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Stress Is Killing Us, and Our Sex Lives

Here's what we can do about it as we age.

Key points

  • Stress is contributing to a significant dropoff in how often people are having sex: A sexual recession is becoming a sexual depression.
  • Sex is good for us, and addressing psychological factors such as ageism can help improve sex over the lifespan.
  • Simple breath tools can powerfully combat stress and help the nervous system to promote well-being.

As Bob Dylan once said, “You don’t have to be a weatherman to see which way the wind blows.” Look around us, and you will see a tsunami of stress-related issues showing up in a mental health crisis and significant increases in lifestyle-related illnesses such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and coronary heart disease. Even before the pandemic, we were on a steep stress incline, as evidenced by soaring rates of anxiety disorders, depression, and a pleasure crisis wherein people are having trouble enjoying their lives, including their sexuality, evidenced by a sexual recession—a significant drop-off on how often people are having sex—which appears now to be turning into a sexual depression.

Stress, sex, and the brain/mind/body

This is truly unfortunate, as sex can be a source of great pleasure and stress relief. As my research has shown, it provides an incredible workout for the brain as it bathes it with oxygen and releases many feel-good health-promoting natural pain-killing and mood-elevating substances.

Add to this: There is a growing body of research that indicates that ongoing stress leads to premature aging of our biological systems. Once we hit our 50s, the years of cumulative stress can take a big toll on our bodies and minds.

But here’s the great news: It is never too late to reboot your capacity for play and pleasure.

The body and mind are resilient, and we can improve the quality of health and life at any age. To do so, we need to prioritize the practice of "healthy hedonism": pleasures that feel good and are good for us.

We need to address how ageism and negative beliefs hamper our sex lives.

Psychological factors play a huge role in our sexuality. We need to debunk some of the more pernicious myths and misconceptions about our sexuality as we mature. Yes, hormonal changes can negatively impact us as our bodies adjust to the shifting sands of time, but this is greatly exacerbated by our culture’s hang-ups about sex in general and, even more so, about sex as people age.

A toxic narrative we have as a culture is equating youth with beauty. The corollary is “old equals ugly.” This is applied more damagingly to women. Women are simultaneously enculturated to believe that their primary value is based on being sex objects, which comes with an expiration date. And men are socialized to believe that their overall sexual well-being hinges on the unfailingly consistent performance of their penises. This is a recipe for performance anxiety which can lead to erectile dysfunction as men become preoccupied with the state of their penises rather than being present in their lovemaking. And for women, self-consciousness about how our bodies look is a huge issue when it comes to sexual satisfaction. It creates anxiety and takes our attention away from our experience, robbing us of the fun of being in our bodies!

Things might slow down as we age, and orgasms might not be quite as accessible (although some report more satisfying sexuality as they age). Complicating this is when we buy into the notion that good sex is the exclusive province of young people.

But research has highlighted the significant benefits of being active as way more important to our overall well-being than our chronological age. And having sex can be a lovely way to be active.

The benefits of aging for our sexual selves

The truth is that mature women often report being more comfortable with their sexuality, having learned more about their bodies, how to take risks to ask for what they want, how to claim their desire, and ultimately feel more comfortable in their bodies, despite the lumps and bumps. The ageless sexuality movement championed by advocates like Joan Price has done much to encourage us to love our bodies across the lifespan and celebrate the power of female sexuality.

Likewise, maturing men who learn to be more comfortable in their own skin, cultivate skills to connect with their partners, and become less focused on performance and more tuned into being present can report more satisfaction with their sex lives.

As we age, we can re-examine our relationship with our sexuality, and focus on connecting intimately, authentically, and fully with our partners. As explored in my book, there is no expiration date on having fun in the erotic playground with our partners. We can learn how to cultivate deepening sexual potential throughout the lifespan.

It might sound deceptively simple, but learning how to train your nervous system via breath to access the healing power of the parasympathetic “restorative” state is an effective treatment for stress. Most of us spend way too much time in “flight or fight” mode with our bodies pumping out stress hormones and flooding us consistently. This perpetual state of stress erodes our sense of well-being and can put a kibosh on our sex drives, to boot.

Here is one simple practice that can make a huge difference. Create this as a new habit. Find 5 minutes a few times daily to sit with yourself and take these simple steps. (To learn more, click here.)

  1. Sit someplace quiet and give yourself permission to be exactly as you are and for the moment to be exactly as it is. This is known as “radical acceptance," the effective ingredient in all forms of mindfulness. By giving yourself permission to start from where you are, you can loosen and soften a lot of the stress we accumulate when we resist what is.
  2. Take a long smooth inhalation through your nostrils (if possible), and then a longer smooth exhalation. When you make the in-breath longer than the out-breath, your brilliant body shifts your nervous system into the restorative mode, your heart slows down, and your stress hormones decrease.
  3. As you move through your day, make sure to pay attention to the quality of your breath and let any tension you feel become the cue to drop into the slowed-down breath.

This simple practice can become a wonderful new habit that enhances overall well-being and helps you tune into your lust for life, in and out of the bedroom.

Remember, pleasure isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity for a healthy mind and body and a life worth living!


Wise, N. (2020). Why good sex matters: Understanding the neuroscience of pleasure for a smarter, happier, and more purpose-filled life. Houghton Mifflin

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