When your brain anticipates a reward—such as a climax from sexual stimulation—it releases dopamine, and the more it produces, the more enjoyment we feel. And more enjoyment for yourself is always the goal, right?
Well, maybe not. It's important to be mindful of what's really going on when you chase that dopamine high.
What does sex do to our bodies?
"Stress is really hard on the body and can create a lot of dysregulation," said Kate Balestrieri, a sex therapist. "For some people, that means their nervous system goes into hyperarousal, and for others, it means their nervous system goes into a state of hypoarousal, where you might be exhausted and disassociated from everyone and everything. Sex actually creates a whole process of neurochemicals that can help someone's nervous system get regulated."
According to Balestrieri, people who go into hyperarousal under stress are more likely to indicate feelings of anxiety or anger and experience obsessive thoughts or rumination.
"They might even be exhibiting some signs of obsessive-compulsive behavior. They might feel like their foot is on the gas pedal, and they're a bit revved," Balestrieri explained. "Different neurochemicals can help bring their nervous system down and introduce a sense of calm. And likewise, if somebody is feeling dissociated, depressed, lethargic, it can give them a little bit of energy."
'Sex actually creates a whole process of neurochemicals that can help someone's nervous system get regulated.'
Sex therapist Bat Sheva Marcus similarly attributes emotional and mental benefits to sex.
"Having sex can raise your testosterone levels, and it can also raise your dopamine levels. For a lot of people, it can be incredibly relaxing physically as well," Marcus said. "Orgasms also create all kinds of tension releases. Whether you're having sex with somebody or having sex by yourself, more often than not, if it is used in a healthy way, sex and/or an orgasm can be a really good stress reliever."
Why do we opt for sex when feeling distressed?
Clearly, sex makes us feel better because it releases hormones to do so. But so do plenty of other things we do—so why is sex so important?
"People opt for sex for a number of different reasons," Marcus said. "To a certain degree, it can be soothing emotionally and it can also be soothing physiologically, and those are actually very interconnected. For some, sex is something that makes you feel connected to another human being, loved and appreciated. It gives you this feeling of being loved, taken care of, nurtured [and] connected, and that could be a very helpful and positive reaction to feelings of grief and loss."
Using sex as a grief response is a particularly well-noted phenomenon with several theories as to why. Ultimately, it's likely a combination of things, such as hormone-induced mood boosts, closeness with others and maybe a shift in mindset.
"Often I'll see someone who has a loss, a significant emotional loss, and they are starting to crave more connection with their partner physically," Marcus continued. "Like a sexual connection with their partner makes them feel more whole like somebody's there like there's some permanency in this world."
When does sex become disruptive to our lives?
All those benefits make sex sound more than appealing and, for many, sex feels like the perfect and sometimes the only solution to emotional distress. However, this can quickly turn sexual interaction (including masturbation) into a crutch. It's important to notice when sex becomes a distraction in our lives, and this distinction will be unique for everyone.
"If destructive consequences start to happen in a person's life because of the way that they're trying to cope—whether that's with sex, a substance or another activity—and they're trying to stop and they're unable to stop, that would mean it's becoming something that is no longer helpful and [may] even be harmful in their life," Balestrieri said. "It can also become a problem if some of their behavior violates the boundaries of other people. There might be relationship consequences or even legal consequences for that."
How do we keep the right mindset?
Marcus suggested a series of questions to ask yourself when you engage in sexual activity:
- How do I feel right now?
- Am I feeling good?
- Does this make me feel stronger, better, and healthier?
- Does this feel nurturing or good to me?
- Does this feel like the right decision for today and for tomorrow?
"It is crucial to be kind to ourselves," Marcus explained. "It's not so painful that we made a mistake, but the judgment we bring on ourselves. The part of ourselves that judges ourselves is too painful, so ask that judgmental part of ourselves to step back."
Moreover, Balestrieri said using sex as a coping mechanism can have mental health implications, as well as implications for the actual enjoyment of sex.
'To a certain degree, it can be soothing emotionally and it can also be soothing physiologically, and those are actually very interconnected.'
"One thing I think is really important is to recognize when any kind of problematic or compulsive sex is going on, there's likely some dissociation going on," Balestrieri said. "When that happens I think one of the biggest opportunities and gifts is to figure out new ways to be embodied during a sexual experience and otherwise. When we can learn how to be in our bodies in a safe way, a way that feels tolerable and even exciting at times, that's going to bring about a whole new level of eroticism and potential that actually people can feel really good about and connected to."
There's nothing inherently wrong if sex is your coping mechanism for stress, anger or grief. It is about finding whatever works for you and your well-being. If having an active sex life is what keeps your stress in check, go for it. If attending a latte art class or maintaining a yoga practice is a better alternative for you, that is absolutely acceptable as well.
Make it a priority to find what works best for you.