Stress, Depression, and Sex

“Sexual dysfunction” can be a scary term that brings up visuals of pill bottles and medical tests, but in reality, sexual dysfunction is defined simply as disturbances in sexual desire or functioning (Laumann, Paik, & Rosen, 1999), which is something that many people experience at one point or another in their sexual lives. People who experience emotional problems, like depression, or stress-related problems are much more likely to experience some kind of sexual dysfunction or disturbance in their sexual desire. That’s not to say that everyone who has a stressful lifestyle will have low desire or some other sexual dysfunction, but stress and/or depression are often a factor when it comes to low desire.

Sex is an important part of keeping your romantic relationship healthy, both emotionally and physically. Many people suffer from stress related to jobs, family, children and a number of other factors. Not surprisingly, we aren’t able to compartmentalize our problems, and stress has a way of seeping into all areas of our lives. Stress can affect hormones in the body, which are related to the sexual libido (Castellanos, 2013). It also affects our general mood and how we interact within our relationship on a day to day basis. If you’re stressed, you often aren’t able to relax and enjoy your partner, in or out of the bedroom.

Depression is also associated with impaired sexual functioning and satisfaction. People who are depressed experience a loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed, a reduction in energy, low self-esteem, and difficulties experiencing pleasure (Baldwin, 2001). Considering these symptoms, it’s not difficult to imagine why depressed individuals may also experience problems in their sexual relationships.

Understanding Sexual Response

Back in 1966, famed sexologists Masters and Johnson came up with the “human sexual response cycle” in order to better understand what happens to the human body during sexual encounters. Their model was a linear one that started with desire and arousal/excitement, moved on to plateau, peaked at orgasm, and then finished with resolution (Baldwin, 2001). Over the years this model has been challenged by other professionals in the field of sexology for being too rigid and not taking into account the female sexual experience. Many women do not experience sexual response in this way. For example, some women might experience arousal and excitement, but never reach orgasm. Others might plateau, orgasm and experience resolution without ever having experienced sexual desire. Suggesting that all men and women experience sexual response in the same way may pathologize what is very simply normal behavior in women. Sexologists Whipple, Brash-McGreer, and Basson have come up with their own models for female sexual response. These alternative models include factors such as seduction, relationship satisfaction, and emotional intimacy that go beyond the simple biological model of Masters and Johnson and allow for a deeper, more complete understanding of sexual response (“Female Sexual Response,” 2008).

What does this mean in terms of sexual desire? It means that a more inclusive and open-minded view of sex and desire can really benefit a person’s sexual relationship. Everyone doesn’t experience sexual desire or response in the same way. Redefining your view of the “correct” sexual response can help you to enjoy healthier sexual life.

Managing Stress and Depression

If you recognize that stress plays a big role in your life and has negatively impacted your sexual desire, hope is not lost. There are many ways to combat stress. Healthy living is ones of the easiest ways to reduce stress. This means getting enough restful sleep every night, eating right, exercising, and finding ways to better manage your time. Yoga and meditation are also great ways to relieve stress and replenish your energy supply. Try finding a few minutes during your day to take a little bit of time for yourself. People who never have time for themselves can often find it difficult to truly give themselves over to another person.

If you are suffering from depression, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your sex life will suffer as well. If you haven’t already started therapy for depression, then you should begin by seeking a recommendation from your doctor. Some antidepressants can adversely affect sexual functioning. If you are taking them, you should talk to your psychiatrist about your concerns and consider changing your antidepressants to one that has little to no effect on sexual functioning. In addition to treating depression, some therapists use cognitive behavioral therapy to treat sexual dysfunction by identifying and modifying maladaptive thoughts, unreasonable expectations, behaviors that reduce the partner's interest or trust, insufficient sexual stimuli, and insufficient nongenital physical stimulation (Basson, 2006).

Improving Your Sex Life

Sexual desire is never as intense in long term relationships as it is in the beginning stages of dating. But just as relationships take work in other areas, they also take work when it comes to keeping your intimate relationship healthy.

●      Make time for each other as well as for yourself. Sometimes it can help to schedule sex in. It might not sound like appealing at first, but a lot of couples find it exciting when they know they have a hot date scheduled for later that night or early the next morning. Having something to look forward to can be arousing and it will guarantee that you make time for each other.

●      Try having sex at different times of the day, such as in the morning, as opposed to at night. Many people are so exhausted and stressed after a long day that sex is the last thing on their minds. However, it can be a great way to start your day off on the right foot.

Consider alternatives to the human sexual response cycle. Even if your sexual encounters don’t begin with desire, that doesn’t mean that they can’t be enjoyable and exciting.


Baldwin, D.S. (2001). Depression and Sexual Dysfunction. British Medical Bulletin, 57, 81-99.

Basson, R. (2006). Sexual Desire and Arousal Disorders in Women. The New England Journal of Medicine, 354, 1497-1506. doi: 10.1056/NEJMcp050154

Castellanos, M. How Does Stress Affect Sexual Desire? Sharecare. Retrieved May 24, 2013, from

Female Sexual Response. (2008). Association of Reproductive Health Professionals. Retrieved May 24, 2013, from

Laumann, E.O., Paik, A., & Rosen, R.C. (1999). Sexual Dysfunction in the United States: Prevalence and Predictors. The Journal of the American Medical Association, 281 (6), 537-544. doi:10.1001/jama.281.6.537.

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DEPRESSION AND STRESS MAY BE DAMPENING YOUR SEX DRIVE by UrbanSculpt Staff Writer Meghan Stone , MSW, MEd is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.