Sexuality and mental health are two deeply personal aspects that are often misunderstood. Both of these things are influenced by our thoughts, desires, experiences, and societal standards such as religion and culture. They both also have a significant effect on our well-being.
How Do Mental and Sexual Health Influence Each Other?
The first thing to understand is that our emotions and sensations are influenced by neurotransmitters that are released by the brain. The sensations that our sensory organs detect are sent as signals to the brain, where they are interpreted as different perceptions. The brain then releases neurotransmitters to match the perception.
During sex, the body is bombarded by stimuli that cause the brain to release dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. These are neurotransmitters that give us the feeling of happiness and relaxation. The benefits of exercise and sleep that often accompany sex also help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.
The Components of Intimacy
There are two main components of intimacy that serve as basis for what sex truly means. Emotional intimacy refers to the trust and compassion in a relationship. This is what makes it easy to reveal our vulnerabilities to people we are close to, and this is what serves as a support mechanism that helps bolster our resilience against many stress factors.
The physical component of intimacy refers to the giving and receiving of physical signs of affection. These can range from something as simple as a hug or handshake, to something more intimate such as a kiss or sex. Physical intimacy can boost mental health regardless of whether it’s a simple gesture or one that is more intimate. Both of these components need to be fulfilled for intimacy to be present.
Mental Health and Intimacy
Both the body and brain crave intimacy. However, when either of these components are in poor condition, the other suffers. Some psychological factors may make it difficult for some people to engage in sex. For example, people who are undergoing treatment for depression and anxiety will often have difficulty engaging in sex because some of the medication used to treat these conditions significantly lower libido. In fact, medication is one of the common causes of erectile dysfunction. Some people who have a poor self-image often have difficulty in nurturing intimacy in a relationship because this causes them to distance themselves from other people.
It’s important to note that people who are able to engage in sex are not necessarily sexually healthy. The intimacy component of sex needs to be present for the act to be deemed meaningful and is necessary for one to be able to reap the aforementioned benefits.
This entails that even those who are sexually active do not necessarily improve their mental health. Sex without intimacy may even diminish a person’s self-image and mental health. In fact, a study shows that hook-up behavior has been associated with a variety of mental health factors. The study also showed that both men and women who had ever engaged in uncommitted sexual encounters had lower overall self-esteem versus those who never had uncommitted sexual encounters.
This suggests that sex without strings attached may actually leave more strings attached than most people presume.
It is not just the act of sex that improves mental health, but more so the meaningful connection it represents. At the end of the day, we are social creatures, and there are few things that represent a closer relationship than meaningful and exclusive experiences.