How Stress Impacts Erectile Function
When you're stressed, chances are someone telling you to "relax" doesn't help. Ditto for when you're experiencing erectile dysfunction (ED) and you try to get your member to stand at attention with some verbal command.
Erections occur when physical and/or mental stimulation causes your brain to send signals through your body that communicate to blood vessels in the corpora cavernosa—two columns of spongy tissue that run through your penis—to relax. Able to fill with blood, your penis gets hard.
Stress impacts the body in all kinds of ways, including raising cortisol (the stress hormone) levels and altering brain chemicals such as serotonin, which impacts mood and mental function. These effects of stress can interrupt those stimulation-response signals from the brain. In the case of erections, blood vessel relaxation isn't triggered, and your penis doesn't get hard.
To add to that problem, stress hormones trigger the "fight-or-flight response," in which heart rate is increased and blood is diverted from nonessential areas (yes, sadly, your body deems your penis nonessential) toward limbs and the brain to battle the threat. With blood flow limited, your guy can't pump up. Now, biologically, fight-or-flight serves an important function, and if you were hightailing it away from Godzilla, you'd be very glad to have it. But when stress is linked to a bad day at the office, financial woes, problems with a relationship, injury or illness, body insecurity or any of the countless other factors causing the average guy angst, it's not helpful that your legs are ready for action, but your member, not so much.
The vicious cycle
One of the most challenging elements of stress-induced ED is that once it's happened, it's likely to recur. No man should ever feel bad or embarrassed about ED, but most probably find the inability to get it up frustrating, infuriating and never-ever-want-it-to-happen-again humiliating. And most men probably haven't forgotten it. So, it's likely to be on their mind the next time they're about to have sex, which ramps up the performance anxiety. Worry about what happened last time sets in, and alas, they stress themselves out so much that it happens again. A vicious cycle.
Other health issues linked to stress and dysfunction
Chronic stress can wreak havoc on multiple body systems. It's linked to worsened mental health, including anxiety and depression. ED also increases the likelihood of suffering from depression. Men with depression are almost 1.4 times as likely to suffer from ED as guys without, based on findings from a 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine.
Gastrointestinal problems, headaches, weakened immune system and increased risk of illness, infection, heart disease and heart attack all can result from stress—and none support healthy erections. Heart disease in particular has been studied for its direct link to ED. Stress often contributes to excessive tobacco, alcohol and drug use, all of which are associated with ED, too. Stress may also decrease the likelihood you'll engage in physical activity, an important element in protecting your health and healthy erections in the long term.
Treating stress-induced ED
Chronic stress doesn't just impact your sex life: It increases your risk of all kinds of diseases and it's simply not fun to live life feeling strained. Spend some time self-reflecting. Look at the factors contributing to your stress and decide which you can control or mitigate, which you can seek help for and which you really can't do anything about. Take action where you can. Allocate time to destress. You can find endless ways to blow off steam, relax your mind and soothe the soul.
A doctor can screen you for any contributory physical or mental health disorders and recommend treatment options, including medications to help you relax. Herbs may help, too. Try reducing caffeine, alcohol and tobacco and incorporate soothing herbal teas.
Consider talking with a professional who can help you break down stressful elements in your life, find coping strategies and learn to make peace with what's beyond your control. Be open with your partner. If ED is bothering you, it's probably causing some degree of strain on your relationship one way or another. Explain what's going on and what you're doing about it. Suggest how they can be helpful, ask how they feel and what questions they have. Work together to reduce stress—in your sex life and beyond. Sex is something to enjoy together, not something to stress about.
At some point in their lives, more than 50 percent of guys experience some level of ED. Though countless reasons—some unavoidable—are contributing factors, stress is one thing you can try to control. Do your best. Your penis will thank you.