Yoga? Yawn. Research shows a great way to ward off anxiety is by connecting in bed. Grab your partner and feel tension slip away.
Stress affects me just as much as the next woman. I break out. I become short-tempered. And, of course, I reach for the nearest chocolate. But worry never seems to rock my sex life.
Or it didn’t, until a few months ago, when an unusually large number of looming deadlines began to curb my once unshakable libido. My husband, Steve, and I were under constant pressure, and at bedtime, I was so not in the mood. Steve’s blasé reaction to my refusal showed he wasn’t either. After two weeks without action (a long time for us), I began to worry.
“The grind” used to be what we did every night. Now it had become the definition of our days. They say stress kills, and I would argue that it’s true, especially when it comes to sex drive.
“Stress makes you tired, distracted and unmotivated to do anything, much less have sex,” says Laura Berman, Ph.D., director of the Berman Center for women’s sexual health in Chicago. “When a woman is stressed, the hormonal changes in her body trigger a chemical reaction causing sex hormone–binding globulin to bind with testosterone cells, so they’re unavailable for libido and sexual response.”
And, in a pattern familiar to many women, sexlessness due to stress makes you more tense and even less sexual. Furthermore, a study at the University of Gottingen in Germany found that people who do it less often tend to take on more work to compensate for their frustration. And the increased labor results in—you guessed it—even less sex.
Video: Maintain a happy sex life Call it a catch-69, the cruel irony that a proven cure for stress — a hot sex life — is exactly what stress destroys. Connecting with a partner (and I mean physically) is a balm for the body.
“Being in an intimate relationship correlates to healing faster, getting sick less often and living longer,” says James Coan, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “Good relationships offset tension in daily life.” Anxiety spikes blood pressure, which hobbles the immune system. “But when you have sex, you release feel-good hormones, including oxytocin and endorphins,” Coan adds. Eventually, you begin to associate your partner with those positive feelings, and he becomes someone you trust to be your soother during tough times.
All this had me scratching my head, wondering, Can a relationship be “good” without good sex? Or is sex the glue?
“If the sex is satisfying, it’s one part of a larger relationship,” Berman says. “But if your sex life isn’t working, the entire relationship is vulnerable to distancing, infidelity and a breakup. Sex eases anger. When we connect physically, we cut our partners slack. But when there’s no sexual connection, you get angrier quicker. Feeling angry, you’re less likely to want sex. Before long, you’re not having it at all and the relationship frays. Over time, it will crumble.”
No two ways about it: Despite how overwhelmed we felt, Steve and I were going to have to rebooty our sex life to save our health, our state of mind and perhaps even our relationship. I suggested a four-week experiment: We would have sex every time we felt stressed. Steve wasn’t sure prescribing contact could cure my anxiety, but he agreed to try. I think the notion of a calm wife appealed to him even more than imagining the pleasure to come.
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Week 1: getting started
First step: more kissing, hugging and cuddling. Indeed, simply holding hands can allay stress, Coan’s research shows.
“We asked women to lie in an MRI scanner to measure brain response to an electrical shock — first when holding a stranger’s hand and then holding their husband’s hand,” he says. I contemplate why anyone would even choose to be electrically shocked. “The shocks were mild. Like walking across the carpet and touching a doorknob. We wanted to observe the response to anticipatory stress—a good comparison to everyday anxiety—so we gave them a warning, saying, ‘In 4 to 12 seconds, you might get a shock.’”
The results: When holding her husband’s hand, women showed a significantly reduced stress response in the brain compared with holding a stranger’s hand. And those in happy relationships “showed the least stress response,” Coan says.
Kissing and hugging, too, alleviate daily anxiety. Berman’s research found that unaffectionate couples report more stress and depression than their cuddling counterparts, and pairs who smooch a lot are eight times less likely to be tense or depressed. The best way to stay connected and stress-free, scientists believe, is to keep the touching going, especially during rocky times.
I got my first chance to test the power of the pucker soon after beginning the experiment. The cat spilled water on my keyboard, and whenever I hit the space bar, the letter b appeared onscreen. On deadline, I desperately needed my space! I felt like crying. Instead, I found Steve in the living room and flung myself at him. Canoodling didn’t magically repair my keyboard. (I found an old one in the basement.) But the kissing did soothe.
The arrival of the Visa bill challenged our success with the make-out cure. We spent too much last month. I had to remind myself that physical contact wasn’t a fix for overspending (if only!); it was supposed to be a salve for financial anxiety. I put down the bill and gave Steve a hug. “Not working,” I lamented.
“Time to up the dose,” Steve said, waggling his eyebrows.
We retreated to the bedroom in the early evening, while our kids were watching TV. We locked the door and undressed. Heart pounding at the prebedtime nudity, I focused on the moment. It was our first time in weeks! During, and for an hour afterward, I couldn’t have thought about money if I tried. When I picked up the bill again, it still gave me palpitations. But they were less violent.
Week 2: heating up
Back on track, Steve and I were “upping the dosage” frequently. This method would dramatically improve our stress levels, according to Stuart Brody, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of the West of Scotland at Paisley. In one study, people kept a diary of their sexual activity for two weeks. Brody then monitored their blood pressure when they spoke in public and did verbal arithmetic, classic stress inducers. Those who tried the nooky cure had the lowest blood pressure. Self-pleasuring and other substitutes didn’t offer the blood pressure–leveling punch of actually doing it. For women, sexual intercourse triggered key nerves in the vagina and cervix, was psychologically satisfying and released calming hormones in the brain, more so than any other sex play did—factors that added up to lowered blood pressure. “Intercourse specifically is linked to better psychological and physical health,” Brody says.
There are a couple of other activities that make me float on air, but I wasn’t going to tangle with Brody, a scientist with fistfuls of data. I was happy to do it nonstop if sex would relieve stress. The week’s big test: I went to the drugstore to pick up some medicine for my daughter. The pharmacist told me the Rx wasn’t ready, even though I’d confirmed with another pharmacist that it was. I stormed home empty-handed and spitting mad. I burst into the apartment. Steve, reading the paper at the table, noticed my flaring nostrils and said, “I suppose you’ll want to medicate that.”
I did, in the interest of science. Several minutes into afterglow, the pharmacist called and said the prescription was in fact ready; he had filed it in the wrong place. A few weeks ago, I probably would have gotten angry all over again for the inconvenience his error caused me. But that day I felt forgiving. People make mistakes. Perhaps sex was systemically calming. If I stopped sweating the small stressors, I might even be a kinder person. Attention, Professor Brody: future study on sex and personality change?
Week 3: grooving on
An editor asked me to do a major revision on a magazine article I’d moved off my desk months before. I thought it was finished; I thought wrong. The fixes were needed today, naturally, by 2 p.m.
Herein lies the one problem with the sex cure: So much of my stress results from there being just 24 hours in a day. If I used sex to medicate time-pressure stress, and if sex itself required at least 15 minutes, wouldn’t the cure exacerbate the problem?
Only one way to find out! I tracked down Steve in the den, where he was studying a music score. (He’s an opera singer.) That we both work from home is a boon for the experiment—constant access! When I explained my desires to Steve, he groaned, but not in a sexy way. Under time pressure himself, he warned, “Don’t expect much,” closed his score and made room on his lap for me.
Three hours later, the quickie had turned into a longie. I glanced at the clock and saw that my revision was due in
10 minutes. I hadn’t started it yet. Amazingly, the anxiety I expected to flood into my head did not. I got out of bed and down to business. With laser focus (is intercourse linked to concentration?), I did the rewrite and sent it an hour late. On the phone, my editor sounded annoyed, but her peevishness bounced off me. I felt a spark of worry after we hung up. But only a spark. Nothing requiring more nooky. I wondered if a quickie would not have been as stress-reducing. It stands to reason. Because more sex equals better effects, longer sessions might be like double dosing. My new worry: Could they cause sex addiction?
Week 4: hooked on hookups
I had officially gone from casual user to junkie. Steve, meanwhile, was showing signs of fatigue. When he said he was “tired,” I reacted like a crack addict denied the pipe. He told me to “calm down,” but my nerves (in places only he could satisfy) needed tweaking to do just that! He said something about missing sex for sex’s sake, then fell asleep. How dare he nod off when I was stressed?
A few days later, I switched on the kitchen light and watched it flicker and blow. A second later, the apartment went dark. Steve tried flipping circuit breakers, but nothing worked. I called an electrician. Hanging up, I said, “We’ve got an hour.”
“How can you think of sex now?” he asked.
How could I not? When something went wrong, my body started to twitch. I’d conditioned myself like a lab rat trained to push a lever for food. Logically, I realized connecting sex and anxiety in this way probably wasn’t smart. But scientists had proven the two were tied physiologically. A mental link was merely following suit. At least thinking about the sex-stress mind meld meant I wasn’t fretting about how much the blown wires might cost.
When the electrician, Joe, arrived, he took one look at our fuse box and said, “Whoa, this doesn’t look good.”
I grabbed Steve’s hand.
Joe said, “You might have to replace the whole box.”
I kissed Steve on the neck.
Joe said, “That’d be a two-day job. About $1,000.”
I all but jumped Steve right there on the kitchen floor.
The electrician squinted at the spectacle. Steve peeled me off and said, “Would you excuse us?”
Video: Are men happier than women? As Joe poked around in the box, Steve and I went upstairs, ideally to do the same. The idea of paying $1,000 was making me so randy, I could barely contain myself. In the bedroom, I lunged. Steve, however, wasn’t feeling the frisk. Apparently offended by my behavior, he called me “inappropriate” and “insane.” He was cutting me off, saying I needed “to detox.”
“Come on,” I begged, “just five minutes on the bed!”
I could only imagine what the electrician would think if he could overhear our discussion. When we went back to the action downstairs (because nothing was going to happen in the bedroom), Joe kept his eyes glued to his work. Twenty minutes later, he said his repair would hold us for a few more years and we wouldn’t need a major fix. Maybe the fuse box’s wiring wouldn’t, but I continued to think my wiring might be going berserk.
Week 5: Finding relief
When plagued by small stressors, it’s easy to forget that bigger issues are always lurking. We got word that, after a long illness, Steve’s father was slipping away. While Steve drove to Maine to be there at the end, the kids and I, at his urging, stayed at home.
So I was alone, frantic about Steve driving north, distraught, in a snowstorm. With him gone, the daily demands of child, pet and house care doubled. Within hours of his leaving, I went right back to medium-level stress, with spikes of high-grade when I got the sad updates from Steve on the phone.
Seeking solace one evening, I left the girls to fight over the remote and locked myself in my bedroom to “de-stress” on my own. Although Brody had warned me that vibrators are a poor substitute for sex, in terms of anxiety relief, I endeavored to try. After a few minutes, I gave up. My heart wasn’t in it. Although physically relaxing, all this self-lovin’ wouldn’t significantly lower blood pressure wrought by stress, according to Brody. “Different nerves are involved,” he says. “Post-orgasmic hormonal release, which is more satisfying and better for mental health, is dramatically greater during evolution-favoring, potentially reproductive sexual behavior.” (I took his word but couldn’t help but think, Don’t knock the me-time orgasm until you’ve tried it.) Still, I wasn’t enjoying my mission. I missed Steve and worried about him, and that wouldn’t change until he came home.
Simply seeing your partner after a stressful time apart can be a relief, says Darby Saxbe, doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, who did a study on how marital satisfaction affects your ability to chill after a tough day at work. She compared women in unhappy marriages with happily wed women and found that those in more supportive, satisfying unions had a steeper drop in cortisol when they arrived home after a stressful 9 to 5. “The women in solid marriages may be better able to find the time and space to relax,” Saxbe says. “The happier the relationship, the better off the woman will be.”
When Steve finally returned after a week, we held hands, hugged and kissed plenty. And, of course, we got around to the sex part. Nothing, however, felt as supremely calming for me as his merely walking in the door, my seeing he was OK and then us talking about his grief. I’d say that my marital satisfaction was higher, and therefore more stress-relieving, when we were making an emotional connection rather than when the connection was physical. Which presents another theory, proven true as far as my own marriage is concerned: Sex may treat all the various symptoms of stress, but love is the ultimate cure.
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