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A sympathetic understanding of sex

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

In my most recent post about how intercourse can interfere with great sex, I noted how pressure to reach a particular outcome, or "destination", during sex can increase stress and potentially detract from an individual's or couple's overall experience of the "journey" of sex. Does this just impact our psychological experience of sex? Or are there other ways this pressure can impact sex?

To increase our understanding of the impact of stress or pressure on sex we must first dive back into biology 101 to discuss the nervous system. The central nervous system is comprised of the brain and spinal cord while the peripheral nervous system is comprised of the nerves that run through your whole body and help connect the rest of your body to the brain and spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system is made up the somatic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system. The somatic nervous system is the part of the nervous system involved in voluntary and conscious control. When you clicked on the link for this blog, or if you get up to walk around, that's your somatic nervous system at work. The autonomic nervous system is the part of your nervous system that controls involuntary or automated processes. Things like your heart beating, breathing, the movement of digestive tract, and secretions of your salivary glands, are all part of the autonomic nervous system.

The autonomic nervous system is comprised of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS is involved in up-regulating your body, which activates your body in response to internal or external triggers. This is also colloquially referred to as the "fight or flight" system. If you're walking down the street and a big scary dog comes racing at you, your body kicks into "high gear" as your system is flooded with adrenaline and norepinephrine, elevating your heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, and body temperature. Your body diverts blood flow away from non-essential organs, like your digestive tract, and sends them to your essential organs and big muscle groups to prepare to run away or fight to defend yourself. The PNS, on the other hand, is involved in down-regulating your body. Your heart rate and breathing slows down. Blood pressure and body temperature decrease. Blood flow returns to non-essential organs and normative physiological functions continue. This system is also colloquially referred to as the "rest and digest" system.

Why am I telling you all this? Why put you through a potentially traumatic re-experiencing of 9th grade biology? Well, both of these systems, the SNS and PNS are involved in sex, but at different times. The parasympathetic nervous system is active during arousal and desire while the sympathetic nervous system is active as arousal increases and as you near orgasm or ejaculation. But what happens if there is too much sympathetic nervous system activation earlier in the sexual response cycle? Your body may actually suppress, or shut down, the sexual response cycle. Let's illustrate this point with a brief example.

Let's say you and your spouse or partner are going camping in the woods. It's a beautiful and serene campground on a lake with amazing views of the stars. You're sharing a s'more with your significant other and snuggling next to the campfire. All this closeness and snuggling has the two of you feeling interested in a more intimate sexual connection. But then you hear a rustling in the bushes nearby. You hear the distinct sound of a deep growl of, what must be, a massive grizzly bear. You scramble back into your tent, terrified of the unseen, but surely deadly, grizzly bear. How interested do you think you're going to be in sex at this point? What happens to your experience of desire? What would happen to any physiological or psychological arousal you might have been experiencing previously? As your fear of the bear increases, your body becomes less and less interested in sex and becomes more and more interested in your survival. This fear for your safety is incompatible with your sexual self. The sympathetic nervous system activation shuts down your sexual response cycle.

What does this have to do with the "journey" of sex or the "destination" of sex?? When an individual or couple approaches sex through the lens of reaching a particular desired outcome, let's say intercourse or orgasm, there is now pressure placed on the individual and dyadic systems. If that desired outcome is not attained, the sexual encounter might be viewed as a source of disappointment, sadness, or embarrassment. Perhaps a person's self-esteem might be crushed, perhaps becoming critical or judgmental of oneself. This pressure to reach that desired outcome can lead to anticipatory anxiety, especially if there were previous experiences of sex that did not go smoothly. This experience of anxiety or pressure can cause the same kind of activation of the SNS we saw in our previous example. While this looks nothing like a growling bear in the bushes, our brains still perceive this as a genuine threat to our well-being. Our brains, as sophisticated as they are, don't do a particularly good job of differentiating between actual threats and perceived threats. No, being embarrassed or anxious about sex is not an actual threat to your safety, but our brains experience this as a threat nonetheless.

Ok, now what? Now that I understand the role of the sympathetic nervous system on sex and sexual arousal, what am I supposed to do with that information? While we don't have the ability to easily regulate our SNS, there isn't, after all, a switch we can just flip when we want to down regulate, there are things we can do to help facilitate the down regulation found in the PNS. You can begin by slowing your breathing. You can gently release tension you may find in your body. And, critically, reorienting yourself to the present. As discussed here, at it's core, anxiety is rooted in the future. Your mind is pulling you out of the present to some moment in time that might occur in the near or distant future. By reorienting ourselves to the present, in a non-judgmental and compassionate way, you can not only connect to what's happening in the present moment in a more meaningful way, but you can also activate the PNS and gently slow things down. This process of slowing down is facilitated by a pleasure focused approach to sex. Step out of the agenda of the outcome and step into the moment.

When you learn to slow down, when you learn to engage the process, pressure is taken off the individual and couple which allows for the engagement with the values that make sex rewarding. As one of my former supervisors used to say, "You get where you want to go faster when you learn to go slower."


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