Are you stressed? Well, you are certainly not alone!
Did you know that according to the recent annual report from the American Psychological Association, Stress in America survey, that seventy-five percent of the American population experience stress at levels that exceed what they define as healthy?
We all have it!!!
And STRESS comes at us from just living our normal everyday lives. Yet, by experiencing stress at unhealthy levels, we are putting ourselves at risk for developing chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and depression. Stress is not only hurting our physical and emotional health, but also our desire to connect with our partner on an intimate level…
Have you ever considered that having sex, or physical intimacy, can actually be a stress reliever? Well, it is true!
Many studies have shown that the physical act of just touching or holding your partner releases a calming hormone known as oxytocin, often called the “bonding hormone”. By increasing the levels of oxytocin with sex and decreasing the levels of cortisol, we are actually improving our physical and emotional health. As well as our sleep! According to the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, “The release from orgasm does much towards calming people. It helps with sleep, and that is whether we talk about solo sex or sex with a partner.”
Many studies also show that sleep may be deeper and more restful after engaging in satisfying sexual intercourse because it allows the release of distracting thoughts and negative thinking behaviors. Engaging in sex prior to falling asleep at night also decreases instances of insomnia.
We are all familiar with the “fight or flight” response, which is triggered by stress.
Why do we get a “gut” feeling about situations, especially when we are under lots of stress? Isn’t it interesting that when we feel stressed, we can feel our stomachs literally churning? Or feel our hearts in our throats when we are losing control? Or feel flushed, paralyzed, and unable to act?
Basically, our bodies react to stress by producing adrenaline, the “fight or flight” hormone. Following exposure to a perceived stressful event, we experience an adrenaline release, which causes an increase in heart rate, dilated pupils, and more shallow and rapid breathing. Blood is shunted from the digestive tract to more functional muscle groups, such as the arms and legs. Reflexes are sped up, and perception of pain decreases.
Within an evolutionary context, all of these physiological reactions would allow us to deal more effectively with the stressful situation at hand, such as running away from a saber-toothed tiger.
But many times, we are under chronic (continuous) stress, not acute stress, such as in the one-time situation with the saber-toothed tiger.
This chronic stress and continual release of adrenaline also leads to increased production of another important stress hormone, cortisol.
Cortisol is produced by the adrenal gland and causes blood sugar to rise in the bloodstream, providing energy to the necessary muscle groups. Of course, the release of this hormone would be highly advantageous if one were in an encounter with a frightful animal, but recent research has shown that when cortisol is released on a continual basis, the effect can be detrimental to the body, increasing the risk for heart disease, diabetes and depression. And these responses certainly do little for the libido!
James Coan, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, says “Being in an intimate relationship correlates to healing faster, getting sick less often and living longer.” “Good relationships offset tension in daily life.” Anxiety spikes blood pressure, which hobbles the immune system. “But when you have sex, you release feel-good hormones, including oxytocin and endorphins,” Coan adds. Eventually, you begin to associate your partner with those positive feelings, and he becomes someone you trust to be your soother during tough times.
A study at the University of Gottingen in Germany found that people who have less sexual activity actually tend to take on more work to compensate for their frustration. And the increased labor results in—you guessed it—even less sex. And not having sex can often create the cycle of getting even more tense…thus having even less sex!
Some enlightening research on the nervous system offers an explanation for these responses. According to Dr. Stephen Porges, our social behaviors and emotional disorders are biological, or hard-wired. In his theory, known as the polyvagal theory, one of our main cranial nerves in the brain, the vagus nerve, is responsible for many of our unique reactions to situations that we perceive as either safe or unsafe.
We don’t necessarily control this part of the nervous system, known as the autonomic nervous system; rather, it causes us to do things automatically, such as digesting food. The vagus nerve exits the brain stem and branches out to many organs, including the gut and heart. The nerve pathways have fibers that originate in the brain stem and go to different areas of the body. Those neural pathways that go through the vagus nerve to the lower gut come from one area of the brain, while neural pathways that go to the heart and lungs come from another area.
So what does this information have to do with stress?
Our bodies react spontaneously to certain situations and perceive them as safe or unsafe, leading to specific bodily responses. Remember the saber-toothed tiger? Seeing this threatening animal would induce major changes in your body, with increased heart rate, breathing rate, et cetera. This also would lead the vagus nerve to send messages or signals to your gut and your heart.
In times of chronic stress, a person experiences many gastrointestinal disorders, such as gastric (stomach) ulcers and a condition known as irritable bowel syndrome. Using the tenets of polyvagal theory, the person in extreme stress should employ strategies for creating a sense of safety or security, such as retreating to a calm environment, playing a musical instrument, singing, speaking softly, or listening to music. Even better, if you’re under stress, seek the safety and security of your lover’s arms and talk openly about the troubles you are experiencing.
You may want to try this with your partner. Make an agreement that over the next week… anytime either one of you feels stressed or anxious… you take time to connect, create intimacy, and have some sex. Let me know the results… I’m willing to bet that your level of stress and anxiety will get lower… and you’ll have more passion and pleasure in your life!