As I grew out of playful, teenage sexual relationships that had little drama and joined the world of adult dating – where sex becomes a little more emotional and certainly more complicated – my mum had one piece of advice that she promised was the gospel truth. “The genitals are the brain,” she said solemnly. Well, actually, she said, “dicks are brains and brains are dicks,” but I’m paraphrasing to be gender inclusive. The first time she said this, I thought she was just uttering nonsense. But after I hit my first real struggle with mental health and sex, it clicked into place.
While we’re unlikely to realise it in the moment, poor mental health has a profound impact on our sex lives. Throughout most of my late teens, I struggled to stay present in my body during sex and even developed mild vaginismus (a psychosexual condition where the vagina involuntary contracts, usually due to anxiety). “She just acts up sometimes,” I’d awkwardly joke to one night stands. But I was overlooking the real source. I’d just been through a hard year packed with trauma and leaving it unresolved had left my vagina – and my sexual self in general – dealing with the consquences. Naturally, once I began to work through the traumas that led me there, sex slowly but surely became easier again. It turns out that, as always, mum was right. Genitals truly are the brain.
Thankfully, we don’t all have to rely on my mum’s findings to decode the link between the brain and the down-belows. Relationship and sex therapy app Blueheart recently found that 74 per cent of adults struggling with their sex lives say it’s due to stress or a mental health strain, and they’ve done some digging into why that is.
Dr Laura Vowells, one of the founding therapists working at Blueheart, says mental health and sexual desire are “intrinsincally linked”, impacting one another at all times. “While we’ve got a lot better at talking about mental health and normalising those conversations, we’ve still got a long way to go with sex,” she says. “It’s still weird to talk openly about sex problems with friends or family, and there’s still this weird idea that we’re not supposed to be enjoying sex and therefore not supposed to complain about it.”
Adding to the problem, a lot of mainstream mental health services don’t ask about the patient’s sex life when they reach out for support. If a medical professional doesn’t view sexual problems as something worth bringing up, why would a patient? “But they both affect one another. What a lot of people don’t know is that sexual problems are actually more common than mental health problems – we just don’t talk about them,” Vowells explains.
Similar to my situation, 23-year-old Katie struggles with acute, mild vaginismus whenever she’s struggling with her generalised anxiety disorder. “It’s well-managed for the most part, but we all have troughs and my vagina is always the first thing to go. It took me a long time to learn and properly notice that though,” she says. Katie used to “get really upset” when sex was “off the cards” and she couldn’t fathom why. “But now it’s one of those things where I just call it like I see it. I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, I don’t have sex when I’m sad. When I’m happy, I’ll have sex again. That’s cool.’”
The Blueheart survery also found that 31 per cent of respondents were suffering from symptoms associated with more serious sexual dysfunction. This includes arousal and orgasm issues, which range from taking an extended amount of time to become sexually aroused or climax, or experiencing unsatisfying orgasms, to being unable to achieve sexual arousal and climax at all. For those facing more serious sex-related issues, seven out of 10 believed poor mental health or increased stress levels were the cause.
In the UK, more than 51 per cent of women and 42 per cent of men report experiencing sexual dysfunction. And considering that accessing proper sex education is a postcode lottery, the NHS has cut services for sexual dysfunction and didn’t really ever have funding for mental health services in the first place, having these conversations with our loved ones and in public (if you’re comfortable to) is now more important than ever.
When moods and libidos drop, a lot of partners of people struggling with their sex-brains can also suffer with their own insecurities and doubts. Luckily, Vowells has buckets of advice for couples going through this. She tells THE FACE that “it’s really important to talk to your partner about how we feel as it’s happening. As humans, we feel very self conscious around sex. And when a partner withdraws from us sexually, we start to wonder if they’re not interested anymore, or maybe I’m not as attractive anymore. We naturally start to feel rejected and that makes the relationship problems worse.”
So, if you’re going through sexual withdrawal as a result of mental health issues, your partner might need some reassurance. “Part of why a lot of people feel depressed around sex is because they’re worried about letting their partner down,” Vowells explains. Avoiding these conversations will make everyone involved feel worse.
And for the partner on the receiving end? “Try not to take sex withdrawal from your partner personally,” says Vowells. “See how you can help and support them in order for you to get what your partner needs. Don’t do that so you can have sex, genuinely do it for them. Your primary goal should be supporting them to manage their mental health.”
Once you get in touch with your mind and how it impacts sex, you’ll eventually learn to expect sexual changes when mental health challenges arise and figure out how tackle repeitive sexual problems head-on – especially if you talk to a sexologist or therapist
This is something 26-year-old Charlotte* does with her boyfriend. “I withdraw from sex when I’m stressed but my boyfriend wants more sex when he’s stressed. For a while we kept arguing and felt lost, but after three years together, and a lot of trial and error, we expect our sex to be down whenever our mental health is down, and we know we need specific and different things for it,” she says. “You eventually get to that point if you talk enough about it.”
For the time being, Vowells offers this advice: if you’re feeling more anxious, stressed or depressed, ask yourself questions about sex to pinpoint, apprehend (and not overthink) sexual changes. “Ask yourself, ‘OK, am I having sex as much as I was before? Am I thinking about sex the same way? Am I enjoying my sex?’” The answers to these questions can tell us a lot about whether our muddied brains have infiltrated our sex.
It’s easy to feel beaten down when sex problems emerge. We grow up with this idea that sex is easy, as simple as falling asleep or taking a dump. The reality, though, is that sex is complex and we all have specific, individual needs. And when our heads are in the shed, our sexual needs and behaviours are likely to fall away from the familiar. At least now we know our brains and genitals act as one, we can decipher the real meaning behind our sexual problems a little easier and dismantle both stigmas together. Thanks, mum.