Sex and emotional self-regulation

It works both ways

Written by Jennifer Hanson

Emotional regulation has been hard lately. In light of dealing with a pandemic and national turmoil over police brutality, it’s reasonable that anyone would have trouble disengaging from real life. Even when these feelings are understandable, though, it’s important to remember to come back to yourself and reflect on your emotions. The good news? Sex can significantly help this process and can even help eliminate pervasive chronic stress. Because sex and emotions are inherently linked, knowing how to navigate both can make your life a little less chaotic. (Note: at Coral we define sex broadly to include any erotic activity, including masturbation!)

How sex and emotion affect each other

Say you’ve had an absolute doozy of a day. Your boss is upset at you, your mom is frantically calling about a problem you can’t solve and you missed picking your car up from the mechanic. Conversely, say you’re on top of the world. You just got a promotion, you’re leaving for vacation and you don’t have to think about real life for two weeks.

Both of these vastly different scenarios unavoidably color your outlook on life. The former can take mental gymnastics to find your way out of and can have a negative effect on daily routine, while the latter makes you feel invincible.

While sex should not be the go-to for solving emotional problems, there’s research indicating better mood and more productivity the day after sex. There’s also evidence to show that sex about once per week increases happiness. These positive facts indicate that sex can be a powerful tool for emotional regulation when both parties are ready and willing.

On the flip side, poor emotional regulation can lead to serious sexual health problems. Sexual compulsivity and erectile dysfunction are two of the more common issues for men, while for women, alexithymia (difficulty recognizing, identifying, and communicating emotions, reduced fantasy capacity, and an externally oriented cognitive style) was specifically associated with lower frequency of penile–vaginal intercourse. Additionally, while admittedly this is a fringe example, hindered emotional regulation has been found to be linked with sex offenders, so the importance of knowing how to regulate your emotions really can’t be overstated.

There will inevitably come a time when getting in the mood is the last thing on your mind. When sex is out of reach, try engaging with yourself emotionally with mindful self-reflection.

Honesty and reflection

Sometimes you just can’t shake the events of your day. When this happens, start with some quiet time to calm yourself down. Try listening to calming music or deep breathing if you don’t feel like you’re at a place where you can examine these issues. If you really need to cool down, splash some water on your face and neck to engage your parasympathetic nervous system. This movement helps to snap you out of whatever you’re feeling and bring you back to reality.

Once you’re at a place where you can reflect in a calm way, try examining the situation as if it were a TV show. Ask yourself why you got so worked up, and why things ended the way they did. Think about the motives for the other party getting upset and try to empathize, even if you can’t agree. Understanding these feelings helps to minimize blame and increases your ability to see how to handle it next time. The important thing is to make sure you’re at peace with your reaction and how you felt.

Enabling yourself to self-regulate your emotions is incredibly powerful. It helps you to be mindful of your attitude and why you feel the way you do. It can also help others to talk to you in a more meaningful way when uncomfortable things happen. Maybe they can’t approach their emotions, but knowing where you stand puts you in a more stable and positive place.

Although it might seem like a good idea to use sex to destress in the moment, it really isn’t. For one, the sex probably won’t be great if you’re distracted and fired up about something else. This is especially the case for women, who cite psychological distraction as the biggest hindrance to orgasm. Sex is a better choice after you’ve calmed down and the mood is right.

After you’ve done the above, it’s time to get hot and heavy to forget that excess anger. Sex can help with stress and improve mood overall. Communicating more with your partner is key in intimacy and can help both parties feel like their needs are being met. There is evidence that more effective communication between partners leads to higher sexual satisfaction, so this will benefit both sides in more than one way.

Enhancing sexual satisfaction

While everyone has different turn-ons and kinks, there are a few commonalities that studies have shown are most effective for good sex. First is that trying new things in the bedroom enhances desire and arousal as well as orgasm. If you’ve been thinking of trying something like lingerie or dirty talk, this might be the time! Evidence shows that a simple change of locale can work wonders. In a recent survey, around 84% of both men and women reported sex elsewhere than the bedroom as a mutual turn-on [Mark & Kerner (2013). Valentine's Day Survey. Good in Bed].

Complimenting your partner when unprovoked can have positive results as well since sexual satisfaction in women is linked with higher body esteem. And FYI, scheduling a date night in advance can help you both feel closer to each other. Setting the mood can be another excellent way to make the experience more intimate. Soft lighting or low music can provide the perfect ambiance.

Frequent sex is linked with minimizing neuroticism, which can definitely help with emotional regulation and overall attitude. Make sure to do your part to feel all the stimulation both you and your partner desire. Keep in mind that while men experience orgasm about 85% of the time regardless of their orientation, heterosexual women only orgasm around 65% of the time, while lesbian women orgasm 75% of the time and bisexual women 58%. Orgasm isn’t everything, but if you’re both able to, the cognitive benefits of climaxing are worth putting in the effort for.

Even if sex isn’t on the table, being affectionate and using touch can stimulate feelings of calm and lower stress levels. Touching generates oxytocin, which is also the chemical responsible for building trust between partners. Bonding and unwinding with your partner are equally important for stress relief, so embrace both the afterglow and the innocent couch snuggle.

With everything going on in the world, try to remind yourself that you have the ability to handle your emotions healthily. Sex is a great tool for reducing stress if your partner is on the same page, but the ability to handle it yourself is just as necessary.

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