You might have heard an orgasm described as a vaginal sneeze or called “la petite mort” — French for “the little death.” Others might describe orgasms as fireworks or a cresting ocean wave — prettier, perhaps, but more abstract. With all these euphemisms floating around, it’s totally possible to come and then have to stop and think, “Wait… was that an orgasm?”
Additionally, orgasms feel different to different people, and they can even feel different to the same person at different times. “For some people, it feels like a hiccup, and for some, it’s like a volcanic explosion,” says Dr. Patti Britton, PhD, a board certified clinical sexologist and pioneer of sex coaching. “That really depends on so many factors, whether it’s age, whether it’s levels of arousal, whether it’s the desire and the longing that precedes the excitement and the arousal to that release of the climactic moment or moments.”
Here's how to tell if you had an orgasm
While different people experience orgasms differently, there are some commonalities. You might notice a few of the signs on this list, or you might feel all of them — it's very individual. Basically, if your body had a reaction during sex and you now feel better than you did before, Marin said, you probably had an orgasm.
Your skin is flushed
Many people may find that the skin on their face, neck, and chest gets red as a tomato (or, if you prefer a sexier fruit, a strawberry), and might feel hot to touch. This is sometimes called a "sex flush" or "orgasm flush" — a term that's been made infamous by the beauty brand NARS' cult classic "Orgasm" blush.
Your breathing and heart rate change
During or just after an orgasm, you may notice that you're breathing more rapidly and your heart rate quickens. A 2008 study found that, on average, people's heart rates were highest at the beginning of an orgasm, and they returned to a baseline about 10 to 20 minutes after.
"It's a very physical thing," says Dr. Britton. "As we get more and more aroused, our skin may flush, we may experince increased breathing at a more rapid pace. We may have more shallow breathing. We may feel warm all over, and we feel the arousal signs throughout our body."
You feel tension, then a release
Okay, let’s get to the root of that off-putting sneeze analogy. The reason some people say orgasms feel like a sneeze is that both experiences begin with a buildup of tension, followed by a sudden release. They're both reflexes — one just feels a whole lot better than the other.
“Orgasm often feels like an ‘ahhhhh’, a sense of letting go, a sense of exhaling energetically throughout our whole body,” says Dr. Britton. “It’s the moment of letting go.”
You feel happy and relaxed
When you orgasm, your brain is flooded with feel-good hormones including oxytocin (which is sometimes called the “cuddle chemical”) and dopamine, which can give you a sense of satisfaction and motivation. Together, these chemicals can promote feelings of euphoria, bonding, empathy, and closeness. Basically, you’ll feel good.
Your muscles spasm
Many people experience some sort of involuntary muscle contractions during, and even after, an orgasm. These are measurable rhythmic contractions occurring in both the vagina — and anus (in both women and men). Some describe this as “the shivers.” This happens in your vaginal walls, but it can also occur in your feet, legs, thighs, butt and stomach muscles.
You feel sleepy
To even reach orgasm, you’ve got to get out of your head. There’s a buildup of tension and a release. Afterwards, you’re in bed — without tomorrow’s to do list running through your head and in the same way orgasms can make you feel relaxed, you may also make you sleepy. One 2017 study found that people who had an orgasm before bed reported getting a better night’s rest. More research is needed to confirm the link, but the authors of this study say we can likely thank oxytocin. Another hormone, prolactin, is also thought to play a role.
Afterwards, your body feels sensitive
After an orgasm, many people report that their genitals feel sensitive. Some women can experience a rapid return to the orgasm phase with further stimulation but others may be so sensitive that they don’t want to be touched for at least a few minutes. If you’d like to continue the sex session, concentrate on other areas of your body — or your partner’s — for a while before returning to your vulva.
But rather than checking items off a list, perhaps the best way to tell if you’ve had an orgasm is by getting better acquainted with your body, its rhythms and erogenous zones. In learning how to turn yourself on, you’ll find the spots where focused attention will more likely result in climax. You can start slowly and intentionally, learning to masterbate with your fingers first, or you can jump right into exploring the wide variety of pleasure products on the market today.
“There are so many toys, so many pleasure products, that can stimulate someone to experience pleasure all the way through to and up to orgasm,” says Dr. Britton. Within the vibrator category alone are oral simulators, clit suckers, massage wands, rabbits and G-spot vibrators, to only mention a few.
The only surefire way to find what devices work best for you is through experimentation. All this exploration could sound intimidating but try not to let the process overwhelm you, as anxiety can actually impede your ability to orgasm. Instead, try to approach self-exploration like you would a hobby — with both the patience and persistence required to hone any new skill. While trying to achieve orgasm can feel like a race to the finish line, it’s important to enjoy the entire ride.
“It’s actually a journey into self,” says Dr. Britton of achieving orgasm. “In French it’s called the little death, ‘la petite mort’, which means that there is a moment at the onset of an orgasmic release: a sense of nothing, I'm gone — that’s the little death. It’s a silent moment internally.”
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This article was originally published in September 2019 and has been updated.