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Dear Sexpert, 

My girlfriend and I have been together for over a year now, during which we’ve had a pretty regular and positive sex life. But lately my girlfriend hasn’t been interested in having sex. She assures me that it’s not me, that she’s happy with our relationship, but that she’s just been “too stressed out” to get in the mood. 

I’m respectful of her boundaries, but I also don’t want the physical part of our relationship to completely fizzle out! What can I do to help her chill, so we can heat things up again?

Thanks for your help,

—Anxious in Antarctica

Dear Anxious,

First of all, it’s great that you’ve put respect for your girlfriend’s decision as your first priority. It can be tough to balance a healthy physical relationship with the pressures of school and work, but your concerns are definitely valid and there’s no reason you two can’t work this one out.

Stress is known to decrease libido in both men and women alike. High levels of cortisol inhibit the release of testosterone, the hormone that revs up our sex drives in the first place. But in women, the stress response is more complicated: Increased cortisol levels also mean a decrease in estrogen and progesterone, two hormones that are vital to cycle and mood regulation. 

This could explain the stronger psychological-sexual connection that many women experience. Some men are more likely to put aside their stressed or anxious emotions to have sex, but some women won’t choose to engage in sexual activity unless they already feel deeply relaxed and at ease. Furthermore, some women too preoccupied with other worries can’t reach a full-body orgasm, no matter how physically stimulated they may be.

Psychologists have described this phenomenon in terms of evolutionary coping mechanisms. While men tend to go into the classic “fight or flight” mode in response to stress, women need to “tend and befriend.” In other words, women often want to share and work through their problems with people they are close with, rather than compartmentalize them and hope they will go away. Until your girlfriend feels that her problems are sufficiently addressed, she is unlikely to feel much of a sex drive.

But don’t despair! With the right timing and context, sex can serve as a great de-stressor for both men and women. If each partner feels loosened up enough to begin physical contact, the hormones can kick in and your usual magic can take place, leading to increased oxytocin and endorphins (and lowered stress levels) for both of you. These effects have been shown to be the greatest for intercourse, as opposed to self-stimulation, mutual foreplay or plain emotional support. Long story short, there’s a feedback loop. If you’re relaxed enough to become physical together, the physical contact itself can play a big part in diminishing stress and anxiety.

As with many sex issues, the most important thing is communication. Have a conversation with your girlfriend about what things in her life might be stressing her out and what you both can do to help her work through them. Reassure her that her psychological well-being is important to you and that you are someone she can trust. Sometimes all it takes for someone to feel better is the chance to open up and talk about their problems. 

But if for whatever reason your girlfriend’s stress issues seem too complex or hard to handle, there is no need for either of you to take responsibility for them alone. UHS’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) department offers many great resources, including couples counseling, individual appointments, stress- and anxiety-based focus groups and mindfulness training. All of these options are free, and students can sign up individually or go together. 

In keeping with the theme of openness and trust, have another conversation with your girlfriend. This time, bring up your present concerns with your sex life and see if she’d be open to being physical as a way of relaxing. Try offering a back rub or a foot massage. Maybe go for a walk and hold hands as you discuss your day. 

Or just agree to spend some time kissing and hugging instead of jumping to sex. Chances are that engaging in these small activities will make you both feel better no matter what, and help you regain a healthy balance of emotional and sexual fulfillment in your relationship.

The Sexpert

Interested in Sexual Health? The Sexpert is always looking for passionate members of the community to join the team of sexual health educators who, along with fact-checking from University health professionals, help write these columns. Email for more information and, of course, with your questions about sexual health. Don’t be shy!

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