There, we said it. Although some cultures consider the topic of sex to be taboo in common parlance, the science is clear: sex is a basic biological drive that most humans need to be healthy and happy. In-fact, sex is documented to help with everything from your mood to your level of pain!
With all the positive effects of anxiety purported by study after study, we naturally thought that we should ask: can sex help with anxiety, too?
What is Anxiety (for Our Purposes)?
Before we get into the more fun details, let’s take a look at the more burdensome topic: anxiety. While almost everyone experiences some anxiety, there are several different types. Performance anxiety, for instance, may make you stutter when you stand up to give a speech. But it can also refer to the anxiety that you feel when it comes time for intercourse with another person. To ask if sex can help with anxiety, we won’t cover this type of anxiety – this time.
Instead, when we discuss anxiety, we are talking about the baseline anxiety humans share. We are also referencing, broadly, some of the most common anxiety disorders, including:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
- Social anxiety disorder (SAD)
- Panic disorder (PD)
The Effect of Sex on the Body
To understand whether or not sex can help with anxiety, it’s important to understand how sex affects us on a molecular level. There are plenty of physical benefits that accompany frequent – usually described as weekly – sex, such as
- A stronger immune system
- Reduced pain
- Increased pain tolerance
- Decreased neuroticism (various feelings of distress)
Additionally, according to a 2011 article by Live Science, sex has tons of emotional benefits, too. For instance, a 2004 study of 16,000 Americans found that regular sex life is crucial to happiness. In fact, by boosting the frequency of pleasurable activities from once per month to once per week, individuals felt the happiness equivalent of a $50,000 raise!
There is also some clinical evidence that sex can help with anxiety. For instance, this study from July of 2010 found that rats with a healthy sex life showed fewer anxious behaviors than those who were deprived of sex. Additionally, in the study previously mentioned on sex in young adults, all participants who engaged in sexual activity reported less anxiety than those who remained abstinent.
However, it’s important to note that the type of sex matters. For instance, men who pay for sex are less happy than those in meaningful relationships. Additionally, those who cheated on their spouse may not feel the same emotional release as those who remained faithful. And one study published in Environmental Research and Public Health found that, among young adults and adolescents, those with a romantic partner were more likely to be satisfied sexually than those with no romantic component.
Sex, Hormones, and Neurotransmitters
Now that we have a baseline understanding of how sex affects us, let’s look at what happens inside the body during intercourse. This will get us one step closer to examine the effect of sex on anxiety.
The first “stage” of sex is arousal, also known as being turned on. In this process, your limbic system – the part of your brain that handles your emotions – experiences increased stimulation. In this stage, your body releases a flood of nitric oxide to relax your blood vessels. This molecule increases your overall sensitivity and encourages blood to flow closer to the skin.
Additionally, your body releases several different hormones and neurotransmitters (chemicals that create responses in the brain). These include:
- Adrenaline, which is responsible for your fight-or-flight response
- Norepinephrine, which affects happiness and anxiety
- Oxytocin, or the “love hormone,” extends pleasurable release and encourages human bonding
- Serotonin, which is responsible for regulating social behaviors, sleep, mood, and appetite
One of the most important molecules released during sex is called dopamine. This neurotransmitter acts in the brain to help conduct pleasurable responses – which is why a lack of dopamine is often associated with depression. But dopamine also fulfills one other important function. When our brains release dopamine, this creates a feedback loop, where our brains seek out the activity the generates more dopamine in the future. This chemical, along with serotonin and oxytocin, builds the system of motivation and reward that helps explain why humans seek out sex at a later date.
Can Sex Help with Anxiety?
Now we come to the nitty-gritty section, where we can ask our most important question: can sex help with anxiety?
In short, the answer is often yes, especially when viewed through the lens of your hormones. As we discussed above, sex releases a ton of hormones and brain chemicals to help with stimulation and pleasure. But there is one thing that each of the molecules we mentioned has in common: a severe deficiency of any of them can cause depression and anxiety. And for some of them, such as serotonin, other symptoms may emerge, such as poor sleep patterns and memory or swinging emotions.
Furthermore, when it comes to the “love hormone” oxytocin, too little can cause emotional distress. A lack of oxytocin is linked with depression, anxiety, and even feeling less connected to others. In turn, this can lead to loneliness, which may turn into – or fuel – feelings of anxiety.
Consider that sex releases these hormones in a healthy, sexually active adult, the logical conclusion is that sex can directly help lower a person’s anxiety level. More specifically, it does this by increased the amount of each of these hormones in the body. While a lack of each of these chemicals can lead to anxiety, boosting their numbers in the body can lead to more positive effects, including:
- Decreased likelihood of depression
- Increased happiness
- Better sleep
- Healthier eating habits
And, of course, each of these, including sex, can help with anxiety in their rights – leading to another positive feedback loop.