Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 11/21/2022
Sex is great, and a healthy sex life is something many of us desire. Across the world, there are countless examples of people who believe sex can have curative powers for the body and mind. If you’re an anxiety sufferer, you likely wonder if it applies to you, too — does sex help with anxiety?
Can a quickie improve your quality of life in more ways than one? Will that next encounter improve your mental health? Does sex help with anxiety symptoms?
You might be surprised to see what experts say.
Anxiety is often misunderstood, so let’s make sure we’re all on the same page before moving forward.
Most people understand anxiety to be a sort of fear, which is definitely one way to define it.
Fear is a pervasive sense of unease or danger at a perceived threat — it’s what you feel when there’s a bear barreling toward you in the woods.
Anxiety, meanwhile, is those same feelings of unease and danger, but with anxiety, the source of the fear is, well, uncertain.
Anxiety is really about perceived, imagined or unclear threats. It’s what you feel when you look down a dark hallway, and the spike of fear when you see an email from your boss and assume the worst without yet reading the contents.
The simplest way to put it is that fear is a present-tense feeling, whereas anxiety is future-tense.
Anxiety can become a disorder if it affects the way you function. Have you stopped looking at your email because you’re worried your boss is furious about something? Anxiety disorder.
It can be pervasive throughout your life or specifically attached to something like social situations (social anxiety disorder) or spiders (specific phobia), and it can even cause severe physical reactions like panic attacks (panic disorder).
So, where does sex come in? Interestingly enough, sex and anxiety may speak a shared language in the form of neurotransmitter interactions, hormones and other chemical signals.
Sex actually has a lot to offer as a mental health treatment. On paper, it has a pretty impressive resume.
Sex may offer benefits to your mental health, including, in some cases, a reduction in anxiety symptoms and other mental health issues. In the right context, it can do a lot for you (and your sexual partner/s).
Sex can cause the body to release dopamine (also known as the “pleasure” or “reward hormone”), endorphins (considered natural pain and stress relief hormones) and oxytocin (sometimes known as the “cuddle hormone”) as a result of sex.
Flooding the brain with those hormones also has led to some experts to even call sex a natural antidepressant. We wouldn’t go that far, but it’s clear that it offers benefits.
But there’s more to what sex can do than the holy trinity of feel-good hormones. Sex can release prolactin, which is a fourth hormone that causes intense relaxation (the reason many people feel sleepy after sex).
Hving sex might make your brain stronger, too. Sexual studies have found that regular sex can cause cell growth in the hippocampus (which regulates stress levels) and even lower blood pressure.
Not all sex is the same of course, and you do have to consider the context. Performance anxiety and intimacy issues can make sex the least relaxing thing of all time for some people.
Sexual assault and sexual abuse victims frequently experience a traumatic event, which can quickly lead to anxiety disorders and, potentially, to post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD.
But the list of sex-positive benefits is pretty impressive. And there’s an argument to be made that a partner is optional.
The masturbation benefits question is a little more murky. We weren’t able to find any studies that explored a comparison between sex and masturbation, or tested differences between partnered performance and a solo gig.
Studies found that masturbation is used as a sort of stress reliever or tension reliever depending on the individual, but a certain distress related to guilt was often associated with the act.
While stress relief sounds great, we also found a substantial body of work that examined anxiety as a result of guilt from masturbation.
In the worst case, the shame some people feel can cause serious mental disorders.
Meanwhile, there’s more to be said for partnered intimacy. One study looked at the value of “huggable” communication against cortisol (the stress hormone) and found that hugging significantly reduced cortisol levels.
Another study from 2006 (with admittedly questionable controls) found that people who had “penile-vaginal intercourse” had better stress responses than those who masturbated or had non-PVI partnered sex.
It’s far from a scientific statement, but given the current known data, it would seem that physical contact with another person is more effective in relieving stress than playing by yourself.
We’d really like to see a more involved study — and we’re sure many people would love to volunteer for it — but for the time being, it seems partners are better.
So, does a great orgasm fix a mental health condition? Can the symptoms of anxiety and symptoms of depression be resolved by sexual stimulation? Can you cure anxiety by just having ridiculous, muscle-cramping amounts of sex? Sadly, no (though we encourage you to try anyway).
Here’s the fact: anxiety can’t be cured, only treated and managed. We suspect most of us probably couldn’t manage the “daily treatment” volume of sex that would be necessary, anyway.
However, there are plenty of proven treatment options for anxiety anyway. Therapy, medication and lifestyle changes all have been demonstrated to help people suffering from anxiety disorders to better manage their symptoms and the disorder itself.
You can learn more about these in our guides — we’ll point you specifically to cognitive behavioral therapy and antidepressant medication for your anxiety management, though cutting out caffeine, getting better sleep and generally taking care of your physical health have all been proven to benefit your mental health.
As to which of these treatment options is right for you, that’s ultimately up to a conversation between you and a healthcare provider.
Getting professional help is the most important thing you can do right now. A general practitioner or existing therapist is a great place to start, but if you don’t have a therapist, consider our online therapy platform, where you can match with a healthcare professional or mental health professional who can help you find your way.
We also offer mental health resources like medication and further reading if you’re ready to go down either of those roads.
Getting laid as much as you want is great, but it shouldn’t be looked at as medicine. Leave your sex life in the pleasure category and get help from the pros today.