How your sex life can impact mental health for better or worse
By NCVC Staff | Published on Sep 29, 2023
Sex and pleasure are gradually graduating from being subjects that were once hastily brushed under the carpet to becoming drawing room conversations, at least among friends in certain sections of the Indian society. It’s a welcome change. For women, especially, the ability to open up about their sexual desires or right to pleasure, is liberating to say the least. Sex is no less a human need as is food, water, air, shelter and security, even if it’s not equal. And so, the state of one’s sex life can impact mental health in both positive and negative ways too.
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According to Dr Aparna Ramakrishana, Consultant, Psychiatry, Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital Mumbai, when essential needs of human beings aren’t met, it can take a toll on their physical and mental health. Therefore, a healthy sexual life is also an important component in the creation of a happy and fulfilling life for many.
“Some people may consciously choose asexuality or celibacy for their physical and psychological health. But for people who crave sexual intimacy in relationships, a healthy and fulfilling sex life is an important factor in psychological well-being,” says Dr Ramakrishana.
The mental health expert believes that the basics of any healthy sexual behaviour includes honesty and respect – of self and of others. As long as both partners feel a sense of safety and freedom to choose and express, it strengthens intimacy and joy, thereby promoting psychological well-being.
Sex boosts happy hormones
The feeling of exhilaration after a steamy sex session is proof that sexual activity triggers release of mood-enhancing chemicals like dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins and serotonin. Dr Ramakrishana says prolactin and oxytocin released during sexual activity results in feeling rested and relaxed, as well as promotes good sleep. Hence, healthy sexual activity acts as a stress buster, improves mood and decreases anxiety levels!
A healthy sex life promotes self confidence
Lack of sex in a relationship can leave a person feeling insecure and under-confident. It’s an unflattering feeling. On the other hand, “feelings of intimacy with your partner and feeling desired improves self-confidence for many”, says the expert.
Negative effects of sexual behaviour on mental health
Not all sex or sexual activity is good for mental health. Unhealthy sexual behaviour may often be exploitative, disrespectful of self and others, and doesn’t deepen intimacy. This may, in fact, have a significant impact on an individual’s psychological well-being.
Dr Aparna Ramakrishana explains the various ways in which sexual behaviours like hyper-sexuality, masturbation, pornography consumption and casual sex, can affect one’s mental health.
Compulsive sexual behaviour
Compulsive sexual behaviour or hyper-sexuality or sexual addiction is an excessive preoccupation with sexual fantasies, urges or behaviours that are difficult to control, cause distress or harm to self and others. This can also negatively affect health, job, relationships or other parts of life.
It may often involve excessive masturbation, cybersex, involvement with multiple sexual partners, use of pornography or paying for sex. Psychological repercussions include guilt, shame and low self-esteem, depressive and anxiety symptoms and propensity for other addictive behaviour like substance use disorder.
Does masturbation impact mental health?
Did you know masturbation has health benefits? Well, it plays an important role in healthy sexual development. It’s a normal, natural and safe way to explore your body and experience pleasure. It reduces stress, improves mood, sleep and releases tension. However, compulsive masturbation can have a negative impact on the individual as well as his or her relationships and socio-occupational functioning.
Risky sexual behavior
Risky sexual behaviour can be unprotected sexual intercourse, having multiple sexual partners or sexual intercourse with a high-risk partner, as well as engaging in sexual activity at a very young age. These can have significant adverse effects on physical as well as mental health.
Is casual sex healthy?
Casual sex or hookups are a part of a cultural shift in lives of young adults all across the world. While sex between two consenting informed adults can be considered normal and healthy, short sexual liaisons may have unintended long-term emotional consequences.
There are still gender differences in the acceptance of casual sex, with women being looked down upon for the same sexual behaviour as men. Intense feelings of regret and shame may follow the casual encounter along with embarrassment and confusion.
Yes, there can be side effects of casual sex too. There may be discomfort, performance anxiety (especially if the hookup is a part of a peer pressure setting) which may lead to future sexual dysfunction. Studies have shown that young adults and students have reported lower levels of self esteem, life satisfaction, happiness and higher levels of psychological distress after casual sex. However, emotional reactions depend upon the motivation of casual sex.
Is watching porn harmful?
While use of pornography is quite common among both sexes, literature reports some negative effects, including participation in risky sexual behaviours and adverse impact on relationships, apart from sexual expectation and satisfaction. With increase in availability and means, porn is reaching a significantly large section of society including adolescents who had limited access before.
Studies have shown decreased mental well-being and lower psychosocial functioning among adolescents and students who report high level of internet pornography addiction behaviours. Social impairment, isolation and loneliness have also been reported.
There may also be increased tolerance toward or acceptance of degrading, aggressive or violent sexual behaviours among men and women. These can have far-reaching personal and social consequences. Pornography addiction has also been linked to depression, anxiety, stress, sleep issues and substance use disorders.
Check out this video to know the side effects of watching too much porn!
How does sexting affect mental health?
Another sexual behaviour impacting mental health is sexting. Studies regarding impact have mostly shown mixed results. However, psychological outcomes vary according to the consensual or coercive nature of the act, age and victimization. Sexting can sometimes be associated with risky sexual behaviour, cyberbullying, revenge porn and online dating violence, especially among adolescents and young adults. Negative psychological repercussions of the same include increased risk of depression, suicidal ideation, and social anxiety especially among adolescents.