Maslow’s theory of needs describes sex as one of the basic requirements of human beings. The feelings of pleasure and contentment experienced during sex are rooted in the brain. Contrary to popular belief, our brain is the primary sex organ. When an individual indulges in sexual activity, our sex organs send signals to the brain, which in turn releases dopamine. This chemical activates the reward centers in the brain, helping us perceive gratification. In simpler words, without the cooperation of the brain, all sexual activities would reduce to a mechanical task.
People suffering from any form of depression tend to experience reduced sex drive. The primary reason is that depression sends waves of negative energy all throughout the body, virtually affecting all aspects of life including sexual health. Most people do not realize how thoroughly sex is connected to the brain, and how mental malfunctioning that leads to depression can affect sexual health.
What is the relationship between depression and sex?
Aside from stimulating the appropriate glands to produce feel-good hormones associated with sex, the brain is also the organ that interprets pleasure. The body's sexual organs are merely tools for the brain to receive stimulation. The role of the brain in any sexual encounter begins much before the physical act itself. The urge to indulge in sexual activity and the feeling of being aroused are all controlled by the brain.
We often hear statements such as “I do not feel anything!” or “I don’t feel up to it!” These expressions postulate the simple principle that our brain is not responding the way it should. Once the brain is affected, it cannot experience pleasure because it finds no pleasure in any activity, including sex. Moreover, the physical act of sex fails to give any pleasure because the reward centers in the brain fail to release the appropriate chemicals.
Given how prevalent depression is among adults, one can also guess that it is the cause of numerous sexual problems. But just as depression is hard to admit, the embarrassment is magnified when a couple’s sex life is affected.
Which aspects of sexual health are affected by depression?
Depression, as we already know, affects all aspects of an individual's character. Someone living with depression will have difficulty finding pleasure in anything they once did, and this includes getting in the mood for sex.
Feelings of worthlessness and a complete lack of motivation often result in a decreased interest in sex. Sexual arousal is an anticipation of the pleasure to be experienced in the near future, but depression affects a person’s view of their future. Therefore, it may be difficult to get them in the mood. Even when they do, reaching climax would be very difficult as research has proved that experiencing an orgasm is totally dependent upon brain activity.
So how does depression affect sexual health?
It is rare for both parties in a couple to become depressed, but it is possible. Women are also more susceptible to sexual problems when compared to men. Even the slightest changes in mood can easily be detected by your partner, so even a mild case of depressive disorder can become a major problem in a relationship. The unaffected party sees their partner as being extremely unhappy and they might suspect that they are the cause of their partner's unhappiness.
On the other hand, the affected party feels the guilt of not being able to live up to the partner’s expectations. It is like being caught in a vicious cycle--you are unable to indulge in sex because you are depressed and you are depressed because you fail to perform!
The relationship between sex and depression is quite complicated, to say the least. Sex is a well-accepted antidepressant, but when we are depressed, we fail to enjoy its benefits.
There is another major issue that arises with the use of antidepressant drugs. Although they help alleviate the other symptoms of depression, most medications negatively affect sexuality. Decreased libido, erectile dysfunction, and difficulty reaching orgasm are some of the most common complaints associated with prescription drugs for depression.
Women are more prone to depression-related sexual problems due to the higher incidence of depression. Some of the contributors to depression in women include:
- Pregnancy and postpartum depression - Almost 33% of women deal with depression during pregnancy, and most women who have lived with postpartum depression have reported a decline in sexual desire.
- Before or during menstruation - There are women who tend to feel depressed before or during their menstrual periods because of hormonal changes. Depression is one of the most common symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS), which occurs one to two weeks before menstruation. Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) is a severe form of PMS.
How is depression treated?
This greatly depends on the individual, as no two people with mental illness are the same. You might try talk therapy with your psychologist, or you might seek help from a psychiatrist, who may prescribe an antidepressant. Some medications prescribed for treating depression have been shown to directly affect sexual performance. For example, Prozac has been shown to cause a delay or premature ejaculation in men, both of which can negatively impact a couple’s sex life.
The most important factor to be kept in mind, however, is to never give up on your antidepressant medication without your doctor's supervision, even if you feel that it has a considerable effect on your sex life. You may ask your doctor to change your medication or to alter its dosage to minimize the side effects. With time and patience, the effects of the medication on your sex drive will subside, and as you regain control of your life after depression, your libido returns back to normal.
You can talk to your partner to alleviate mutual stress, or at least bring it to light so you can have a positive discussion. Both of you can work together to handle the circumstances better.
According to many psychologists, sex can work like therapy to relax your brain. Sex has been proven to boost mental and physical health, but when mental illness is thrown in the mix, this is not as easy as it sounds.
Is it possible to prevent depression from affecting your sex life?
The first thing everyone needs to understand is that depression as an illness is still largely confusing, but yet it is quite common. If you or someone you love is living with depression, help is available. Speak to your doctor or seek the help of a mental health professional.