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Five reasons when sex affects mental health

Five reasons when sex affects mental health

Sex is one of life’s great pleasures. But also a cause of some of life’s greatest pains.

It is an expression of our love. In fact, we now use the term “making love” for sex – although originally this term described dating up to marriage, literally “making love”.

Sex can be incredibly beneficial for us physically and emotionally. It reduces stress, boosts immune and enhances our mood.

Obviously it’s burning up energy, just as exercise does. But it also releases some of our natural feel-good chemicals such as oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin and endorphins.

So sex, including masturbation, has been shown to ease stress, depression and anxiety. Sex can be a very spiritual thing in that when two people have sex they start to become one with each other.

However, there is a shadow side to sex. It is one that can cause extremely distressing pain that is damaging to our emotional and mental well-being.

1. Infidelity

Around 15 to 20 percent of married couples cheat on their partner. The figure may well be higher as it’s not something some people will admit to, even as part of an anonymous survey.

Dating apps such as Tinder have enabled people to look for quick-fix sexual encounters too. So cheating on a partner is easier than ever.

Cheating is of course dishonesty. In a marriage it’s the ultimate form of betrayal.

Anyone who cheats will know how devastated their partner would be if they found out. If there are children in the relationship, the cheating person will know that the consequences of their dishonest behavior will likely affect those children for the rest of their lives.

So why does anyone do it? Especially when they often create for themselves feelings of anxiety, stress, depression, guilt and shame.

Some literature in the Twelve Steps program describes it perfectly. This is from the Step Four explanation in the Twelve Steps And Twelve Traditions book.

Creation gave us instincts for a purpose. Without them we wouldn’t be complete human beings… So these desires – for the sex relation, for material and emotional security, and for companionship – are perfectly necessary and right, and surely God-given

Yet these instincts, so necessary for our existence, often far exceed their proper functions. Powerfully, blindly, many times subtly, they drive us, dominate us, and insist upon ruling our lives… 

When thus out of joint, man’s natural desires cause him great trouble, practically all the trouble there is. No human being, however good, is exempt from these troubles.

Nearly every serious emotional problem can be seen as a case of misdirected instinct. When that happens, our great natural assets, the instincts, have turned into physical and mental liabilities…

So it’s a natural instinct that is out of control. From a mental health point of view it might be necessary to look at why someone is cheating on their partner.

Could it be that they are trying to deal with a past hurt by doing it? Can it be a way of attempting to feel full inside where they are empty?

They may justify it by saying there was not enough sex with their partner or for some other reason. But if someone has committed adultery and really wants to change they will be willing to look back at and into their life to pinpoint anything that has led to their cheating.

Some mental health conditions mean someone is more likely to cheat, including bipolar disorder. This can affect someone’s sex life by increasing their libido during mania episodes.

Then, some people with BPD (borderline personality disorder) are impulsive. They may be promiscuous and hypersexual.

Both conditions can be treated to help with this.

2. Selfishness

A dictionary definition of selfishness is: “lacking consideration for other people; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.” 

This is the difference between healthy sexual desire for someone and what is known as lust. Lust is seeing someone else solely as a sexual object for selfish objectives.

When it comes to sex, many people are clearly only thinking about themselves. There is no consideration for their partner’s desires, wishes and wants.

There may be constant demands for their partner to do sexual things that they don’t want to do. This could be certain sexual practices or having a threesome.

Not only is it damaging the relationship and hurting their partner, they are causing themselves emotional problems. A selfish insistence can lead to continual frustration, self-pity and/or anger.

Of course, any successful relationship involves some compromise in all matters. But if this is an issue, the help of a therapist trained to help relationships should be sought.

3. Using pornography 

If someone doesn’t like the way they feel, they can get addicted to anything that changes their feelings. This is one of the reasons for all addictions, including to pornography.

But many people look at pornography because they’re lonely and because they’re dissatisfied with their sex lives. But all that most often does is make them even more dissatisfied and more lonely.

As most people only view porn secretly it means they will be carrying that inside. As the recovery slogan says: you’re only as sick as your secrets. 

This will increasingly isolate them. They will struggle with feelings of shame, remorse, guilt, anxiety, stress and depression.

As with any addiction, they will at some point want more. What used to “work” for changing the way they felt stops working.

So they end up looking at images or videos they are even more ashamed about. 

Frequently they will spend more time looking at pornography too.

People who use porn can often get the wrong concept of sexuality. None of this is healthy for the person or any of their relationships, especially with their partner.

We live in a modern world now where access to pornography and sex chat websites is much more available than it ever was. So it’s a burgeoning problem.

4. Paying for sex

There’s a connection in reasons for visiting prostitutes and looking at pornography. Much of this is to do with seeking external validation.

This comes from not feeling whole or complete inside. There can be many reasons for this, a lot to do with childhood. It can also be a way to numb or mask inner pain.

Negative mental health consequences can be the same as from viewing pornography. These are feelings of shame, guilt, remorse, anxiety, stress and depression.

As with some pornography use too, someone paying for sex knows they are spending money that ought to go on such as their partner or children. Also in connection with pornography, many people know that those involved in these industries are there against their own will or have a history of sexual abuse.

All of this only increases negative feelings. Most likely their paying for sex is a secret too – and secrets make us sick.

According to The Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health, three to five percent of the population suffer from sex addiction. Sex addiction describes any sexual behavior that feels “out of control”.

It can mean someone acting in an irrational and self-sabotaging way. This is sometimes behind someone paying for sex.

Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) has some self-assessment questions that ask such as:  Do you keep secrets about your sexual behavior or romantic fantasies from those important to you? Do you lead a double life?

Have your desires driven you to have sex in places or with people you would not normally choose?

A sex addict who feels overpowered with negative feelings of such as shame, remorse and guilt may try to escape by again using compulsive sexual activity. As with all addictions, it’s a vicious cycle.

Thankfully, there are proven successful treatments for addiction.

5. Anxiety & depression

Any of those previously mentioned here can and most likely will cause anxiety and depression. The longer any unhealthy behavior goes on, the more anxiety and depression it will cause.

But even “normal” sex in a loving healthy relationship can lead to anxiety and depression. This could be for instance for men if they have erection problems or physical issues for women as they get older.

If someone was sexually abused it is clearly a trauma that can often affect their sex life. It could be that understandably they don’t want sex.

This might be even though they madly love their partner. This can cause significant anxiety.

At times some people with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), a chronic anxiety disorder, say they feel besieged by unwanted sexual thoughts and sexual obsessions. This can lead to anxiety and depression.

Then someone who is suffering from anxiety and/or depression may not feel as if they want to have sex. These mental health conditions can affect everything that someone once previously enjoyed in this way.

Thankfully there are various treatments that are proven to help with anxiety and depression. This includes cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).

Our experienced team can help you or someone you care about to recover from any emotional or mental health problem.

Contact us today for a confidential conversation to see what treatments we can offer.

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David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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