How a healthy sex life can help minimize depression and anxiety symptoms
When you struggle with anxiety or depression, sex may be the last thing on your mind. But understanding the physiological and mental benefits of a healthy sex life can help it become a tool for well-being.
- The physiological responses our bodies have to sex can minimize the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
- Deficiencies in nitric oxide are associated with irritability, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and less energy. Having sex increases your body's nitric oxide levels.
- Sex also increases epinephrine, oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin, all of which are linked to mood, behavior, and well-being.
Depression can steal your sex drive and leave you feeling the deepest kind of lonely. And yet, sex can not only make you feel connected to another person, but the physical and biological responses our bodies have to sex can actually minimize some of the symptoms of depression.
And then there's anxiety. When you're suffering from anxiety, you feel cornered, lost and stuck; not able to take any steps forward. Sex is the last thing on your mind… and yet again—the physical and biological responses our bodies have to sex can minimize those symptoms, too.
Sex might not be a cure-all (wouldn't it be amazing if it was?) but there is a lot of evidence to prove that sex can have a positive impact on your state of mind, as well as your physical and mental health.
What happens in our bodies during sex
Photo: "Someone Great" via Netflix
To explain this in more detail, let's talk about what biologically happens within our bodies when we are aroused and have sexual intercourse. This process begins before you have sex (and continues for a while after you have an orgasm), which is how having a healthy sex life can affect your moods, behaviors, and thoughts.
Arousal provokes activity in the “emotions” area of our brains
MRI studies have shown that the first thing to happen when we are aroused is that there is an increase in activity to the part of the brain that controls your emotions—this is called the limbic system.
During this initial arousal stage, a few physical things happen, as well: our blood pressure and blood flow increases, sensitive areas of our body (such as the genitals and breasts) become tender and our hearts beat faster. In general, arousal acts like an "on" switch for our bodies to prepare us for intercourse.
Sexual intercourse increases our nitric oxide activity, which impacts our anxiety and depression levels
When it comes to having intercourse, there are many complex things happening in our bodies and brains all at once. Along with the increased blood flow that happens when we're aroused, there is also a surge of nitric oxide released in our bodies while we have sex.
Nitric oxide molecules are essential in terms of our blood vessel health because these molecules relax the inner muscles of the blood vessels, which then causes those vessels to widen. This surge in nitric oxide explains why some areas of our bodies are tender during arousal and intercourse, and why our skin may become flushed when we are aroused.
It's important to note that some of the side effects of nitric oxide deficiency (which you can read more about here) are irritability, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and less energy.
People who struggle with nitric oxide deficiency often experience symptoms of anxiety and depression—and the reverse is also true: people who have an influx of nitric oxide (let's say, by having sex) can minimize their symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Sexual intercourse releases dopamine and serotonin, the “balancing chemicals” in our brains
Photo: Getty Images
An influx in nitric oxide isn't the only thing that happens in our bodies when we have sex.
Having sexual intercourse releases some other messages from our brain to our body, as well. These messages are called neurotransmitters.
Dopamine is one of those neurotransmitters, and it plays a huge role in how we feel pleasure. Not only that, but dopamine also plays a role in motivating our brains to feel that pleasure again.
When we have sex, our bodies spread the dopamine chemical along the various major pathways of our brains. This happens during many other pleasurable activities (not just sex), and like a car that's running smoothly until it isn't, you likely won't notice your body is doing this unless there is a problem with how your body carries out that function.
Anyone who has struggled with this affliction can tell you that motivation and incentive are extremely difficult to find when you're experiencing depression.
Now, let's talk about serotonin because there is also an influx in serotonin when we have intercourse. Serotonin and dopamine affect many of the same things in our bodies, just in different ways. Both are equally important in regulating various bodily functions like sleep, emotions, and metabolism.
Researchers have been studying and analyzing the link between serotonin and depression for half a century now and while it was originally believed to be as simple as "low serotonin causes depression", the reality is far more complex.
In simple terms, low serotonin isn't a direct cause of clinical depression (as there isn't just one cause and they are extremely difficult to pinpoint due to our complex systems). However, raising your serotonin levels has proven to be one of the most effective depression treatments.
Why? Because serotonin is known to help regulate your mood, social behaviors, emotions, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory and sex drive. Some of the more prominent symptoms of anxiety and depression include erratic sleep, bad memory, hard-to-manage emotions and mood swings that alter your social behavior.
Taking this information into account, it makes total sense that regulating some of these body functions (by having regular sex and releasing these hormone-balancing chemicals) would help decrease the symptoms of these specific mental health concerns.
Sexual intercourse, epinephrine and the “feeling alive” sensation
We also have to talk about the epinephrine chemical that is released during sexual intercourse. Epinephrine is an adrenaline hormone. This hormone activates our sympathetic nervous system, which makes you feel that "heart pounding in your chest" kind of exhilaration you feel when you're out for a jog, getting a new tattoo or (you guessed it) having sex.
According to Medical News Today, low levels of epinephrine can often result in physical and mental symptoms such as feeling anxious or depressed.
The 2 big “O”s
The "O"s are "orgasm" and "oxytocin". Orgasms, you (hopefully) have when you have sexual intercourse. Oxytocin is the hormone that is released during orgasm.
Known as the 'love hormone', oxytocin is that "let's be together forever" feeling that plays a vital role in our pleasurable climaxes as well as how our body feels after we've reached climax. You get a big dose of oxytocin during an orgasm, but that's not the only time oxytocin makes an appearance. For women, oxytocin is also released during labor and while breastfeeding, which helps create that motherly bond between herself and her newborn baby.
See, oxytocin doesn't just make you feel good, and it's not just about feeling "in love"—but when our bodies experience surges in oxytocin we also begin to feel attachment and trust as a result of this hormone surge.
According to PET scans taken at the moment of orgasm, the reward circuits in our brains light up like fireworks and the center of reasoning and behavior temporarily shut down as you spiral into what can only be described as sexual bliss. You can see a really cool video by Rutgers University of said sexual fireworks shown in the female brain below.
Knowing what we know about anxiety disorders and how easily things are overthought to the point of bringing on a panic attack, that temporary shut off of reasoning can be incredibly helpful for someone who is feeling "stuck" in their own mind.
Given the link between orgasm and oxytocin (and the link between oxytocin and feeling good), it's not a far leap to consider the effect oxytocin released by sex can have on someone who is struggling with an anxiety or depression disorder.
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They came from different places and with different ideas, which still resonate today
- Early British settlement of the American colonies came in four distinct waves, from different places.
- Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers and Borderers had their own ideas of what America should be.
- Some of the cultural fault lines in today's America can be traced back to those differences.
Four 'folkways'<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ0MDY2NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzOTAzNzk0OX0.YfBxVdS46dX1eUZhGA_4remlW4YYMIxlZ65wjQ2pyMs/img.jpg?width=980" id="d2108" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2efd697c8c1a31a446da2d4f34168094" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="\u200bQuaker pioneer William Penn (center) treating with the Delaware Indians for the purchase of what was to become Pennsylvania." />
Quaker pioneer William Penn (center) treating with the Delaware Indians for the purchase of what was to become Pennsylvania.
Image: frieze by Constantino Brumidi (1865) in the Rotunda of the US Capitol; via Architect of the Capitol - public domain.<p>How many Americans are of British descent? It's a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Is that because, in an age of hyphenated identities, the founding one still is the default? Or has that identity become so amalgamated that it is now irrelevant? Perhaps the correct answer is: a bit of both. </p><p><span></span>In the 1980 Census, 61.3 million Americans (32%) self-reported British ancestry; most claimed English descent (26%), followed by Scottish (4%), and tiny amounts of Welsh (<1%) and Northern Irish. In the 2010 Census, that figure had dropped to 37.6 million (14%), with just 8% reporting English heritage, 3% Scottish and 2% Scotch-Irish. </p><p>The precipitous drop in self-reported British antecedents corresponds in part with the rise of those who identify as (unhyphenated) 'American', up from 12.4 million (5%) in the 1990 Census to 20.2 million in 2000 (7%) – the largest growth of any ethnic group in the 1990s.</p><p>However, back around the year 1700, about 80% of the population of what was to become the United States were of English (or Welsh) descent, with about 11% of African origin, and the rest being Dutch (4%), Scottish (3%) and other European. The imprint of the British on early American society was overwhelming, diverse and long-lasting: the regional and cultural differences between the settler groups created distinct regional and cultural identities in America.</p><p>That's the argument made by David Fischer, a history professor who in 1989 published a 900-page treatise on early migration to North America called <em><a href="https://global.oup.com/ushe/product/albions-seed-9780195069051" target="_blank">Albion's Seed</a></em>. He identified four British 'folkways' that came over to the other side of the Atlantic in the 17th and 18th centuries (<em>see map</em>), each with their own ideas about the liberty they wanted to find there.<br></p>
From exodus to flight<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ0MDY2NS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDg1MzczOX0.-LwTLCpuIub9QhTVWL9vhnd8Jlz9j8aRyt9bePqQPuo/img.png?width=980" id="65f97" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4457df0ca7f66fe87026322bad771da6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="\u200bMap showing the origin and destination of four British 'folkways' that influenced American society." />
Map showing the origin and destination of four British 'folkways' that influenced American society.
Image: Geni.com<p><strong></strong><strong>1. The Exodus (1629-41)</strong></p><ul> <li>About 21,000 Puritans, migrating from East Anglia to New England.</li><li>These religious fundamentalists believed in 'ordered liberty': everybody had the right to live by their own rules, and the duty to live according to God's law.</li><li>The Puritans were a major influence on the culture of the Northeastern US, especially in terms of business and education.</li></ul><p>These religious fundamentalists are the ones who came over on the Mayflower and gave America Thanksgiving and the self-image of being a 'City on a Hill'. Puritan society was gloomy and repressive: 'exceeding the bounds of moderation' was a punishable offense, and even just 'wasting time' got you into trouble.</p>The other side of the coin: life was very well-ordered. There was little income inequality and crime rates were low. Not only was charity towards poor the rule, being uncharitable was, yes, a punishable offense. Domestic abuse was punished severely. Women had a relatively high degree of equality. And government operated via town assemblies in which all could have a say.<br><br><strong>2. Cavaliers and their Servants (1642-75)</strong><ul><li>Some 45,000 Cavaliers drawn from English nobility and their indentured servants, migrating from the South of England to Virginia and the Lowland South.</li><li>These aristocrats believed in 'hegemonic liberty': dominion over self, and others. In other words: keeping slaves was okay, but domination by others was not.</li><li>The Cavaliers were the foundation of plantation culture in the South. </li></ul><p>The Cavaliers came from the losing side of the Civil War in England, which was now led by the Puritan-inspired Oliver Cromwell. Royalist, Anglican and aristocratic, they brought along with them their indentured servants – more than 75% of the total migration – hoping to recreate in Virginia and environs the socially stratified agrarian society they had left behind.</p><p><span></span>When their servants began dying en masse, they started importing African slaves, laying the groundwork for the race-based slavery system that underpinned the economy of the South until the end of the Civil War.</p><strong>3. The Friends' Migration (1675-1725)</strong><ul><li><strong></strong>Around 23,000 Quakers, migrating from Northern England to the Delaware Valley in Pennsylvania, and later to the Midwest.</li><li>These religious liberals believed in 'reciprocal liberty': granting others the freedoms they wanted for themselves, including the right to vote, to own, to be free, to worship and to a fair trial.</li><li>Quakers had an important impact on the industrial culture of the Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern regions of the US.</li></ul><span></span>Halfway between the fun-hating Puritans and the pleb-hating Cavaliers, the Quakers seem modern and likeable. Believing everybody intrinsically good, they practiced tolerance, pacifism, gender equality and racial harmony. They opposed slavery, the death penalty, and cruelty to animals and children.<p>Quakers replaced a wide range of social acknowledgements according to rank (bows, nods, grovels) by a single, neutral equivalent: the handshake. Quakerism was perhaps one of the first Christian denominations to become indistinguishable from liberal, secular modernity. On the other hand, they were more prudish even than the Puritans. Doctors had a hard time treating Quakers because they described everything from their necks to their waists as their 'stomachs', and everything below as their 'ankles'. </p><p><strong>4. The Flight from Northern Britain (1717-75)</strong></p><ul><li>Some 250,000 'Borderers', migrating from the Anglo-Scottish borderlands and Ulster to the Backcountry of Appalachia.</li><li>These individualists believed in 'natural liberty': freedom to do as one pleases, without interference from society or government.</li><li>Borderers contributed to the rural culture of America's South and the ranch culture of its West. </li></ul><p><span></span>Inhabiting the border regions between Scotland and England, and between protestant settlers and catholic natives in Ireland, the Borderers were used to violence and lawlessness, and to lives that were nasty, brutish and short. </p>It is no coincidence that they ended up in Appalachia, at that time itself a violent border region. It was the kind of world they knew. Borderers were wary of government, prone to violent family feuds and not bothered by traditional morality. By one estimate, in the year 1767, 94% of all 'backcountry' brides were pregnant on their wedding day.<p><span></span>These Borderers were not much beloved by other settler groups in America. One Pennsylvanian writer called them "the scum of two nations". But the Borderers also contributed vigorously to the success of both the American Revolution and America's westward expansion. </p>
'Blue' vs. 'Red'?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ0MDczNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MzE5MTc4NH0.EtbfEc9BlGG8R4VlyHr2W7kQ0LzvRdAHRRRlsEI01Pg/img.jpg?width=980" id="ce2a3" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ba2cd744238f9a08ce63e85be2860528" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Representative Preston Brooks (SC) caning Senator Charles Sumner (MA) on the Senate floor. The attack, on 22 May 1856, symbolised the breakdown of civil discourse between North and South, prefiguring the Civil War." />
Representative Preston Brooks (SC) caning Senator Charles Sumner (MA) on the Senate floor. The attack, on 22 May 1856, symbolised the breakdown of civil discourse between North and South, prefiguring the Civil War.
Image: lithograph by John L. Magee (1856); public domain.<p>It's tempting, and perhaps not entirely unjustified, to see in these four strains of British 'folkways' the antecedents of some of America's current cultural divides. One might for example see Puritans and Quakers as constituting elements of the 'blue' tribe, while Borderers and Cavaliers could be considered the ancestors of the 'red' tribe.</p><p><span></span>But thinking of America as a "death match between Puritan-Quaker culture and Cavalier-Borderer culture", as one commentator put it, is perhaps a bit too easy. There may be plenty of overlap within either pair, there is also much to distinguish each from the other. And then there are other and subsequent migrations contributing to and complicating the picture.</p><p>Nevertheless, a bit of cultural archeology can be illuminating, if only to see where the bodies are buried.<br></p><p><strong><br></strong></p><p><strong>Strange Maps #1049</strong></p><p><em>Got a strange map? Let me know at </em><a href="mailto:email@example.com">firstname.lastname@example.org</a><em>.</em></p>
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