As the coronavirus pandemic continues to take center stage in people’s lives, a lot of old priorities have shifted. And unfortunately, there may still be a long way to go before we have a clear path back to “normal” (whatever that is). In all this uncertainty, the things we used to love might no longer seem so exciting... including sex.
Sex, however, is more than just a trivial part of our lives—it’s a major instinctual desire for most of us. According to a 2017 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, American adults have sex an average of 54 times a year. And when you’re not feeling your typical urge to get it on, it’s easy to wonder if something is wrong with you. Not to mention, if you’re quarantining with a partner, one of you may want sex more than the other right now, which can lead to awkward conversations and hurt feelings.
“There's this idea out there right now that everyone else is learning a language, or repainting their house, or having mind-blowing sex all day,” says Rachel Zar, LMFT, relationship and sex therapist at Northwestern Medicine's Center for Sexual Medicine and Menopause in Chicago, Illinois. “Trust me: they are not. And you don't have to either.”
If your sex drive has changed in these stressful times, you should know that you’re not alone.
The Biological Impact of Stress on Libido
Stress has been shown to have a major impact on sexual desire in men and women, and there’s not one clear-cut reason why. “Libido is driven by many factors,” explains Lauren Streicher, M.D., an OB/GYN and professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois. Dr. Streicher explains that for some people, sex is a great stress reliever after a long and challenging day. “But for most people, being stressed is going to impact sex drive in a negative way,” she notes.
When you’re majorly stressed out, your body produces more cortisol, a hormone made in the adrenal glands known commonly as the “stress hormone.” Cortisol is essential to the body’s healthy functioning, and it’s not all bad—it helps control blood sugar levels, decrease inflammation, and regulate metabolism.
But high cortisol levels can lead to a variety of negative effects, such as low libido and heightened depression or anxiety. (Stress literally begets more stress. Ugh.) In men, high cortisol levels can cause a decrease in testosterone, a hormone that has impacts on your sex drive and erectile function. In women, elevated cortisol can mess with your menstrual cycle and the delicate hormonal balance inside your body (which includes testosterone as well). And when you feel fatigued and moody, which can happen when your hormones are out of whack, you’re not exactly in the mood for sex.
Dr. Streicher points out that neurotransmitters (aka chemicals that transmit information between neurons and cells) in the brain can also play a big role in regulating sex drive. Dopamine and serotonin (two bodily chemicals known for their effect on mood and happiness) have been shown in studies to relate to sexual desire and motivation. “We know that stress can really alter dopamine and serotonin levels, which can in turn cause your libido to crash,” Dr. Streicher explains. And when you feel crappy already, sex is often the last thing on your mind.
Psychology Plays A Role, Too
Of course, sex drive can’t completely be explained by biological processes in the body. Andrew Aaron, LISCW, a New Bedford, Massachusetts-based private practice sex therapist and marriage counselor, notes that the COVID-19 pandemic is prompting a survival instinct for many people that has impacts on their mental health. “The coronavirus is presenting a situation for many that results in chronic stress and a host of other negative emotions, such as anxiety, worry, and depression,” he says. “In the face of such a large but invisible threat, most feel some degree of powerlessness. In general, negative emotions are associated with lower sex drive and reduced interest in sex.”
If you’re quarantining with your partner, chances are that you’re feeling the strain of being cooped up inside together. “Sheltering in place produces circumstances that can be very challenging to couples, such as being around each other too much, having too little privacy, and having the children around all the time,” Aaron says. “These extreme conditions exacerbate tension and stress between partners.” And if you’re annoyed with each other, you’re probably not feeling the sexy vibes between you.
Not to mention, if you have a chronic condition that already causes pain and fatigue, this added stress can be enough to make you totally forget your desire for sex. You’ve got other things to deal with—and rightfully so! Sex may not feel high on your priority list.
Everyone Is Different
For some, there's no better time than when they're stressed to have sex,” Zar says. “After all, sex is a great distraction, and it releases endorphins that improve our mood. That orgasm can be a great relief for pent-up anxiety!”
Since sex drive is such a complicated and delicate thing, there’s no one “right way” for it to change during a crisis. The problem comes when your partner feels something totally different. “Many couples suffer from what sex therapists call a discrepancy of sexual desire,” Aaron says–even when they’re not coping with a global crisis. “Unresolved, it is a difference between partners that can be highly destructive to the well-being and future of a couple.”
The solution? Talk about it. Aaron suggests that this conversation should be “gentle, without judgment or criticism and with an intention to create a middle ground that is sensitive to the comfort and well-being of both partners.” The partner with a lower sex drive can try to relax, let go of their stress, and be in the moment with their partner. The partner with a higher sex drive should be “compassionate and understanding” about the other’s challenges, Aaron says. “Kindness and sensitivity during these dark days will go a long way to nourish a partner’s heart,” he notes. “Helping each other and functioning as a good team and as friends is most valuable now.”
Zar provides some useful tips for having this conversation:
Emphasize that it’s not personal. “Remind them that ‘I'm not feeling sexual right now’ is different than ‘I'm not attracted to you’ or ‘I don't care for you,’” she says.
Acknowledge your differences. “Recognize that they may or may not be feeling the same way,” Zar notes.
Look for a compromise. Masturbation can help bridge the gap between one partner’s high sex drive and the other’s low desire, Zar explains. “Creative solutions work best when you're both able to recognize that neither of your feelings (tons of desire or very little desire) are wrong, they're just different.”
Times Will Change
One bright spot amidst all this chaos is that it is impermanent. There will be a future without this pandemic, whether it feels that way right now or not. Your sex drive may have changed, but as life continues to shift, your libido will likely bounce back to what it once was. “If it’s a short-term thing, if it’s not bothering you, don’t let it get to you,” Dr. Streicher says. “There’s a rhythm to libido in life.”
If your low libido is really bumming you out, Zar says there are things you can do to help. “It may sound counterintuitive but taking some intentional time apart breeds connection: go for a walk by yourself, work in separate rooms, put on noise-canceling headphones and pretend the other person isn't there,” she suggests. “Being intentional about your time apart makes way for being intentional about your time together.” She also recommends wearing something you feel great in, moving your body, and staying healthy. “If you feel good in your body, you may want to do more things with it,” she says.
Whatever the circumstance, honest dialogue with your partner is the key to getting through this together. Don’t beat yourself up for things you think you “should” be doing. “If you're not having great sex (or any sex) right now, remind yourself and your partner that this is temporary and that there will be a time when you're feeling more sexual again,” Zar says. And once you do get your mojo back, you’ll be even more grateful for how alive it makes you feel.