The (Not-So) Surprising Connection between Mental Health & Libido
Have your libido levels shifted since we started social distancing? It makes perfect sense — and here's why.
The difference in desire between myself and my husband has always been vast, even in the best of times.
But when we were forced to socially distance from the rest of the world, to remain cooped up together with our 5-year-old daughter, my desire disappeared completely.
As social distancing measures were put in place, there were a lot of jokes about the quarantine babies that would appear nine months from now. Essays about how horny everyone suddenly was.
As per usual, I wondered why my experience was so different. I wondered, What was wrong with me?
I should have known that nothing was wrong with me. After all, there’s no such thing as “normal.” Or rather, when there’s no true measuring stick for what constitutes “normal,” we all are.
Our Emotions Are All Over the Place
The spread of the coronavirus pandemic has triggered strong emotions for everyone. We’re experiencing a vast range of emotions, quickly cycling through fear to loss to stress to calm, then back to fear again. Each of us struggles in our own, unique way. The good news? Mental health professionals assure me that’s all par for the course.
“The pandemic really highlights people’s economic circumstances, their family circumstances, their health circumstances,” says Diane Gleim, a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified sex therapist. “[Some] can weather the storm a little bit better. But those in more vulnerable populations are really anxious. Their survival is on the line now. Their comfort and their stability are all in question.”
Based on her observations of how her clients are reacting to the pandemic, Gleim says she can see, more clearly than ever before, how a person’s external circumstances impact their mental health.
But What About Our Sex Lives?
Yes, that too. In the face of such strong emotions, every aspect of our overall health and well-being is affected, including sexual health.
“Feelings like guilt, powerlessness, uncertainty for the future, and survival fear tamp down or inhibit sexual energy,” says Gleim. “For most folks, those feelings are experienced as constricting or draining. In addition, cycling through a whole series of intense emotions in a day is also mentally, emotionally, and physically draining.”
Megan Fleming, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, points out that many of us are feeling additional stress due to what’s being asked of us at this time. She mentions couples who may be experiencing too much togetherness at this time, and who are also crumbling under the weight of the multiple roles they’re being forced to play—wife, mother, professional.
“People aren’t getting breaks,” says Fleming. “For a lot of people, it’s challenging to create that physical space and distance. We all need that time to decompress. To take care of ourselves.”
Then there are people who are feeling particularly frisky. “Why do people masturbate?” asks Fleming. “To relieve tension. To help regulate their mood.”
She also points out that people often use sex as a way to feel connected to their partner. “Craving sex at this time fulfills a need for a sense of normalcy,” she says. “It gives people a sense of control.”
Unfortunately, for those sheltering in place with their sexual partner(s), these shifting levels of desire don’t always align with each other. Gleim finds this interesting, as desire discrepancy is a very traditional problem within the sex therapy realm. “But the circumstances are not typical,” she says. “It’s magnified now.”
Then, of course, there are those who are monogamous, but not living together. Or they’re polyamorous and not living with all (or any) of their sexual partners.
“So there’s longing,” says Gleim. “They’re missing each other. They’re missing sex. They’re missing just being in each other’s presence. Meeting up on Facetime or Skype and doing mutual masturbation is not enough for them. People miss that skin on skin contact.”
How Do We Jumpstart Our Libidos?
“If your libido has tanked, it’s probably because you’re under an immense amount of stress and fear and uncertainty,” says Gleim. She recommends taking care of the important things first. The things that are causing the most stress. Concerns about health. Fears over employment status and financial security. The logistics of how in heck you’re going to get groceries. Only then, she says, can you really work on physiological relaxation.
“Things like weighted blankets are great,” she says. “Avoiding too much caffeine or other substances. Going for walks and noticing beautiful things that jump out at you. These things help facilitate a state of relaxation, a sense of being both calm and alert. And when you find that state of physiological relaxation, that’s when libido can appear. You’re creating the conditions for it to appear. Inviting it.”
When it comes to mismatched libido, Gleim makes the same recommendation she would make at any other time. “Let’s get rid of those expectations,” she says. “They’re tough for people to let go of, but right now, people are really doing it and there’s a relief in letting them go.”
Fleming, meanwhile, champions the practice of scheduling sex, though she knows that many people are resistant to the idea. “You can’t command yourself to be aroused,” she says. “But if you carve out the window, you can then see what you’re in the mood for.”
She mentions the difference between spontaneous desire and responsive desire. For a long time, people assumed that spontaneous desire—desire that emerges out of anticipation of pleasure—was the only path to fantastic sexy-times. Now, we know that many people reach pleasure through responsive desire: desire that pops up only after experiencing physical arousal. “It’s about creating the right conditions,” says Fleming about scheduling sex. “There’s more than one pathway to desire. If you’re not in the mood for sex, instead of saying no, what’s one small thing to which you can say yes?”
Fleming also sees this time as an opportunity to learn new skills in the bedroom, and to bring a sense of play to the sexual experience. She suggests we try to discover new turn-ons. Experiment with toys. Prioritize pleasure. She mentions resources like Kenneth Play’s sex ed series, Sex Hacker Pro, or sex ed apps like OMGyes. “This is an opportunity to discover sex worth having!” she says.
For those who wonder how they could possibly enjoy pleasure at a time like this, Fleming says we have to nix that guilt. “We can have feelings for what’s happening in the world, but that does not equal not taking care of ourselves.”
In the end, Gleim brings the conversation back to my original question.
“The question is always: ‘Am I normal?'” she says. “The answer across the board is, ‘yes.’ Be gentle with yourself and your loved ones.”