How stress affects your sex life

Sex During End of Year Stress | Q&A with Casey Tanner

Like in most cases, stress can have a direct impact on your emotional well-being and intimacy. We opened the floor for users to ask sex therapist Casey Tanner all their dwelling questions about holiday stress and sex.

How stress affects your sex life

How can I tell my partner I’m not into sex when I’m feeling stressed?

You are, of course, well within your rights to say no to sex when you’re stressed. But if you’re someone who still longs for physical connection or intimacy when you’re stressed, it might be helpful to realize that you don’t need to have sex – or specifically penetrative sex – in order to have shared intimacy.

If your partner is asking for that intimacy, but penetrative sex or being naked together feels totally off the table for you, maybe cuddling, taking a shower together, being naked in bed together without having sex, or just making out sounds nice to you. You could offer up some other forms of intimacy that sound good to you – or maybe no physical intimacy sounds good to you right now and you’d rather offer up some form of emotional intimacy. Given that this time of year is one that is short and often goes by quickly, you’ll be able to regain some of that desire when this time passes, and it’s okay to say no to sex right now. 

Why does my sex drive drop or disappear when I travel?

Travel, especially holiday travel, is a very specific context made up of a bunch of other contexts that can impact our desire. First of all, possibly getting on a plane or going on a long road trip can cause anxiety, soreness in our bodies, or changes in our sleep schedules caused by time changes. Or, perhaps you’re around people in your life that cause increased stress and anxiety.

It’s not necessarily the travel itself that’s changing your desire or sex drive, but all of the circumstances that come together and create a context that just isn’t as sexy, safe, or energizing as the context in your own home. This is a very normal reaction to travel and nothing is wrong with you. Especially if you’re someone with responsive desire, you’re likely to be more impacted by a change like holiday travel. 

How do I plan out some solo-sex as a form of stress relief?

This sounds like a great opportunity to talk about how to get our sex toys through airport security! First tip: Bring something small! The smaller your toy is, the less likely it is to get flagged when it goes through security – especially when it’s in a carry-on bag.

Second tip: Put the toy in a clear reusable bag. If your bag is opened, it will be obvious to the TSA agent what’s inside and they will not have to reach in and touch it. It’s also just a more hygienic way to travel.

Third tip: Take out the toy’s batteries (if battery powered). The most embarrassing thing that can happen is that the toy starts vibrating because it hits up against something in the suitcase. If you have a USB rechargeable toy like LELO’s, you likely have nothing to worry about because those buttons need to be held down for several seconds before they turn on.

Back to the heart of the question, I love that we’re seeing solo-sex as a form of self-care and a way to relieve stress. When you’re back home for the holidays, it’s really about finding the right moment and the right place for solo-sex. The shower or a bath is a great time to masturbate either using a toy or your fingers, because that’s a time when you have running water and it’ll be less likely that anyone can hear you. It’s also a time where you’re already naked and people will be giving you some privacy. So if you’re looking for the time to steal away, I highly recommend the shower or a bath. 

My sex drive goes up when I’m stressed but my partner is the opposite – help!

The holidays are that time of the year when our desire discrepancies in our partnerships can widen. In other words, the differences in our sex drives may be even greater during times of stress than they are during the rest of the year. What I recommend to couples is, instead of putting the pressure on being turned on at the same time and in the same way, to actually just make time for intimacy (not necessarily sex).

If sex happens out of intimacy, great! That might be icing on the cake. But the important thing here is to schedule time face-to-face, put the technology away, and figure out what moments we can steal away to have that time together. When you’re home for the holidays (and if you’re able to share a room), it’s often the mornings that can facilitate intimacy more than the evenings after a stressful day and possibly extra drinking. Try to find a couple of minutes in the morning when you wake up to be face-to-face without distraction to create intimacy, and see what comes from there!

How can alcohol affect our desire and arousal?

Many of us know that drinking alcohol lowers our inhibitions or increases our likelihood of taking risks, and the same can be true about sex. Drinking can decrease anxiety and inhibitions, and increase our desire for sex. In a consenting relationship, alcohol can be used as a tool to increase desire.

One or two drinks is likely to lower anxiety and inhibitions enough to facilitate a connective experience, but after you get past about two drinks – or to the point that you’re really feeling psychologically impacted by alcohol – your arousal systems might be negatively affected. This can actually lower our ability to self-lubricate, make it difficult to get an erection, make it take longer to have an orgasm, or lower the intensity of our orgasm.

So, the key here is, in a consenting relationship, to find that sweet spot where alcohol helps lower the inhibitions enough to have an enjoyable sexual experience, but not so much that people either aren’t able to set the boundaries that they need to set or that it gets in the way of their arousal systems. 

How can I stay connected to my polycule when we’re celebrating the holidays apart?

If you’re going to be away from your polycule over the holidays – or even if you’re going to be away from a monogamous partner – one thing you can do is start to cope ahead. Before you’re distant from your partner(s), sit down and have a conversation about what is likely to come up over the course of the week or however long you’re not together. What anxieties or insecurities might arise that we can talk through ahead of time so that each of us know how we can expect to handle it when the moment comes? When you’re apart, it’s important to recognize that you may not have the time to talk on the phone or stay connected via text the way that you would when you aren’t with family. 

One creative way to remain connected is to play a back-and-forth game together like Words with Friends or Draw Something, which are two apps that can facilitate staying connected without having to have serious conversations. It’s sort of like saying, “I’m here!” even if you can’t be together right now. Another really helpful approach is using humor to engage each other in the absence of being able to have “heart to heart” conversations. This could look like sending memes back and forth or sending funny texts and videos. These are great ways to say “I’m thinking about you” without getting into the nitty gritty. 

If you do need support – because families often bring up trauma, and that can bring up anxiety – then having some kind of phrase or keyword that communicates, “Hey, this is a moment where I really need you to step away” as opposed to a moment that’s like, “Hey, I’m just letting you know what I’m going through”. Make it clear whether you’re asking for general support or if you’re asking for your partner to step away and really be there for you at that moment. 

Lastly, having a planned connection point when you get back and knowing the next time you’re going to see your partner or polycule is a great way to lower anxiety about not knowing what’s going to happen after the holidays. This way, you know that you have something scheduled and you can check in about how things went for each of you during that time. The time you spend apart from your partner(s) is not going to be perfect, we can assume that upfront, and that time to debrief and reconnect is a great way to discuss what you might do differently next time you’re apart and what really worked for you this time around.