It’s the end of 2020 and we are still in the midst of a global pandemic.
While stress, uncertainty, and instability is a turn-on for some, it can cause a serious disinterest in sex for others. If you are finding yourself feeling less aroused (or just plan annoyed) when it comes to sex during COVID19, know that you are not alone.
The next few blog posts will be all about dealing with Sex and Worry during stressful times like the COVID19 pandemic.
Let me know what you think…
While some people can use stress or worry as a catalyst for connection or intimacy, some people have a hard time being intimate when there is a lot on their minds. This makes sense when you think about the autonomic nervous system.
This is the part of the nervous system that controls unconscious processes like breathing, digestion, heart rate, and temperature regulation. The sympathetic nervous system gets activated when we worry (we may experience fight or flight in these moments).
When we worry, our nervous system focuses on keeping us safe, which may, or may not include being intimate with another person.
Experiencing intimacy is actually a combination of two sides of the autonomic nervous system which includes the need to feel safe enough to let your guard down.If worry and stress are preventing you from engaging sexually, that is an expected and normal response to something that is unexpected and abnormal in our experience.
Remember Fight, Flight, Fawn, and Freeze from biology class?These are responses from our nervous system to keep us alive. Our nervous system constantly and unconsciously scans the environment for signs that we are safe, in danger, or that our lives are threatened.
If a threat is detected, these responses get activated. In our COVID19 world, threats might take the form of:
● Seeing people in masks
● Reading the news online
● Seeing a triggering social media post
● Worrying that a loved one is sick
● Getting news that you’ve been furloughed
● Finding out that you don’t qualify for unemployment
Our bodies may then respond to the threat and that response may be at odds with having wonderful sex with your partner.
You may see that your responses look like:
● Feeling irritable
● Having a short fuse or a quick temper
● Increasing conflict
● Wanting to leave your home
● Feeling trapped
● Seeking Distraction
● Engaging in an activity that you don’t want to engage in because it pleases someone else
● Putting others needs before your own
When these mechanisms don’t work to ease the stressor, your body might feel a shut down and you might experience:
● Sleeping all day
● Not engaging
I hope understanding these mechanisms can help explain why sexual intimacy and enjoyment can be difficult in times of great and prolonged stress.
Check out Stephen Porges website for more in depth information about the polyvagal system: www.stephenporges.com
This change in sexual desire or interest can bring up issues in your relationship because people have the tendency to take these changes personally. Sex can bring up a lot of insecurity especially if it is unclear why there has been a change.
One of my favorite ways to explain differences in sexual desire is the Dual Control Model. This model was developed by Dr. John Bancroft and Dr. Erick Janssen of the Kinsey Institute and explored beautifully by Emily Nagoski in her book, Come as You Are.
The idea is that people have sexual accelerators (things that get them interested in sex) and brakes (things that turn them off to sex). Everyone’s accelerators and brakes have different levels of sensitivity.
For example, a person with a sensitive brake might stop being interested in sex with just the slightest activation of their brakes. Or someone else might need a lot of their accelerator in order to feel open to being sexually intimate.
In Come As You Are, there is a wonderful quiz you can take to determine your specific accelerators and brakes, and to see where your sensitivities lie.
For now, make a list of the things that make you wantto have sex.
Here are some examples:
● Feeling safe
● Sexy music
● A certain smell
● Hearing certain words or phrases
● Hearing other people having sex
● Watching a sexually explicit movie scene
● A fantasy in your head
● Feeling loved
Now make a list of all of the things that make youNOT want to have sex.
Here are some examples:
● Feeling worried
● Noticing a messy home
● A certain smell
● Being upset
● Being busy
● Certain words or phrases
● Having a bad day
Share these with your partner and work together to minimize the brakes and slowly increase the accelerators.
For example, if feeling worried and having a messy house are brakes, and dancing and candles are accelerators… do some of the exercises in this book to decrease your worry and spend the day cleaning the house. At night, light some candles and enjoy dancing together which will optimize your ability to explore intimacy together!
Stay Tuned for tools and exercises you can use with a partner or alone!
I remember being in college and creating a show for campus TV station called “Ask the Sexperts!” We created a mini Love Line where students could call or email in with their questions and a panel of students would answer their questions! Looking back- none of our panelists were actually experts, they were just students who really enjoyed sex! Little did I know, but this was a major foreshadowing in my life because about 13 year later, I became a Certified Sex Therapist!
People love asking questions about this part of my work, so I thought I’d chronicle the answers for all of you!
Is it really weird to talk about sex all day long?
I actually think it’s weirder that we don’t talk about sex. People think about sex often so why should it feel so odd to talk about it? I think its because our society still feels that sex is a taboo and there is so much shame wrapped up in our sexuality. Shame, like many things, grows in darkness and isolation. So we don’t talk about sex and the shame/mystery grows…and we still don’t talk about sex. I will tell you that once you start talking about sex, it feels easier and way more natural to talk about it with partners, with your kids, or with your friends.
Isn’t sex supposed to hurt?
No. Sex is supposed to feel pleasurable. If sex hurts, please go see a medical doctor first to rule out any biological or physical issues. If there is nothing going on, go talk to a sex therapist! Telling young people that sex is supposed to hurt has done harm to people who put up with painful sex because they think it’s normal.
If you could change anything about sex education, what would you change?
I love this question. I would change so much! I would teach about pleasure! I would teach that heterosexual sex is not the only (or the optimal) type of sex so that hetero/cis-normative sex doesn’t become everyone’s definition of sex. I would over-rule the “baseball” metaphor and teach how all types of sexual touch is important without assigning a hierarchy to penetrative sex. I would teach that kink and fantasies are healthy.
While cleaning up some clutter, I found a post-it note that I wrote to myself months ago. Months ago! That’s how long I’ve been putting off this clean-up. The post-it said:
The Universe gives you a taste and now you have to earn it.
I knew exactly what it meant and why I wrote it a few months ago. I had experienced the trap of the new normal.I’m sure you have experienced this phenomenon. It’s the feeling you get when you have worked so hard to make a change in your life and then once you have it…it feels normal and mundane… as if you never didn’t have it before!
This happened to me a few years ago after I started my practice. When I first worked for myself part-time, it was freaking magical. I would practically dance my way to the office. That was the taste of magic the Universe gave me. And now that it’s been a few years of working for myself, it doesn’t have the same magic. The Universe gave me a taste and now it’s my responsibly to make it magic.
What a freaking inspiring idea. It is within our power to create excitement, enthusiasm, and magic. I’m beginning to think that we get stuck in the new normal as a wake-up call.
Having trouble getting out of that new normal quicksand?
Get an accountability partner to check in with weekly or monthly to make sure you are making good on new goals.
Check in with yourself every week to make sure your actions are aligned with your goals.
Remember to take stock of all the amazing work you do and practice gratitude for being able to do it!
Be spontaneous, have a dance party, hang out with a new friend, take a new class!
The Universe give you a taste and now you have to earn it!
It’s the holiday that we all love to hate and it brings people so much stress! On one hand- it should be stressful because it commemorates the martyrdom of a Roman priest and martyrdom is a pretty heavy topic. But that’s not why most of us feel stressed about a holiday mostly propagated by greeting card companies.
I see a lot of people freaking out about Valentines Day because of unspoken expectations and worries about letting partners down. I see stress because some people don’t have partners and this holiday is an uncomfortable reminder. I see stress because this holiday can be incredibly heteronormative (like most holidays).
Here are some ideas to lower your stress on V day:
COMMUNICATION. If we taught children better communication, they would grow up a lot happier and I might be out of a job. Tell your partner what you want. So many people are afraid of seeming needy or high maintenance, so they just hope that their partner knows what they expect. This just causes hurt feelings and fights. Ask for what you need, even if it feels uncomfortable. Ask your partner for what they want as well.
Self-Care Day. What if you spent Valentines Day focusing on compassion and love for yourself? I think this is a positive idea for people who are both in relationships and for those who are not. Make some plans to really focus on what makes you happy and make your needs a priority.
Be Different. Celebrate what makes you (and partners if you have them) different and unique. Who says you need to buy flowers and chocolate? Make a tradition that is unique to you and that you look forward to.
Show Gratitude. Tell people in your life that you think of them, that you love them, and that you are grateful for them. Include lovers, friends, partners, family, coworkers, etc. Expressing gratitude is good for your wellness and helps people feel connected.
If you haven’t realized already, all of these ideas are things you can do everyday to promote wellness in and out of a relationship. Sometimes we need a special day to remind ourselves to feel gratitude for those in our lives because remembering to slow down and do this everyday can feel overwhelming.
Don’t play into the VDay hype and stress (unless you’re into kind of thing!)
When you are thinking about yourself, what sort of thoughts run through your mind? If you don’t know, try to notice and pay attention the next time you find yourself speaking/thinking to yourself.
Ever notice yourself saying things like this:
”Ugh, that was such a stupid thing to say. You can’t ever get anything right!”
”No wonder people don’t like you.”
”Wow, you look awful today.”
If you do find yourself saying these sorts of things to yourself, don’t beat yourself up. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t struggle with these thoughts sometimes.
I’m writing on this topic today for two reasons:
I want to combat the notion that you can’t change the way you speak to yourself.
I want to encourage people with little ones around to be careful about how you speak about yourself in front of them, and also how you speak to them.
From my experience, a wonderful way to change the way you speak to yourself involves attention and intention.
Pay attention to how you speak to yourself
Pay attention to how you feel when you speak to yourself in that way.
What emotions does this talk make you feel?
How does it impact the way your body feels?
Paying attention helps you notice what you are saying to yourself and how it impacts your day-to-day life! Want to change the way you speak to yourself? Here are some ideas:
Make an intention of how you would like to speak to yourself.
One authentic way to change how you speak to yourself involves validation instead of blaming. Example:
Instead of: “Ugh, you’re so sensitive, why does everything bother you so much?”
Try: “It’s ok that you’re upset- what just happened was really upsetting.”
Instead of: “I can’t believe you made that stupid mistake.”
Try: “That was super embarrassing, but it’s ok that mistakes happen.
Another tactic is to speak to yourself as an Older Version of yourself:
” Mistakes are ok to make- you are going to make tons and everything will be ok!”
Or to speak to a Younger Version of yourself:
”That’s ok, sweetie, you can make mistakes and I will still care for you.”
These changes are not easy, but taking some time to pay attention to how you speak to yourself can truly begin to improve your self-esteem.
I’ll save my thoughts about speaking to children for another time, but I’ll leave you with this thought. Little ones hear and absorb everything. They hear you speaking negativity about yourself and that teaches them how to also think about themselves.
How beautiful would it be to teach our little ones that it’s ok to think well of themselves?
I spent an afternoon at my local IKEA this Saturday. I left the store feeling satisfied that I had found the products that I needed, but I also left with more knowledge than I entered with. Shopping at IKEA can certainly test your relationship with whoever you are shopping with. Shopping can be stressful ( even in a glorious place like IKEA which has plenty of chairs to sit in during breaks and even has a cafe). My shopping trip also inspired some relationship tips that I think we all can use!
Don’t Do Stressful Things when Tired or Hungry
If you can avoid it, don’t shop, have intense conversations, or make stressful plans if you are not adequately hydrated, fed, and rested. Not having basic needs met can make any stressful event so much more tedious. Your fuse will be shorter and it’s hard to have empathy for others when your own needs are not met.
At IKEA, I found it super helpful to know what I needed to buy before I walked in the store. I planned ahead so that I knew exactly how much I’d be spending and where I would be looking for my items. In relationships, it is not always possible to plan ahead, but it’s a really good practice to talk with your partner about expectations, wants, needs, worries, and plans BEFORE these issues come up!
Famous relationship therapists, John and Julie Gottman, talk about how important humor can be in a relationship. They note how humor can help repair relationship ruptures , can lower tension, and can help keep a positive tone when dealing with rough situations. The same is true when shopping at IKEA 🙂 If you can laugh at yourself for going to the wrong side of the warehouse to find your closet door, you can also laugh at yourself for relationship misunderstandings.
According to your Ability
IKEA is pretty famous for sending you home to put together your own furniture. There are countless Youtube videos of people struggling to put their new furniture together. When completing projects, it’s so helpful for every person involved to work according to their ability. You’re strong? Great- you can carry the big box into to the car. You’re detailed-oriented? Perfect! You can translate the picture instructions! You’re not feeling well? That’s ok- you can warm up some left-overs for lunch. I think this is a great metaphor to figuring out who-does-what in a relationship. Having an open and honest discussion about each person’s abilities, interests, and energy levels can help partners figure out how to get everyday things completed!
I hope my Saturday afternoon IKEA relationship insights were helpful!
The recent memo from the White House about redefining sex and gender has left a lot of people rightfully angry, scared, sad, and confused. No matter where you might lean politically, the idea of making a policy or declaration that erases a whole group of people is hateful and dangerous.
Imagine being told that who you are doesn’t exist and the healthcare and rights you have will disappear.
This is why people are very scared right now. I know a lot of people ( myself included) are feeling very hopeless. I don’t have an answer. But I do know that taking action is a positive way to manage these feelings. Here are some ways you can help:
Donating to the Trans LifeLine funds volunteers who staff a hotline and also gives monetary support to individuals. You can donate here: https://www.translifeline.org/
If you need support or assistance, you can call them 24/7:
Be a support to people who might be feeling overwhelmed or scared right now. Contact friends or family members who are transgender, non binary, intersex, or gender diverse to check in on them. See if they need support, send them food, and make genuine offers to help. Listen to them and offer empathy and validation.
Go to local demonstrations to support your trans community and lend your voice to the cause. Stand with people who are transgender, especially those who are BIPOC, and make sure their voices are heard.
As much as mental health professionals try to take the stigma out of seeking therapy, I’ve noticed that people still get concerned about letting new romantic partners know that they have a therapist. Even people who have been helped so tremendously in therapy feel shame when sharing this information with new partners.
I understand this shame and how powerful it is. But my opinion is different. I tell my clients and friends alike to date someone who has been in therapy or who is in therapy. In my personal and professional experience, people who have been in therapy are usually more emotionally open and mature, better communicators, and good listeners!
They know they have issues: Everyone has issues. These issues, when not explored, impact relationships. It does not help a relationship to pretend that these issues don’t exist. When someone is in therapy, they actively know how their issues are impacting their mental health, functioning, and relationships, and are actively working through them.
They have started the hard work: Therapy isn’t easy. It takes commitment, trust, and a honest yearning for change. When you date someone who has done this work, it shows you that they are the kind of person willing to work hard for positive change. Since relationships are also hard work, this commitment shows a potential partner that they take self-improvement seriously.
They’ve learned to communicate: People who engage in therapy learn a lot about themselves. Having a consistent mirror to your own issues can help you learn to communicate your needs, desires, fears, and worries with others. Many people practice communication skills in therapy even if that is not the reason they are seeking counseling. This greatly benefits future partners, as communication might be one of the most important aspects of a healthy relationship.
They’ve gained some emotional intelligence: When you meet with a therapist regularly, you are building emotional muscles. You’re learning to name your feelings, work through distressing emotions, and figure out what you need. Being able to translate that information to a partner is so important! I’m sure most people have experienced dating someone with less than ideal emotional intelligence. Imagine what it might be like to date a person with whom you can have a deep emotional connection.
They are less likely to name YOU as the cause of their issues: When someone has not done the hard work of therapy, they are more likely to project their issues, feelings, and frustrations onto you. This can be super confusing and upsetting. I’m sure most people have experienced what this feels like. A person who is in therapy knows the cause of their issues and is less likely to make you the scapegoat.
I hope this exploration makes you:
A) More likely to date someone who has been in therapy
B) More likely to tell a potential partner that you are in therapy
Ever have a day where you felt really crappy and had a had time getting out of your own way? You know the feeling…lethargic, lazy, sad, annoyed, etc. Everyone has days like this, but it can be really hard when you are working to find your spark and live in a place of authenticity and you feel like crap. I came up with somethings to put in action when you are having one of these days.
Ignoring your feelings only makes them worse. Validate the fact that you are having a day where you feel crappy. Just because you acknowledge your feelings, doesn’t mean that you are accepting them or giving up. Just validate that you’re having one of these days.
One of the best ways to get out of your head is to get physical in a way that feels fun and right for you. Here are some ideas:
* Play with Pets
* Take a Walk
* Clean a Room
* Shake it Out
Spending some time in a creative headspace is a great way to get out of a rut. Work on a project that you’ve been procrastinating on, or maybe start something fun or new. Here are some ideas:
* Choreograph a Dance
* Write a Play
* Brainstorm New Ideas
I know it can be easy to isolate when you’re having one of these days, but connected to someone else is a really great way to get out of your own way.
* Have a Game Night
* Call a Friend
* Use Skype or FaceTime
* Have a Friend Over
* Meet at a Restaurant
* Join a Club or Meetup
Sometimes staying in is the best form of self-care. Get on some comfy clothes and treat yourself well!
* Take a Bath
* Watch a Movie
* Cuddle with a Friend or Pet
* Take a Nap
If you’ve gotten through this list, you’ve realized that this is just a really long list of ways to improve your self-care. Sometimes we all just need a little reminder or push to improve our self-care habits. Having a blah day is great information that we can use some more self care.
Anyone who has been in therapy with me knows I love Gary Chapman’s “5 Love Languages” and that I reference his book often. If you haven’t heard of it, you can learn more at his website.
The basic premise is that there are at least 5 different ways we show and like to recieve love from others:
Words of Affirmation
“I love you.” “You’re incredible.” “I love the way you do ____.”
Acts of Service
Taking out the garbage
Doing the dishes
Taking the dog for a walk
Bringing home flowers
Putting a lot of effort into birthday gifts
Hanging out at home for an evening
Going for a hike in the woods
Laying in bed talking for hours
The revolutionary thing about Chapman’s work is that it explains how there can be a disconnect if you and your partner(s) have different love languages. One partner may feel they are showing love, when the other partner feels love is lacking because they are unaware of love languages.
So this got me thinking…
Besides love languages, there is another topic I talk about often in therapy. I encourage dating yourself.
I don’t care if you are partnered, single, dating, or whatever, I believe it is so important to make time for dating yourself.
While sitting at work I realized, some people may have a hard time knowing what it means to date yourself because self love ( just like healthy relationships) are not taught in school.
They should be.
I thought Chapman’s love languages could be easily translated into self-love languages and this could easily help people learn to date themselves.
What’s Your Self-Love Language?
Words of Affirmation
Writing yourself love-notes or affirmations
Using post-its to remind yourself how awesome you are
Talking to yourself using loving, positive words
Acts of Service
Cleaning the house
De-cluttering your work-space
Volunteering doing something your passionate about