The Truth About Using Sex As A Stress Reliever

Photographed by Karen Sofia Colon.
It's no secret that consensual sex is healthy. Typically it can feel pretty good, bring you closer to a partner or partners, and give you that marvelous post-coital glow. But what if we gave you a reason to like sex even more? Getting busy is an even better antidote for our health than many of us realize. Sex can actually be a great source of stress and anxiety relief
As it turns out, sexual activity doesn't just buy us a few minutes or hours of tranquility. Having sex regularly might reduce tension in the long-term, lowering our baseline levels of stress and anxiety thanks to a number of reasons. And the best part? You can reap the benefits in whatever way you like, be it alongside a companion or completely solo. Ahead, experts break down how having sex and orgasms work to relieve stress and anxiety over time.

How does sex reduce stress?

As Dr. Holly Richmond, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified sex therapist, tells Refinery29, sexual activity helps to alleviate stress and anxiety in a few different ways. She points to three main ways that sex can have an impact on stress and anxiety: physiologically, psychologically, and relationally. Here's how it works.

What happens to your body after sex

“Physiologically, we get a release of hormones, mostly dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin,” Dr. Richmond says. “Oxytocin is the one that has a big impact here. That's the ‘cuddle hormone.’” 
Sex, or more specifically any sexual activity (hello, masturbation), triggers the release of oxytocin, which positively affects the mood, as Dr. Laurie Mintz, Ph.D., author of A Tired Woman’s Guide to Passionate Sex and expert for sex toy brand LELO, explains. “Oxytocin is often called the ‘love hormone,’” says Dr. Mintz, “[because] it stimulates feelings of warmth and relaxation." It's best known for its ability to make you feel bonded to others, and it's why you might feel especially close to an individual after partnered sex. But it's released anytime you orgasm and can make you feel more chill.
Sex also reduces levels of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, according to research published in The Journal of Health and Social Behavior. Not only that, it also stimulates the production of endorphins, brain chemicals that can naturally boost your mood and relax your body and mind.
In addition to releasing oxytocin, other compounds are released when you get off: dopamine and serotonin, which are neurotransmitters that regulate your mood, and prolactin, another hormone. These are all shown to make you feel happier, and could contribute to that post-O zen people tend to feel, Dr. Mintz says. Prolactin and oxytocin can also make you feel sleepy, she adds. That's a good thing, since “a good night's rest is associated with decreased stress," Dr. Mintz says.
While many of these physiological effects are largely linked to having orgasms, you can still get the stress relieving effects of sex without a big-O. “These hormones are amplified if we have an orgasm during sex, but they’re still present during sex whether or not we have an orgasm or not,” Dr. Richmond says. “However, in that case, without an orgasm, the psychological impacts will probably be greater than the physiological.”

What happens to your mind after sex

Sex can also help with stress and anxiety in the long run simply because it’s straight up fun. Think of it in the same way that doing anything that makes you feel happy can act as a form of stress relief. “Sexual health is an integral part of overall health,” Dr. Richmond says. “Prioritizing our sexual health really means that we're prioritizing ourselves in some way.” Having regular consensual sex can boost our self-confidence and general well-being. 
That certainly goes for masturbation, too. “If we're prioritizing our sexual health through self-pleasure, that is a form of empowerment,” Dr. Richmond says. “People who masturbate are generally more satisfied relationally, sexually, and in life in general.”
Combining regular orgasms with other proven anti-stress techniques may be an even more powerful way to unwind, Dr. Mintz says. "Maybe exercising daily and having a few orgasms a week could become an empirically supported way to treat anxiety,” she says. “I’d love to conduct that study."

How sex affects your relationships

The third big way sex can act as a stress reliever is through its relational effects, meaning the ways in which we are connected to others. “If we're having sex with a partner or people, for most, sex deepens that connection,” Dr. Richmond says. “We see a rebound effect after a couple has sex: Our moods are higher, there's more levity, and there's a deeper sense of connection in the relationship, which most people tend to find a positive benefit from.”
If we’re having enjoyable, consensual sex with a partner or partners, it makes sense that the act of sex creates closeness. Positive physical intimacy and emotional relations with other humans is an innate desire. And typically, getting closer to someone will have a positive effect on well-being.

How often do you need to have sex to reduce stress?

Sex’s ability to reduce anxiety is not a one and done kind of thing, and having one orgasm certainly isn’t going to rid your mind of stress. The experts say that in order to reap the benefits, you need to have sex regularly. “Think of it like a medication,” Dr. Mintz says. “You have to keep taking it to get the stress-relieving effects.” 
The operative word here is ‘regularly,’ which is a relative term, as Dr. Richmond explains. “‘Regularly’ is person dependent, of course,” she says. “For some people, they're going to have sex with themselves or a partner once a month, and that's going to be that stress reducer. And of course, if we're being sex positive, once a month, once a year, every day, twice a day, it’s all good — we're not going to pathologize any of that.”
Plus, regular sex looks different to different people. “For some, self-pleasure will do the trick,” Dr. Richmond says. “For others, it takes two to really have that prolonged stress and anxiety reducing effect.” Whatever your mode, be it solo, with others, or a combo, stick with what makes you feel good and be open to letting your preferences change over time. 

Can sex cause stress and anxiety?

Even though sex can help reduce stress for many, it’s important to keep in mind that it's not an all encompassing antidote. Plenty of people find that anxiety kills their libido. According to Dr. Richmond, “Stress and anxiety is the number one cause of low desire among women.” If you haven't been in the mood lately, there's no need to add sex to the list of things stressing you out. There are tons of other study-backed ways to reduce tension levels, including exercising, meditating, and getting enough sleep.
Another important consideration to take into account is that sex can actually be a source of stress for some. “If you're a survivor who's experienced sexual trauma, sex in and of itself can be stressful, whether that's with yourself or with another person,” Dr. Richmond says. 
Outside of trauma, anything affecting your overall physical and mental health, in general, can impact your sex drive. “Overall, health has an impact on desire, and if your health isn't good, if you're not sleeping, if there's chronic illness, chronic pain, it's unlikely that sex is going to be at the top of your list,” Dr. Richmond says. “Sex can be a stressor, and if it is, I recommend talking to someone about that, whether that's a friend, family member, or therapist.”
Ultimately, you should aim to find activities that feel relaxing to you. If having a great orgasm is one of those things, you can feel even better knowing that science is on your side.

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