How Does Being Sexually Active Affect Mental Health?

Table of Contents

Introduction

Sex is sometimes an activity that gets compartmentalized in our lives. However, our values around sex, beliefs about sex, and experiences of sex influence many other domains of our lives, including mental health.

Every aspect of the human experience is interconnected, especially physical health, mental health, sexual health and sexuality, and the relationship we have with ourselves and others.

Benefits of Sex to the Body

Sex is not just fun in the moment. Getting frisky with yourself or a partner can offer tremendous benefits to the body. Studies have shown that a healthy sex life can improve immune system functioning and relieve headaches. Because sex is a form of exercise, it can also burn calories, reduce blood pressure and potentially lower the risk of heart disease.

Sex involves pelvic floor contraction, which can help with improving bladder control and reducing incontinence. Some studies have shown a reduction of risk for prostate cancer, for men who ejaculate regularly.

Sex can help with stress reduction, which not only helps in relieving the mental load stress carries with it, but also results in neurochemical changes that help physiologically relax the body. Sex has been shown to reduce sensitivity to pain, reduce cramps, and can make chronic pain more tolerable. Regular sexual activity can even boost libido.

When the body and mind are more relaxed, sleep is more accessible. A healthy routine with sex can help you sleep better. Getting consistent and restful sleep is necessary for physical health as well as mental health.

Sex and its Effects on the Brain

Sex has a powerful impact on the brain, specifically across three neural networks, including the reward system, pain, and emotional activity.

During sex, the hypothalamus and pituitary gland work in tandem to release a hormone and neurotransmitter called oxytocin. Oxytocin is often called the love hormone, because it is released during times of connection, nurturance and physical contact, such as during childbirth, breastfeeding and sex.

People of all genders experience bursts of oxytocin during sex, however, people with female sex characteristics often experience higher levels. In addition to generating empathy, bonding and connection, oxytocin can also help obliterate the effects of cortisol in the brain, which is why sex leads to less stress.

Other neurochemicals that are released during sexual thought and behaviors include dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine, the pleasure chemical, is a reward in the brain, and a literal feel good stimulus. Serotonin is also responsible for a sense of happiness and contentment.

In concert, these neurochemical boosts send a spike of elated feelings during the build of arousal, orgasm, and the immediate afterglow of sex.

Can Sex Help with Anxiety and Depression?

The psychological and physiological benefits of sex are multiple! Symptoms of anxiety and depression can be reduced after solo or partnered sex, because of all the feel-good chemicals and connection established or revitalized (with yourself or a partner) during sex. Feeling desired can keep feelings of low self-esteem at bay, and foster intimacy with others, which can be a natural antidote to the isolation experienced with anxiety or depression.

However, some people experience crying after sex, which could be tied to postcoital dysphoria and feelings of sadness after sex. When someone has anxiety about the context of sexual activity, feels unsure of a relationship, or sex is not consensual, it can make the symptoms of anxiety or depression worse.

Other Benefits of a Healthy Sex Life

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A healthy relationship with sex comes with innumerable other benefits. Off the bat, solo sex helps to improve the relationship each person has with themselves. In today’s world, people are busy, connected to their technology, and multitasking like never before.

Masturbation can help you feel more embodied and reconnected to yourself, in a physically and emotionally intimate way. It can also help you explore how your body responds to different forms of stimulation, which can help you communicate what you like and don’t like more effectively with a partner.

Partnered sex also provides opportunities for connection, especially if you are being sexual with a person you care about or feel safe with. Relational closeness is a frequently underrated source of ease when it comes to mental health. Human beings are wired for connection with others, and sex is one way of expressing connection together, reinforcing a felt sense of security in a relationship.

A healthy sex life can also be a source of fun, creativity, vitality and play in life, in the moment and long after. Think about it. When your sex life is thriving, you show up differently in other areas of life. You may feel more energized and focused at work, able to regulate your emotions more readily, and more inspired in other areas of life.

Sexual empowerment goes a long way in terms of mental health and relational satisfaction. Many people were taught that sex is bad, dirty or a sin. In fact, sex is a biological human imperative, and pairing it with shame is what can be detrimental to mental health (unless humiliation is your brand of kink!). If you were fed negative messaging about sex growing up, your relationship with, and attitudes about, sex may be shrouded in pleasure-limiting shame. Working to dismantle that shame and stepping into an empowered view of sexuality can improve your capacity to enjoy sex and love yourself more.

Is Casual Sex Bad for Your Mental Health?

It depends on your beliefs about casual sex and the level of transparency involved in the casual sex act. There is nothing implicitly wrong with a casual romp, or two, or several. However, many people make false attributions about someone’s character (or their own) based on a person’s history of casual sex encounters. If your values are inconsistent with casual sex, then engaging in it may cause cognitive dissonance or distress.

Even if you’re okay with casual sex, getting tricked into it by someone who played their hand as if they were interested in a relationship can sting, and can make it more challenging to feel safe in casual sexual encounters. Transparency and proactive communication about expectations and safer sex practices can make casual sex a positive experience.

Is Solo Sex or Partnered Sex Better?

Some people may prefer one or the other, but neither is categorically better than the other. Solo sex and partnered sex provide similar physiological benefits, and each have their unique perks.

For people who want to be sexual, solo sex is an important element of self-care and some may prefer it because it is without the risk of rejection, does not require you to think about anyone else’s needs and can guarantee that only what you want is what will happen, which is important for anyone recovering from sexual trauma. However, masturbation may not help you feel connected to others.

Partnered sex can be a euphoric high, mediocre moment, or tragic or traumatic event. There is always a gamble one or both of you may walk away less satisfied, but that is also the beauty of partnered sex. It is a shared experience. Even if one or both of you do not reach orgasm, which is a limiting goal of sex to begin with, mutual exploration and stimulation allows you to experience yourself through a partner’s eyes and touch and give them the same gift in return.

Does Not Having Sex Affect Your Mental Health?

It depends on your values, desires, and the meaning you make of not having sex. Frequently, people over-couple their relationship to sex with their self-worth. Being sexual or not being sexual, then erroneously says something about their value as a person. This is especially true for people who have been told that their sexual virility or virtue is related to their gender identity, religious or cultural values.

Not having sex may be an act of bravery, discipline or could be in alignment with your values or how you see yourself, and therefore could instill confidence, positive self-regard and have a positive effect on your mental health.

Conversely, if your preference is to be more sexual, or your sense of worth is resting on the quality of frequency of sexual experiences you’ve had (or would like to have), then not having sex may increase anxiety, depression, poor confidence or low self-esteem.

Conclusion

Sex plays an important role in mental health, and the reverse it also true. Both still carry tremendous stigma for many people. Every person has a relationship to sex (even if they are asexual) and every person’s mental health is critically important. Education and intentionality about sex and mental health can ensure that each maintain a healthy and right-sized influence in your life. Working with a sex therapist can help you make sense of any interplay between your mental health and sex life that feels uncomfortable or off balance. At the end of the day, the impact of sex on your mental health depends largely on your unique relationship to both.

References

AASECT. (n.d.). American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. AASECT. https://www.aasect.org/

Balestrieri, K. (2021, April 6). Why Do I Cry After Sex? It Could Be Postcoital Dysphoria. Modern Intimacy. https://www.modernintimacy.com/why-do-i-cry-after-sex-it-could-be-postcoital-dysphoria/

Cohut, M. (2018, April 6). How does sex affect your brain? Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321428

Harvard Health Publishing. (2019, March 18). Sleep and mental health. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/sleep-and-mental-health

Litner, J. (2020, April 7). Anxiety After Sex Is Normal — Here’s How to Handle It. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/healthy-sex/anxiety-after-sex

OHSU Center for Women's Health. (n.d.). The Benefits of a Healthy Sex Life. OHSU. https://www.ohsu.edu/womens-health/benefits-healthy-sex-life

Robinson, K. (2013, October 24). 10 Surprising Health Benefits of Sex. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/sex-relationships/features/sex-and-health

Weber, M. (2017, September 4). Oxytocin: The love hormone? Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/275795

 

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Dr. Kate Balestrieri is a Licensed Psychologist, Certified Sex Therapist, Certified Sex Addiction Therapist, PACT Therapist and Founder of Modern Intimacy, a group practiced in Los Angeles, Miami, and Chicago. Listen to her podcast, Modern Intimacy on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, and follow her on IG @drkatebalestrieri.