The Science Says Mindfulness Can Improve Your Sex Life
Over the past year, I’ve been on the fast track when it comes to studying mindfulness, I’ve completely overhauled my life in terms of how it used to be, and ever since learning about it, I wondered; How can this apply to my sex life? I modified basic breathing and observing exercises to work in sexual situations, but I needed more guidance.
Luckily for me, that more guidance came in the form of a brilliant little book called Better Sex Through Mindfulness by Lori Brotto. I spent the last few months absorbing that book, along with practicing my other studies, and let me tell you, I’ve seen bombastic results in my sex life. With that all said, today, I’m going to fangirl about all the benefits mindfulness has on sexual functioning, along with sharing some of my favorite beginner mindfulness practices.
First thing, first. What is Mindfulness?
To make sure we are all on the same page; Mindfulness is the practice of non-judgmentally paying attention to your feelings, sensations, and experiences in the present moment.
For example, a car splashing you during a rainstorm may elicit a chain of negative thoughts such as “Ugh! I’m going to have to miss my train to change my clothes, which are completely trashed and be late for work. This day is terrible!” However, with mindfulness practice, this thought can be transformed into, “Oh look. I’m wet now; how do I fix this?” taking the stress away from the situation and allowing the brain to think more effectively (studies show that when the brain is under stress, it performs less efficiently).
Sexual Benefits of Mindfulness
The scientific research on the topic is still underway; yet, the results from the experiments that are out there are promising. When it comes to sex, mindfulness has an extensive amount of benefits, from helping women with provoked vestibulodynia (pain during sex) enjoy sexual sensations again to improving long-term couples connection in the bedroom. I could go on and on about the benefits; however, I will spare you and write down my top 3!
- It Can Improve Arousal Concordance
Arousal concordance refers to how in sync the brain and body are. A person is concordant if their self-reported mental arousal and physical arousal match. For instance, if a penis haver reports being aroused and experiences an erection, that’s arousal concordance. Their physical state is matching their mental experience. When that doesn’t happen, it’s considered non-concordance (they are turned on but are not getting hard), and mindfulness can be a way to help.
In 2018 a small study was conducted to see if mindfulness could improve sexual concordance in people with situational erectile dysfunction, and the results look promising. The study found that erectile dysfunction medications were less effective if the person using them was distracted because it prevented them from picking up on sexual cues. By teaching the participants mindfulness, they were able to focus on their sexual triggers better and increase the likelihood of their medications working.
So, if you’re having a non-concordance issue, mindfulness may be worth a shot!
- It Can Improve Sexual Desire Over Time
Unlike popular belief, sexual desire isn’t automatic, and it can decrease over time for a variety of different reasons; however, one of the biggest killers of sexual desire seems to be a lack of attention. Unfortunately, in today’s world, a lack of attention is common due to our constant multi-tasking. Our minds are rarely immersed in the current moment because they are busy ruminating about the past or planning for the future. This lack of immersion comes with many unwanted side effects, one of them being a loss of libido. Fortunately, this side effect doesn’t have to be permanent, and mindfulness can be an effective way to help.
A study in 2014 found that women with low sexual desire seem to have lower levels of gray matter in the brain, and a study published in 2010 revealed that mindfulness practice increases gray matter concentration in the brain. Leading psychologists to believe that mindfulness may be one of the most effective ways to increase desire in those who lack it or lost it.
- It Can Improve Overall Sexual Gratification
In Dr.Lori Brotto’s book, Better Sex Through Mindfulness, she recalls her early work interviewing women at the University of Washington about their experience of sexual desire. At the time, it was unbeknownst to her, but she later realized (after discovering mindfulness herself) that when the women discussed pleasurable sexual encounters, they were engaging mindfully. They used terms like feeling “fully connected” and “totally present.” This research and more has led Dr.Lori Brotto to believe satisfying sex simply cannot exist without mindfulness.
To further back up those claims, a study published in 2013 found that mindfulness meditation lowers cortisol levels. Which, fortunately for us, is the stress hormone that is known to interfere with sexual function, desire, and gratification.
If you ask me, this only further shows promising evidence that mindfulness practice is effective for increasing sexual satisfaction, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about more evidence in the future.
My Favorite Beginner Practices
Interested in using mindfulness to improve your sex life and don’t know where to start? Then you came to the right place; I put together a list of my favorite beginner mindfulness practices and how to do them. To get this out of the way, professionals do recommend implementing mindfulness into your life before using it in a potential anxiety-inducing situation like sex. So, there isn’t a sex thing in this section for once, though they can be easily adapted when you get the hang of it!
Conscious Breath is a breathing technique I first learned in JF Benoist’s book Addicted to the Monkey Mind, and it’s one of the first meditative breathing exercises to work well for me. Hence, it has earned its place on this list.
The goal of conscious breath is to focus on your breathing and witness your thoughts and feelings non-judgmentally. By doing so, you create space between those rapid-fire thoughts in your head (whether good or bad) and prevent them from building up and overwhelming you.
The conscious breath technique is the most effective when practiced often. Practicing it several times a day will train the brain to go to breath when anxiety arises; this helps prevent knee-jerk reactions and autopilot responses. The beautiful thing about this exercise is you can do it anywhere at any time!
How to Practice Conscious Breath
- Slightly relax your gaze. Be careful not to close your eyes, the purpose of this exercise is to get to a point where you will consciously breathe whenever anxious, and sometimes you may be in a situation that needs your eyes (e.g. driving).
- Set a Two Minute Timer (JF Benoist recommends working up to 20 minutes a day of practice).
- Continually Breathe in and out while focusing on the movement of your stomach and chest. The aim is to fill your lungs with as much air as you can and then release as much as possible. There should be no pauses between breaths!
Hint: If you are having trouble focusing on your breathing, it may be helpful to imagine a blue balloon over your chest (as discussed in JF Benoist’s book). When you breathe in, the chest rises, and the balloon inflates; when you breathe out, the chest flattens, and the balloon deflates.
- While breathing, thoughts will arise. Don’t judge them, and don’t give in to them. Simply observe the thought, label it, and return to focusing on your breath.
- After the timer is up, jot down a list of the thoughts that ran through your mind.
Mindful eating has given me insight into habits that have nothing to do with eating. My tendency to scarf down my food and make myself sick coincides with my tendency to rush toward orgasm. I know those two things sound unrelated, but in reality, mindful eating taught me I’m always rushing ahead; and that rushing ahead was ruining my sex life, making me nauseous, and causing all kinds of unneeded stress. Now I have the long adventure of unlearning that nasty habit, but knowing is half the battle, and I’ve already been seeing myself improve more and more with this practice.
How To Practice Mindful Eating
- Before getting a meal or snack, ask yourself a few questions; Am I hungry? Why am I eating this? Is my body showing signs of hunger (belly rumbling, tiredness)? Am I only eating because I saw (or heard) it or because I am hungry? Am I eating emotionally or out of boredom?
- If you decide you are hungry, pick a food. If it’s a snack, such as chips or cookies, consider taking them out and putting them on a plate to prevent mindless eating.
- Remove all distractions.
- Sit down with your food.
- Look at it. What does it look like? What color is it? If cooked, is it steamy?
- Hold it up to your nose. What can you smell?
- Listen to it. Does it sound like anything when you mix it around?
- Hold it up to your lips. Observe how your mouth reacts. Does it water? What thoughts are you having?
- Put the food in your mouth. Don’t chew it right away! Observe what it feels like in your mouth; how do you react? Do you have the urge to chew?
Tip: If you have the unbearable urge to chew like I do, try placing the food on your tongue, then removing it without chewing. I find that this practice tells my brain Hey, just because there’s food in that mouth doesn’t mean we have to scarf it down.
- Chew it slowly. Try chewing your food at least 20 times or until the food’s texture is completely gone. Notice how the food breaks down or how the candy melts. What flavors are released? What do you taste? Is it crunchy or soft?
Tip: Put your utensil down after each bite. If using your hands, finish the last bite before taking another. I find it helpful to ask myself, “Am I enjoying this bite, or am I thinking of the next one?”
For more on mindful eating, check out this Mindfulness Eating Handout.
As a lover of baths and of feeling clean as a whole, the idea of Bathing Mindfully seemed right up my alley. In all my readings on the topic, from articles to books, they all mostly seem to have the same set of rules; eliminate distractions, slow down your body, and observe. The practice listed below is an amalgamation of all those practices.
How to Practice Bathing Mindfully
I recommend completing all of the actions below at a slower speed than you normally would. I find that slowing down my movements takes me out of autopilot and allows me to focus better on the present moment.
- Remove all distractions from the shower room. Soft music is fine, but nothing invasive (no coherent lyrics recommended).
- Remove your clothes. Notice how the clothes brush against your skin as they are coming off.
- Turn the water on. How does your hand look turning the faucet on? What sounds do the water and pipes make?
- Enter the shower or bath. How does the water feel? Do any smells arise? What does your skin look like under the water?
- Begin your shower routine. If you’re washing your hair or body, notice the smells of the soaps and conditioners. How does it feel to clean your hair? Is there soreness on the scalp? Does it feel hot or cold? How does the soap feel on your skin?
- After leaving the tub, mindfully dry off. How does the air feel against your skin? Is it cool? Are you cold or hot?
- Calmly return to the rest of your day. Write your thoughts down in a mindfulness diary if you want.
Things to Remember if You Decide to Practice Mindfulness
There is no right or wrong way to practice.
Mindfulness is all about getting rid of judgment, and feeling like you are doing the exercise right or wrong is a judgment. Therefore, let go of that judgment and just practice the exercise. Even if you fall asleep during meditation, you still receive the benefits of what you did, and over time you will develop the skills to stay awake. So, as long as you give it a genuine effort and showing up, you’re practicing the right way.
Do Not Get Frustrated with the Wandering Mind!
When I began practicing mindfulness, I noticed how much my mind wandered during these activities, and I would get frustrated with myself. This frustration would bring me into my head, which berated me, and out of the moment. To stop this cycle, I had to break the routine of beating myself up every time my mind wandered.
I had trouble not criticizing myself at first; it was my instinct to be hard on myself to get better at things. How do I be nice to myself when I keep messing up? I thought. That’s when Dr. Lori Brotto came to my rescue with Better Sex Through Mindfulness and encouraged a more compassionate approach. Dr. Brotto states that when you catch a wandering mind, that too counts as part of the practice because it takes just as much mindfulness to notice your wandering mind as it does to focus on the practice. Therefore, neither of us should beat ourselves up over wandering thoughts; instead, we should change the way we think about these thoughts.
Brotto recommends “that instead of thinking, ‘What is wrong with me that my attention is all over the place?’ think, “Oh look, there goes my curious attention again; come back here.” and then congratulate yourself for noticing your roaming mind and keep going.
Labeling Thoughts can be tough!
When I first heard the concept of labeling thoughts to let them go, I thought it was genius! That’s something that genuinely speaks to me. Labeling judgemental thoughts that came up in my head was easy, and it created a distance between the thought and me. I could observe it and see it for what it really was an event of the mind. Thoughts being events of the mind is a concept that brings me peace when practicing mindfulness. The concept simply states that thoughts are just sensations/events of the mind and are no different from a body function such as skin shedding; they have no root in reality, and just because I think something, doesn’t make it true. Because, Damn, sometimes that’s hard to remember.
Another thing that brought me peace in my practice was a list of labels for my thoughts. Before finding this list, I knew what a judgmental thought was but what else was there? Well, there are many different kinds, but for simplicity’s sake, I will list out the common ones.
Some Thought Labels to be aware of
Judgemental thoughts: These thoughts are usually critical and categorize things in black and white ways, such as “good” or “bad.”
For example, thinking I’m so stupid for forgetting my jacket is a judgment that implies stupid people forget things that are subjective and not based on fact, but rather opinion.
Catastrophizing thoughts: These thoughts blow things way out of proportion.
For instance, if you think if this date goes wrong, no one will ever love me, that’s a catastrophizing thought. One date, or even a hundred dates, going wrong doesn’t mean you are unloveable!
Ruminating Thoughts: These thoughts are persistent and are usually about negative experiences and feelings.
These thoughts tend to come in the form of an avalanche of painful memories that you find difficult to stop thinking about, such as a divorce, a breakup, or a fight with a friend.
Tip: Try labeling thoughts anytime they pop up, especially the negative ones, to help create distance between you and them and see them for what they really are.
For more thought labels, check out this article: Thought Labeling as a Mindfulness Meditation.
So, I’ll leave this section with a quote:
“If you think ‘I’ll never get all of this done,’ change the mental dialog to ‘I’m having the thought I’ll never get all this done.’ This reinforces the fact that you are not your thoughts” – Declutter Your Mind
I won’t say everyone should practice mindfulness to achieve a more satisfying sex life; however, I will strongly suggest at least giving it a shot. I am astonished by the positive results mindfulness has had on my sex life (and my social one, for that matter) and think as long as you have an open mind and know there is no right or wrong way to practice, that you too will see its impacts.