Sexual Desire and The Mind Body Connection
I have found in my training and practice as a sex and relationships therapist, that many people can experience a change in their sexual desire throughout their lifespan.
It is no secret that it can be challenging to talk about sexuality; we often do not have the language or tools to start the conversation with health professionals or partners.
Because of the lack of dialogue surrounding sexual health, we may see ourselves as “broken” when experiencing a change in sexual desire. This judgment may cause distress, leaving us feeling confused, worried, or with a sense of shame. Worst of all, we may feel like we are alone in these experiences.
Many people assume that changes in sexual desire are caused strictly by physical sources, without considering the roles our brains, psyche, and cultural/societal factors may play. But, there is typically more context to a change in sexual desire than we may realize. We often do not consider the mind-body connection in our search for answers when it comes to changes in our sexual health. Our classification of the “problem” of sexual desire as only physical is limiting; perhaps, it is even the source of some of the distress we experience in the first place.
What most of us do not realize, is that the brain is one of your most important sexual organs!
Let’s start by identifying the many factors that affect your sexual desire. Sexual desire can be affected by psychological factors like relationships, stress, trauma, anxiety, depression, body image, sexuality, or identity. Physical factors can also affect sexual desire, like hormonal imbalance, medication, pregnancy, illness, injury, pain. A change in sexual desire may also stem from a lack of education surrounding sexuality. There may be some questions you want to further examine like, what kind of messages did you receive surrounding sex growing up? What are your beliefs about pleasure? Are there barriers to exploring your sexuality or what you may like/dislike? These are some of the places we explore when we begin sex therapy. When we see a change in sexual desire as a solely physical problem, we may frame our body as the enemy. Of course, physical reasons can be a part of a change, but it might not be the whole picture. We see bodies as single-issue problems to be solved; when in fact, what we really are is complex, multi-layered humans.
One common issue that suggests difficulty integrating the mind and body that I often notice with my clients is a process called “spectatoring” during sex or surrounding sex. This is when we look down on ourselves from the outside and make judgments about performance instead of being embodied in the experience. For example, during sex you may be thinking, “I do not feel anything here, is there something wrong?… This feels kind of good to me but not really, should I change something?… I wonder what I look like in this position… I think they want me to do x, but I feel weird asking…”. These are called “meta-cognitions” or thoughts about thoughts. We may also experience spectatoring or meta-cognitions surrounding other things like a fear that we will not lubricate, wondering if we can reach orgasm during a sexual encounter, or even stress outside of sex. When these thoughts pop up, they make it challenging for us to be in our erotic mind and body. We can feel “stuck” in our brains and less present in the experience of sensations or pleasure. Spectatoring is an example of the disconnect between brain and body one may experience during or surrounding sex.
American culture values intellectual, fast-paced, and thinking-centered problem-solving techniques. Many of us seem to believe that we can “think” ourselves out of a conflict. This may be one of the reasons so many of us are at war with our bodies. We show no mercy when a perceived threat to what we want arises. It may be that we are treating changes in sexual desire with this same tenacity. How do we move from working our mind against our bodies, to see them as on the same team? What would it be like to do less thinking, and more feeling? Do you feel safe being present in your body? These are the questions I rarely hear asked about sex in mainstream culture. Instead, the messages that seem to circulate are often adding pressure to “perform” sex a specific way, all the time- as if our bodies are machines. Consider that you are human, and that this mechanical view of sexual functioning is not genuine.
As you can see, sexual desire is more complicated than you may have believed. You could be experiencing a change in some or most of the factors I listed above as influences to your sexual desire. So, while we may have the urge to see our bodies as a problem to be solved, I challenge you to take an approach of curiosity about your sexuality.
If I could tell people questioning their sexual desire one thing, it would be that you are not broken; you are whole.
What would it be like to consider that this is a multi-faceted, complex issue- not the result of a broken person? I understand the examination of sexuality or sexual history can feel overwhelming. Beginning this journey can definitely feel intimidating! Not to mention, struggling with sexual problems can create feelings of anxiety, shame, guilt, exhaustion, and frustration. However, you are not alone in these experiences. With the help of a sexuality-trained professional, you can build safety in exploring your own sexuality – which is individual, nuanced, and most importantly, directed by you.
Coty Nolin, LMFT