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Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
In the wise words of Salt-N-Pepa, let’s talk about sex. But specifically, let’s talk about sex and stress.
If you’ve ever wondered if sex relieves stress, this one is for you. And just so you know, the short answer is: it does. But how? That’s what we’re interested in.
There are a couple of factors that contribute to sex relieving stress.
While some reasons are more about sexual activity (thus, something you may not need a partner for), other reasons involve that unique combo that just happens between two people in the bedroom.
There’s also a case to be made about the general health benefits of having an active sex life.
Part of the reason that sex is a stress reliever is that orgasms alone can help with stress.
So good news for those whose sexual frequency is sporadic… Masturbation can relieve stress too!
When you have an orgasm, a surge of oxytocin and endorphins are released in the body. This flood of oxytocin has been described as warming and relaxing to the body.
Don’t fear! It’s not just climaxing or your sexual life that helps relieve stress. The physical act of touching and hugging can help reduce stress.
In fact, simply hugging also increases oxytocin and endorphins and lowers blood pressure. Many scientists even refer to oxytocin and endorphins as feel-good hormones.
One study in particular found that social touch (so touch, not just in the bedroom) can act as a stress buffer.
Sensual touch can also be beneficial as an exercise before engaging in sex or instead of sex.
When you have sex with someone, part of what is happening is “pair bonding,” which is really just a scientific term for becoming close, intimate and connected with someone.
Although we know this isn’t always the case when having sex, part of the benefit of sex and its link between stress comes from this pair bonding and what one study called the “sexual afterglow,” or the lingering effects of sex.
This study found that the sexual afterglow on average remained for 48 hours after sex. This glow helped boost mood overall in this time period as well.
The study also found that those that experienced the sexual afterglow had better emotional satisfaction and marital satisfaction.
Given all that this “afterglow” period does for us, it’s easy to see how it may also lower stress levels.
One small study found that individuals who engaged in "penile-vaginal intercourse" were less likely to have blood pressure spikes when exposed to stress.
Participants who had sex experienced healthier blood pressure levels and had less stress hormones than those who did not.
Another study found that women who had positive physical contact (could be sexual behavior, or just general touch) with their partner before a stressful event had lower cortisol levels and lower heart rate than those who had no physical contact.
Although this study is just one study with women, in particular, it suggests a positive relationship between touch, stress responses and heart rate.
Although not directly related to daily stress, many people believe that sex improves your quality of life.
In one survey of over 3,000 participants (both men and women) researchers observed that satisfaction with sex was associated with having a positive outlook on life and important for a loving relationship.
As you can see, sex and many of forms of sexual behavior can relieve stress in a couple of different ways! However, the relationship between sex and stress is a bit more complicated than just pure ahhhhhh… bliss.
Because on the other hand, stress can impact sex both physically and emotionally.
When a man becomes sexually aroused, the blood vessels in the penis dilate, resulting in a steady flow of blood into it. Simultaneously, the sphincter will prevent the blood from leaving, causing the penis to become hard.
Yet, when men are stressed, blood vessels don’t dilate fully, and/or the sphincter can fail to prevent the blood flow from coming back.
Many men may know this sensation, and because sex isn’t just the body function, but also connected to the mind, it may cause additional stress because the nervous system may create a negative association with sex. For some, this is the cause of erectile dysfunction.
But it’s not just men. Women can also be impacted by stress during sex.
If women are experiencing a heightened level of stress, they may not fully enjoy themselves and develop negative automatic physical reactions.
Don’t worry, though — just because stress might impact your sex life doesn’t mean it always will or isn’t manageable. Support, certain medication and/or therapy can help you manage stress and gain back a healthier connotation with sex.
Perhaps the easiest way to explain the relationship between sex and stress is two-sided. Or, as one study pointed out, sex can lift mood and relieve stress for day(s) after, while at the same time stress and negative mood decreases the likelihood of having sex — so, it goes both ways.
Looping back to more wise words of Salt-n-Pepa let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be, sex and stress are a bit like this.
Sex, touch, orgasms and intimate connections can all play a role in relieving stress and benefiting your general well being.
While at the same time, stress can impact your sex life. People that are stressed often don’t feel like having sex, and over long periods of time, this might majorly impact their sex life.
But there is no doubt in mind that the benefits of a healthy sex life can greatly influence your life positively and help with stress and other health factors.
So it’s not a perfect thing. There are good things and bad things, but talking about it with your partner or with the support of a therapist can help you create a healthy connection with sex to be a positive thing.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.
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