Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Sex and stress

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Sex and stress:
How does sexual activity affect stress?

Overview[edit | edit source]

The physical activity of sexual intercourse can have profound impacts on the psychological concept of stress. The impact sexual activity can have on the body, and in turn within the mind, can help to achieve a healthy psychological state, sense of self and build nourishing relationships. The stereotypical benefits of sexual activity are commonly reduced to reproductive purposes and erotic pleasures. However, by unpacking existing assumptions and analysing the key components of sexual activity, a greater understanding of the influence sexual activity has on reducing stress is more apparent.

Oxytocin and endorphins, both stress-relieving hormones, are released during sexual activity, specifically through the achievement of an orgasm (Uvnas-Moberg & Petersson, 2005), (Kumsta & Heinrichs, 2013). During sexual activity the biological makeup of the body predicts the hormonal release of these chemicals. This chemical presence has been shown to assits individuals in feeling more at ease in social situations, thus relieving social anxiety (Uvnas-Moberg & Petersson, 2005).

The relationship between sex and stress, although often beneficial, can also become counterproductive and consequently generate stress. Rising stress levels can occur for a number of reasons before, during and after sexual activity. Stress can be a product of the individual’s perceptions, values and self-esteem. When these concepts are combined with the vulnerability associated with sexual intimacy stress levels may arise.

Additionally, an individual’s moral code (Kohlberg, 1963) can conflict with the instinctual desire for sexual activity (Maslow, 1943), leading to cognitive dissonance and stress. This is a complex area to unravel. However, this chapter aims to aid in a deeper understanding of why the most cherished experience of human life can also be a major cause of stress.

The effect of stress on the body and mind[edit | edit source]

When an individual is experiencing elevated stress levels, a higher amount of cortisol is released throughout the body. Cortisol is a hormone, which has a repressive effect on the immune system. A wilted immune system enhances the prevalence of health complications such as high blood pressure, heart disease, atherosclerosis, diabetes, brain damage, memory loss, and stroke (Charnetski & Brennan, 2001). Studies have also revealed a significant relationship between everyday stress and the prevalence of health problems such as flu, sore throat, headaches and backaches (DeLongis, Folkman, & Lazarus, 1988). These are a small example of the detrimental physical side effects stress can cause the body. The body requires a careful balance between the sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system in order for the precise levels of hormones to be released, thus enabling optimal functionality (Charnetski & Brennan, 2001).

Similarly, studies have revealed a negative correlation between everyday stress and psychological wellbeing. The relationship between daily stress and mood disturbances is complex. Striking differences occurred between individuals and each day. However, individuals with unsupportive social relationships and low-self esteem were found to have a higher prevalence of psychological and somatic problems, particularly during and after a stressful day. This research predicts that, under stressful circumstances, individuals with low psychosocial resources are at a higher risk of illness and mood disturbances (DeLongis, Folkman, & Lazarus, 1988).

To understanding the importance of this chapter and in turn learn how to live a more effective emotional life, it is important to fully understand the negative side effects sex has on stress. This chapter will not only aid in personal understanding and growth, but also inducing a deeper understanding of the partner. Studies have shown that relationships form many stress-related outcomes on both individual and dyadic levels. These include stress adaptability and coping effectiveness (O’Brien & DeLongis, 1996; O’Brien, DeLongis, Pomaki, Puterman, & Zwicker, 2009). If a basic understanding of a partner’s behaviour, due to stress, is apprehended, the subsequent response may have a meaningful impact on how stress is overcome.

Orgasm as stress release[edit | edit source]

The pleasurable side effects of an orgasm have been found to generate immunity boosting properties (Charnetski and Brennan, 2001). The definition of an orgasm can vary depending on the particular psychological perspective. The biological description of an orgasm portrays the experience as the "expulsive discharge of neuromuscular tension at the peak of sexual response" (Kinsey et al., 1953). However, when observed through a cognitive perspective, emphasis on the emotional effects are apparent, "the zenith of sexuoerotic experience that men and women characterise subjectively as voluptuous rapture or ecstasy" (Money, Wainwright & Hingburger,1991). However, more research needs to be done in the study of the orgasm. Currently the theories overlap and descriptions and potential benefits and flaws of the orgasm are not clear.

However, the bodies system works in a particular way, such that an individual cannot be stressed and happy at the same time (Charnetski & Brennan, 2001). Thereby, it is theorised that when the body has reached high levels of stress, the accomplishment of an orgasm, a proxy of pleasure, may help reduce stress levels (Charnetski & Brennan, 2001). When orgasm is reached, the hypothalamus activates the release of oxytocin and endorphins, which act as a natural opiate, creating a tranquil serenity of relaxation and harmony (Leonard, 2010), thereby relieving stress.

Benefits of oxytocin[edit | edit source]

Nonapeptide oxytocin was initially known for its benefits in provoking labour and milk ejection in women (Uvnas-Moberg & Petersson, 2005). However, recent studies have found oxytocin to also play a role in social behaviours and social cognition due to its anti-stress-like effects(Uvnas-Moberg & Petersson, 2005). Furthermore, oxytocin has been found to reduce blood pressure and cortisol levels, increase pain thresholds and exert an anxiolytic-like effect (Uvnas-Moberg & Petersson, 2005). Studies have revealed that the intranasal administration of oxytocin has effectively weakened neuroendocrine stress reactivity and decreased amygdala activation in response to a hostile stimulus (Uvnas-Moberg & Petersson, 2005). Thereby, reducing the stress response in humans.

Similarly, Rodrigues et al. found a connection between oxytocin and physiological stress reactivity. This was evident in reports of a higher level of reactivity in association with stressful contexts and greater cardiovascular reactivity. These results show that oxytocin administration reduces the neuroendocrine and subjective stress response (Kumsta & Heinrichs, 2013), diminishing effect on stress and fear. The release of oxytocin can stimulate both sedative and anxiolytic-like effects (Uvnas-Moberg & Petersson, 2005). The hormonal release of Oxytocin is a biological theory, however due to it's affects on the body it is also related to social psychology. As the Oxytocin released has an anti-stress like affect, this enables to individual to be open to social events and encounters.

The touch of a loved one, or the sexual caress of another arouses particular bodily fibres through low intensity stimulation. This stimulation is only initiated by the cortically registered sensation of touch, however the sensation goes much deeper within the individual, arousing an emotional response. Studies have shown this activation of the senses to be a producer of oxytocin, as it induces changes in the insular cortex (a part of the brain focused on emotions) (Uvnas-Moberg & Petersson, 2005). The fibers concerned with mediating oxytocin release are found particularly in the front side of the chest, the abdomen and the urogenital organs (Uvnas-Moberg & Petersson, 2005).

Recently, Adam Guastella (2009) an Australian psychologist, has undergone a controlled trial of intranasal oxytocin as an adjunct to exposure therapy for social anxiety disorder. Guastella (2009) believes that oxytocin reduces social threat perception and improves encoding and understanding positive social cues (Guastella et. al., 2009). Guastella's description of the affects of oxytocin bring further meaning to the association with social psychology.

Sexual activity has the power to engage in the hormonal release of oxytocin into the body. Frequent administration of oxytocin has been shown to produce an anti-stress like pattern through a decreased activity in the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis and the sympathetic nervous system. Thus, oxytocin prompts peace and calm (Uvnas-Moberg & Petersson, 2005). Oxytocin positively affects the relationship between partners, as well as its positive affect on the individual in social situations.

Cognitive dissonance[edit | edit source]

When considering sexual intercourse in a humanistic perspective, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs or subordinate of wants places sex in the biological and physiological needs section. Maslow describes sex as one of the most basic of human needs, along with air, food, water etc (Simons, Irwin & Drinnien,1987). Maslow’s principle gives understanding to the humanistic, sometimes subconscious drive for sexual intercourse and intimacy we all possess. However, when this principle comes into conjunction with psychosocial views such as Piaget and Kohlberg’s theories of moral development (Kohlberg,1963) a cause for rising stress levels may ascend.

Cognitive dissonance, a concept based on the notion of conflicting thoughts within an individual, occurs when two beliefs are discrepant. For example, when an action contradicts an opinion, yet is performed regardless. When an individual is confronted with two opposing beliefs, the mind goes into an aversive state of tension. This is evident in the example of a solider that is trained to kill his enemy. Yet, any soldier who retrains humanity has a deeply rooted moral or religious consciousness declaring, “Thou shalt not kill”. In this example the soldier is likely to enter into varying states of inner turmoil and experience great stress and disharmony. The soldier may react in a number of ways, in order to relieve these feelings. Actions such as discontinuing the act or alternatively, dehumanizing oneself to the extent that the new moral judgment reflects the act of killing, are both possible outcomes. In the latter example, cognitive dissonance has effectively acted as a motivational property to change cognition, thereby reinstating cognitive consistency. Festinger (1957) states that when the individual changes an attitude so to be in line with a behaviour, the negative ramifications of cognitive dissonance can be decreased or eliminated.

John is an example of how stress can be created through cognitive dissonance over a sexual encounter. John’s was a 19-year-old male, who was brought up in a highly conservative family, who did not believe in pre-marital sex. John’s moral conscious shaped around his upbringing, conflicted with his humanistic drive for sexual intimacy which created cognitive dissonance. Although he wishes to conform to his family values, if or when he does decide to engage in sexual activity, feelings of guilt, remorse and anxiety may arise. Dissonance is a state of psychological discomfort (Festinger, 1962), and a commonly results in high stress levels.

Performance anxiety[edit | edit source]

Performance anxiety can be simply described as sexual impotence specifically caused by stress or worry (Collins, 2014). Performance anxiety is associated with an excessive desire to perform or to satisfy the partner in a sexual manner (Wincze & Carey, 1991). This form of anxiety can occur in both men and women and is often associated with sexual dysfunction. However, whether it is the cause of sexual dysfunction or a symptom is unknown. Performance anxiety can have physiological affects, such as an inability to become erect, for a male, as well as loss of concentration, nervousness and excessive sweating. All of these reactions to stress are barriers to the enjoyment of sexual activity. Performance anxiety can also have cognitive symptoms, such as fear of making a mistake, fear of not being good enough, fear of not being able to please a partner and feelings of inadequacy. Both cognitive and physiological components of performance anxiety affect the behaviour of the individual.

Those who experience sexual dysfunction often become obsessive over inadequate sexual performance, thereby increasing their stress level and aggravating performance anxiety (McCabe, 2005). Researchers have found that stress associated with performance anxiety can reach such great heights that episodes of severe panic and distress are induced (Kaplan, 1988). Even when considering factors such as personal attitudes, lifestyle, relationship dynamics and sexual satisfaction, performance anxiety is still the most concise explanation for sexual dysfunction in both men and women (McCabe, 2005). There are many current studies on performance anxiety, including its affect on erectile dysfunction in men. However, there are fewer studies on how performance anxiety affects women and their sexual patterns (McCabe, 2005). As mentioned above, sexual activity certainly has significant positive outcomes, including stress-reducing properties (McCabe, 2005). However, in contrast, performance anxiety is a demonstration of how sexual activity can also induce extreme levels of stress.

Self concept[edit | edit source]

Low self esteem brought on by negative perspective of self. It is constructed from the inner-core of the individual, the ideas, feelings and self-perception of physical attributions (Gunter &Wykes, 2005). However, this can be influenced by external factors as well, including societal norms, influences from the media and the effect of others. Negative body image has significant links to low self-esteem and emotional stability. Each individual has an inner turmoil between the perceived self and the ideal self (Gunter &Wykes, 2005). In modern Western society, the influence of the media, especially with our cultures current obsession with social media, can be somewhat blamed for the unrealistic expectations of the ideal body image. When the ideal body image is unrealistic to the extent of starvation or exercise addiction, a rise in low body image is prevalent (Gunter &Wykes, 2005).

Sexual activity is commonly a trust evoking experiences between two individuals in which one gives their body completely to another. Thus, it is questionable how this experience is enjoyed if one’s self-perception is so low they cannot feel comfortable sharing their physical flaws with another. For individuals with low-self esteem and body image, sexual activity can become a stress inducing experience (Gunter &Wykes, 2005).

Studies have revealed the connection between low self-esteem and episodic stress (Hayman et al. 2007). One particular study of a selection of University students revealed the combination of low self-esteem and stress has significant impact on suicidal ideation in college students (Hayman et al. 2007). In addition, low body image due to stress has been shown to cause unhealthy eating habits such as purging, reduction in food intake and binge-eating, which can then lead to eating disorders (Kroon Van Diest, Tartakovsky, Stachon, Pettit & Perez, 2014). These studies display how body image can affect stress levels to cause dangerous choice and habits. For individuals who have low self-esteem and body image issues, sexual closeness can exacerbate high stress levels. Body imagine is related directly to cognitive psychology and is often treated with cognitive-behavioural therapy.

Everyday stress and sexual desire[edit | edit source]

Similarly, stress can have a negative affect on sexual desire. Research has shown an adverse correlation between everyday stressors and a deteriorated libido, especially within couples. Higher levels of self-reported stress in daily life can cause lower levels of sexual activity, sexual satisfaction and sexual fulfilment (Bodenmann, Atkins, Schär & Poffet, 2010). As evidenced above there are many studies and research that reveal the complex relationship between sex and stress and the many ways each can affect the other. Furthermore, each perspective is important to understand in order to gain insight into this multi-faceted relationship.

Summary[edit | edit source]

Although sexual activity is a fundamental key to reproduction and the continuation of human kind, it has a monumental affect on the individual psychically, biologically and emotionally that we are yet to completely understand. In order to improve one’s life, self-reflection on how we see ourselves, what our expectations are and if they were unrealistic would assist in eliminating stress surrounding sexual activity. However, for those affected by negative external influences, one must firstly overcome these boundaries in order to embrace the full benefits of sexual activity.

References[edit | edit source]

Bodenmann, G., Atkins, D. C., Schär, M., & Poffet, V. (2010). The association between daily stress and sexual activity. Journal of Family Psychology, 24(3), 271.

Charnetski, Carl J & Brennan, Francis X (2001). Feeling good is good for you. Rodale ; [New York] : Distributed to the book trade by St. Martin's Press, [Emmaus, Pa.]

Collins (2014) Performance Anxiety. Retrieved from:

DeLongis, A., Folkman, S., & Lazarus, R. S. (1988). The impact of daily stress on health and mood: psychological and social resources as mediators. Journal of personality and social psychology, 54(3), 486.

Festinger, L. (1962). A theory of cognitive dissonance (Vol. 2). Stanford university press.

Guastella, A. J., Howard, A. L., Dadds, M. R., Mitchell, P., & Carson, D. S. (2009). A randomized controlled trial of intranasal oxytocin as an adjunct to exposure therapy for social anxiety disorder. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 34(6), 917-923

Gunter, B., Wykes, M. (2005) The Media and Body Image: If Looks Could Kill. SAGE. Retrieved from:

Hayman, J. W., Kurpius, S. R., Befort, C., Nicpon, M. F., Hull‐Blanks, E., Sollenberger, S., & Huser, L. (2007). Spirituality Among College Freshmen: Relationships to Self‐Esteem, Body Image, and Stress. Counseling and Values,52(1), 55-70.

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Komisaruk, B.R., Beyer-Flores, C. & Whipple, B. (2006). The science of orgasm. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kroon Van Diest, A., Tartakovsky, M., Stachon, C., Pettit, J., & Perez, M. (2014). The relationship between acculturative stress and eating disorder symptoms: is it unique from general life stress?. J Behav Med, 37(3), 445-457. doi:10.1007/s10865-013-9498-5

Kumsta, R., & Heinrichs, M. (2013). Oxytocin, stress and social behavior: neurogenetics of the human oxytocin system. Current opinion in neurobiology,23(1), 11-16.

Leonard, A. (2010). An Investigation of Masturbation and Coping Style. Robert Morris University. Retrieved from:

Maines, R.P. (2001). The Technology of Orgasm: Hysteria, the Vibrator and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction. Retrieved from:

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological review,50(4), 370.

McCabe, M. P. (2005). The role of performance anxiety in the development and maintenance of sexual dysfunction in men and women. International Journal Of Stress Management, 12(4), 379-388. doi:10.1037/1072-5245.12.4.379

Money, J., Wainwright, G., & Hingburger, D. (1991) The Breathless Orgasm. New York: Prometheus Books

Simons, J. A., Irwin, D. B., & Drinnien, B. A. (1987). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Retrieved October, 9, 2009 Uvnas-Moberg, K., & Petersson, M. (2005). Oxytocin, a mediator of anti-stress, well-being, social interaction, growth and healing. Z Psychosom Med Psychother, 51(1), 57-80.

Wincze, John P. & Carey, Michael P. (1991). Sexual dysfunction : a guide for assessment and treatment. New York : Guilford Press