Angela Hutton, LCSW, SEP - Inspired Somatic Psychotherapy
December 2013 - Holiday Stress and Intimacy Don’t Mix

Its that time of year again; when the kitchen fills with delicious smells, there are houses decorated with twinkling lights, and everyone around you is making exciting plans for their holidays.  For some, this time of year is their favorite.  For most of us, the holidays also increase at least a moderate amount of stress.  For a few people, the holidays can feel overwhelming and can trigger significant emotional distress.  Each of us experiences and deals with stress in a different way.  However, there seems to be some patterns in the way that stress affects women, specifically related to intimacy and sexuality.

One of the ways that the holidays can be stressful is a result of increasing obligations on your time and pocketbook.  For many, family relationships can be complicated. There can be feelings of anger, resentment, betrayal, loss, and deep hurt between family members that were never resolved from the past.  These emotions can create physical and emotional stress responses. This kind of stress can easily find its way into your primary relationship and the bedroom.  

Stress can affect the body in a number of ways.  One of these is by affecting hormone levels.   Stress can affect hormones such as cortisol and testosterone and this may affect sexual desire.  One article in the Huffington Post suggests: “By now, we know that hormones affect our bodies in numerous ways from childhood to adolescence, pregnancy, menopause and beyond. Cortisol is one of the hormones produced by stress,…Our bodies need this hormone, but in small doses for short bursts of time. If elevated levels of Cortisol are being produced for a prolonged period of time, they suppress our sex hormones. Lower quantity of sex hormones equals lower libido.” Our state of mind affects our bodies in significant ways. 

When women are stressed, they often have a difficult time letting go of thoughts, especially negative ones.  Often at the holiday times, there are lists of things to do as well as other thoughts constantly running through our heads.  This level of cognitive distraction can affect a woman’s desire to be intimate.  In an article in NBC News Health, there is a study that investigated how women’s levels of stress affect libido.  “The women in the high-stress group showed lower levels of genital arousal, higher levels of distraction, and higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which researchers hypothesize contributed to decreased physical arousal. In other words, when your brain is buzzing with to-do lists and should-have-dones, your below-the-belt area isn't primed to operate at peak performance.”  Clearly, a full mind doesn’t lend to intimacy.

Some ways to decrease stress include exercise, eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, and managing stress related thoughts.  For those who are experiencing more stress than they thing they can manage or may have symptoms of depression, anxiety, or unresolved loss issues, Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) and professional support from a therapist can be extremely helpful.  Regardless of what you do to take care of yourself, if you feel your stress level is affecting your sex life or your relationship, make sure you find time for your partner, increase communication, and seek additional help if needed. 

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