Let’s talk about depression and sex

Depression is a serious, often life-threatening condition that affects one in 16 Australians. While treatable, depression affects every part of the quality of one’s daily life, and the lives of those close to them. This can often include sex and intimacy, and is an important one to be aware of especially if someone you are intimate with or care about is suffering.

Here are 10 things to know about the relationship between depression and sex.


Depression can reduce your libido

For most people, levels of sexual desire fluctuate with time. People with depression, however, often lose the ability to anticipate pleasure, which is critical to the process of sexual arousal.

Nearly half of people with unmedicated depression experience symptoms of sexual dysfunction, including reduced libido, inability to maintain erection, and inability to orgasm.

Stress, anxiety, guilt, fatigue and low mood are common symptoms of depression. These symptoms can lead to decreased libido and can physiologically affect your ability to become aroused, maintain arousal and reach orgasm.


Depression affects the psychological aspect of sex

For many people there is an emotional component to sex. If you are suffering from depression, it can be hard to be mindful and present with your partner in the moment. Feelings of low self-esteem and worthlessness can increase your anxiety about sex, reducing sexual enjoyment. Low mood and negative thoughts can also prevent your body from responding physically to sex acts, which can exacerbate these negative cycles.


Medication side effects

Antidepressants can be a highly effective and even lifesaving treatment for depression, however the class of drugs commonly used to treat depression often come with side effects that can affect your sexual arousal. These include diminished libido, erectile dysfunction, delayed ejaculation and anorgasmia (the inability to orgasm).

Untreated depression can have just as much of an impact on your sex life as antidepressant medication. So if you find your antidepressants are affecting your sex life, consult your doctor to see if you can change up your dosage or medication, or if other solutions are available. No one should discontinue antidepressant medication without medical supervision.


Some people use sex as a coping mechanism

Some people experiencing depression report an increase in sexual activity. Often in such cases sex is used a coping mechanism to soothe, distract from, or numb painful feelings. While self-medicating with sex can be effective in the moment, overuse of sex as a coping mechanism can lead to greater emotional discomfort in the long run.


Sex can boost your mood

Some experts contend that the physiological and emotional aspects of sex can help boost mood and act as a buffer against the effects of depression. Masturbation in particular has many positive benefits, including stress relief, better mood, and greater relaxation. Some people with depression find that an orgasm can assist with sleep, which in turn enhances wellbeing.


Toys can help

Sex toys are a valuable tool if you or your partner are struggling with low libido, for whatever reason. For example, if you have a penis and are unable to get an erection, consider using a dildo to penetrate your partner. Or, if you do not feel up for penetration, your partner can use a vibrator to bring you pleasure. Both antidepressant medication and the physiological effects of depression can decrease the amount of natural lubrication produced by the vagina. Using a lubricant can ease things along to keep sex fun and painless.


Not everyone with depression struggles with sex

Not every person with clinical depression experiences the same symptoms. While sexual side effects are a common symptom, some people will find that depression has little or no affect on their sex life. If you want to have sex when you’re depressed, that’s great! As long as you are able to consent, there’s no need to hold back.


It is ok to not have sex

Conversations about sex and depression are often framed in terms of fixing the “problem”. But it is completely okay to not have sex when you are depressed. Not wanting, or being unable to have sex does not make you sex-negative, or a bad partner. Feeling pressured to have sex when you’re not feeling like it can be destructive to a relationship.

Take the pressure off, allow your desire to build in its own time, and try to have open, loving conversations with your partner about how you’re feeling, and work together on how you may combat any sexual strains in your relationship in a healthy way. This may be as simple as encouraging them to masturbate, or just finding other ways to express intimacy if you’re not feeling up to sex. Communication, as always, is key.


Whatever the question, therapy too is often the answer. As well as being an important treatment for depression, it can also help to improve your sex life. If you have a partner, consider seeing a qualified psychologist or therapist together. Therapy can help you understand each other, alleviate misconceptions about depression and sex, boost your confidence, and arm you with useful tools to increase sexual and non-sexual intimacy in your relationship.

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