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Sex and your mental health

Health & Science - By The Conversation | July 6th 2020 at 12:00:00 GMT +0300

Everyone has probably heard about the physical benefits of having sex (it helps the immune system, lowers blood pressure, burns calories). But are you aware of the long list of psychological benefits?

Sex eases stress

It’s well known stress can have serious implications. Stress is largely the result of many interacting psychological factors and can vary significantly between people. Nevertheless, it can cause all kinds of health problems from mild headaches, sleeping difficulties and muscle tension, to more severe issues such as malfunction of the immune system and chronic depression.

There is evidence that being close to your partner (physically and emotionally) can lower stress levels. Physical intimacy can trigger the release of all kinds of chemicals in the brain including:

· Dopamine - which plays a major role in reward-motivated behaviour, focuses attention and generally increases motivation

· Endorphins – our body’s natural pain and stress fighters, and

· Oxytocin – affectionately known as “the cuddle hormone”, which can trigger feelings of compassion.

After an orgasm, the body releases the hormone prolactin, which often leads to drowsiness and a general feeling of relaxation. Comfort ultimately resulting in sleep is a common post-orgasm response.

One study actually found having sex every day for a full fortnight decreased anxiety and led to cell growth in the hippocampus (the emotion centre) of rodents. There’s also evidence suggesting regular sex lowers stress-related blood pressure.

Sex boosts self-esteem

There’s an old saying “sex is like food; it’s only a big deal when you’re not getting enough of it”. With sex, it’s not so much a matter of “the more the better”, but a complete lack of sex can be quite harmful. There is some evidence a lack of sex is associated with feelings of depression and low self-worth.

In today’s world, there is a lot of social pressure to be sexually active. Having a non-existent or minimal sex life can be socially stigmatising. In this way, having sex can unburden someone from a strong social pressure and enhance their self-esteem.

All of us have fundamental psychological needs we need to fulfil in order to remain mentally healthy. Having sex isn’t (strictly) a fundamental human need, but it’s an important part of love and connection.

Eminent psychologist Abraham Maslow suggested there were five categories of fundamental human needs. In addition to obvious physiological needs such as water, food and sleep, there are four categories of fundamental psychological needs: safety, love/connection, esteem and autonomy.

Of course we need to meet our physiological needs, but then to be happy, stable people, we need to fulfil each category of psychological need on a regular basis. If too many psychological needs are unmet for too long, our mental health can be negatively affected. Some studies suggest that in certain situations, social isolation can be a predictor of early death.

Sex enhances intimacy with your partner

Sometimes, for whatever reason, couples just don’t have regular sex. This can be the beginning of a vicious cycle: you or your partner don’t feel like having sex, and then eventually you may start to (consciously or not) resent your partner for not having sex, and you gradually grow further and further apart, eventually not even wanting to have sex with your partner.

As obvious as it might sound, regular sex with your partner makes a big difference to how you two get along. Being intimate with your partner on a frequent basis allows you to emotionally connect with them on a much deeper level.

Sex makes you smart

Having sex changes your brain chemistry in all kinds of ways; and there is evidence sex actually increases your cognitive capacity.

One study found even just thinking about a past sexual encounter can enhance your analytic thinking skills. Another study indicated that sexually active rodents had more neurons in their hippocampus (a brain region linked with memory) than virgin rats. Improvements in brainpower were lost after sexual activity was stopped.

Research on the female orgasm using tests that measure brain activity has indicated sexual climax activates every part of the brain. Blood flows in carrying a surge of nutrients and oxygen to the brain cells. By contrast, popular brain stimulation activities such as doing Sudoku, crosswords or playing memory games have marginal efficacy and each engage only a handful of brain regions at best.

Additionally, research supports a positive association between frequency of sex and recall for words in women.

Sex makes you look and feel younger

Our society places a great emphasis on youth and beauty. Few people over the age of 25 want to either look or feel older. Billions of dollars are spent in pursuit of youth.

One study reported having regular sex can make both men and women look between five and seven years younger than they actually are. Looking younger carries with it a whole suite of benefits such as increased confidence, happiness and enthusiasm. When we look younger, we tend to feel younger.

Sexual activity has also been associated with longevity and general health.

There are a tonne of benefits to exercise, both physical and psychological. In an average sex session, men burn around 100 calories, but women expend only about 70. Exercise not only makes you physically healthier, but is also known to improve mood, reduce and help you cope with stress, increase feelings of self-satisfaction, increase energy levels, and the list goes on.

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