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Mental Health - Other Mental Health Conditions | August 24, 2021, 2:50 CDT

Navigating Sex When You Have a Mood Disorder
Mental health struggles can make sex feel like a no-win scenario, but there are solutions.
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Photography by David Heisler

Every romantic or sexual relationship is guaranteed to have its fair share of ups and downs. But if you or your partner have a mood disorder, an otherwise smooth relationship can suddenly feel like an emotional roller coaster.

Mood disorders can cause people to experience intense mood swings, including manic and depressive states. While effectively balancing your sex life with these mental states can be difficult, it's not impossible.

What is a mood disorder?

Mood disorders cause a person's emotional state to dramatically fluctuate, severely impacting their daily life and ability to function. About 9.7 percent of U.S. adults suffer from a mood disorder in a given year, and an estimated 21.4 percent experience a mood disorder at some point in their lives. Mood disorders can include diagnoses such as depression and bipolar disorder.

Some people may feel ashamed or embarrassed to discuss their diagnosis with sexual partners. However, because mood disorders can cause disinterest or hypersexuality, it's a critical conversation to have.

How mood disorders can affect your sex life

Mood disorders can certainly interfere with your sex life, especially if you have bipolar disorder, which is categorized by two distinct mood extremes: depression and mania.

While there have not been vast studies exploring the link between bipolar disorder and sex, one small study published in the International Journal of Bipolar Disorder indicated many of the female participants with the condition felt sexual dissatisfaction and distress. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine concluded that men with bipolar disorder were at a higher risk for erectile dysfunction (ED) than those without the condition.

While not all bipolar disorder patients experience sexual symptoms, they may still have difficulty enjoying sex during an upswing or downswing in their emotional state.

What happens during an episode?

A person with a mood disorder experiencing a depressive episode can feel hopeless, anxious or sad. This low emotional state may also cause hyposexuality, which is a low or almost nonexistent sex drive.

On the flip side, during an episode of mania, a person can feel elated and experience hypersexuality, or an incredibly high sex drive, which can include behaviors such as:

  • Compulsive sex with strangers
  • Increased pornography consumption
  • Increased willingness to experiment in the bedroom
  • Sex with multiple partners
  • Unprotected sex

Navigating sex with a mood disorder

A person's depressive or manic behavior is a reflection of how their brain is naturally wired but doesn't necessarily represent the entire person; it's very important to never define yourself or your partner by the disorder.

If you're a person with a mood disorder, it's essential to observe and recognize your current emotional and mental state. If you feel as if you're entering a manic or depressive episode, be aware of any possible accompanying sexual side effects so you can adjust accordingly.

It's very important to never define yourself or your partner by the disorder.

Using a combination of talk therapy and prescription medications can help you or your partner better manage mood disorder symptoms. Consistent therapy can also be helpful because your therapist will learn patterns you may be unable to see and identify signs that you are on the verge of a depressive or manic episode. Even if you're not the one with the disorder, you may want to consider seeing a therapist, too.

Mood disorders can make patients feel like they're out of their own control, which can bleed over into their relationships. However, you are not at the mercy of the disorder. If one partner wants sexual attention during a manic episode and the other is not enthusiastically ready to give it to them, they can and should say no. Conversely, if one partner has a low sexual interest during a depressive episode, they should not yield to sexual advances to "snap them out of it." The rules of consent are not different for people with mood disorders and their partners.

It is possible to enjoy a satisfying and healthy sex life with a mood disorder. With self-care, therapy and self-awareness, you and your partner can experience an amazing romantic and sexual relationship.

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