friend who’s being physically threatened or confronting a boss who’s been treating you unfairly.
  • Freeze – We freeze when fleeing and fighting don’t feel like options. In these situations, we shut down, become numb, and even experience depression and despair. This could look like staying silent during sexual assault or ignoring payments on student loans.
Additional Responses to Stress

Although Nagoski defines the three most common ways that humans respond to perceived threats, they aren’t the only possible reactions. Researchers have identified additional stress responses that may prove more appropriate in certain situations than the responses listed above.

As previously mentioned, modern-day threats are more subtle and complex than those of our ancestors. Because of this, there may be certain circumstances in which running away or standing your ground may not be the most effective way of handling a threat. For example, if a coworker is threatening to report you to HR for something you didn’t do, you probably wouldn’t simply run out of the building or stubbornly stand your ground. Instead, your first reaction may be to negotiate to talk them out of their decision. In this case, you’re choosing a response that researchers call appease (or fawn), which is when we try to please the person acting as a threat.

Similarly, we may encounter particularly frightening situations that trigger a response even stronger than freezing. For instance, if you have a fear of heights and find yourself at the top of the Empire State Building, you may not just freeze but also faint due to fear overwhelming you. This is just one example of what researchers call flop (or tonic immobility), which is when we become physically or mentally unresponsive and entirely unaware of our surroundings.

The Effects of Stress on Sexual Response

Stress and sex drive do not go hand in hand—stress can have various negative effects on our sexual response. Specifically, Nagoski notes that it can reduce physical arousal and interest in sex. 

Though we don’t yet fully understand how this happens, Nagoski says we do know that stress makes us more likely to interpret stimuli as threats, which activates the SIS. And as we know, activation of the SIS makes our desire for sex decrease.

(Shortform note: Although Nagoski herself doesn’t go into detail about stress’s effect on sexual response, other sources point to some possible answers. For instance, hormonal changes could be responsible for reducing interest in sex during stressful periods. When our bodies produce more of the stress hormone cortisol, the production of testosterone—the hormone that most greatly impacts desire levels—is simultaneously reduced. Additionally, relational factors may play a role: When we’re stressed, we tend to close ourselves off from our partner, which negatively impacts intimacy and desire for sexual contact.)

How to Manage Stress

How can we manage stress to prevent it from inhibiting sexual response? Nagoski suggests that we must take deliberate steps to allow our bodies to complete the stress cycle, therefore ridding itself of the adrenaline and cortisol that flooded our system when we became aware of the threat. Unfortunately, she adds, the ongoing nature of modern stress makes it more difficult to complete the cycle because there’s no clear beginning and end to the threats we’re exposed to.

(Shortform note: Nagoski acknowledges that there’s a continuous nature to modern stress that makes it difficult to manage. However, she doesn’t inform us how to recognize that we’re struggling with chronic stress, which is a necessary first step in completing the cycle. Fortunately, there are a series of physical and emotional signs we can watch out for that are indicative of chronic stress, including forgetfulness, fatigue, irritability, chronic pain and muscle stiffness, digestive issues, and drug abuse.)

Nagoski adds that we live in a culture that encourages us to dismiss emotions rather than address them. When it comes to stress, we either put off completing the cycle to a more convenient time, or we rationalize that we can eliminate what’s stressing us out in the first place. Unfortunately, Nagoski observes, that more convenient time never comes, and getting rid of stressors isn’t the same as getting rid of stress.

(Shortform note: Research not only supports Nagoski’s claim about western culture’s dismissal of emotions but also suggests that this emotional dismissal is particularly damaging to Americans in particular. According to some studies, when compared to East Asian cultures, Americans experience greater harm from emotional suppression because their culture idealizes self-expression. In other words, suppressing emotions is more damaging because it’s in direct conflict with a fundamental cultural value.)

Nagoski says that to complete the cycle, we must find a safe space and deliberately make time to participate in activities that allow the cycle to come to a natural end, therefore eliminating the adrenaline and cortisol from our systems. Although physical activity is the most efficient way of accomplishing this, Nagoski recognizes sleep, affection, meditation, crying, screaming, art, and even grooming rituals as effective ways of managing stress.

Lifestyle Changes for Managing Stress

Other experts agree with Nagoski’s claim that activities like exercise, sleep, affection, meditation, and hobbies like art can reduce the adrenaline and cortisol in our systems. Research also supports her assertion that methods of venting such as crying (which helps to expel cortisol from our system) and screaming (which releases tension) are useful stress relievers. However, the ongoing nature of stress tends to keep our daily stress level high, meaning that even after completing the cycle as Nagoski suggests, the adrenaline and cortisol are likely to return fairly quickly. Therefore, it would be useful to have long-term strategies you can use to reduce the overall level of stress in your day-to-day life. To supplement Nagoski’s recommendations, here are some lifestyle changes you can make to keep your stress at a manageable amount:

Unplug from technology: When we take daily time away from our electronic devices, we’re not only able to take a break from the negativity in online spaces but also shift our focus from our overwhelming list of obligations. 

Get organized: When we stop to take inventory of what we need to get done and prioritize our tasks, we take back control of our time instead of letting it consume us.

Set boundaries: Deciding on what we want and need and communicating that to others helps us navigate relationships and responsibilities with confidence rather than dread.

Take a break: Sometimes we just need a break from thinking about what’s bringing us stress. Distracting our minds with something positive—like hobbies, talking with friends, or spending time in nature—can make everything seem more manageable when we return to it.

Focus on the positive: Research shows that the more we focus on optimistic thoughts and imagery, the more positively we experience the world.

Make healthy choices: Being mindful of our dietary choices and making time for exercise can make a big impact on our mindset. 
Stress and Sex Drive: How Stress Affects Libido

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Here's what you'll find in our full Come As You Are summary:

  • Why women should change the way they talk, think, and feel about their sexuality
  • A look at the misinformation and harmful cultural messaging surrounding sex
  • A discussion around the individual experiences of arousal, desire, and orgasm

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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