Thanks to two years of the pandemic, we’re more burned out than ever. But how is that stress affecting our sex lives?
It’s no secret that, as a culture, we have a big burnout problem. In the UK alone, 22% of people say they’ve experienced it in relation to their job, but Mental Health UK identifies nine areas of our lives, including our physical health, finances and relationships, that can contribute to feelings of burnout.
The uncertainty and isolation of the pandemic took a huge toll on many aspects of our lives, but new research from sex therapy platform Blueheart found that between April 2021 and January 2022, 74% of its users said that the stress was impacting their sex life.
It’s what the platform calls sexual burnout – being too overwhelmed with life’s day-to-day tasks to even think about having sex.
Sexual burnout is something that usually occurs when people are faced with stress from work, overwhelmed with tasks like maintaining the home, childcare, socialising, and family commitments. The general busyness of day-to-day life leaves those with sexual burnout feeling like sex is a chore.
Research from the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University corroborates this, with nearly half of the respondents reporting a decline in the frequency of sexual behaviour throughout the pandemic, including masturbation. However, one in five people did say they had tried something new in their sex life, such as different positions or sexting.
“People are having less sex in general since the pandemic. It may be better quality sex, but it’s less,” Dr Laura Vowels, a resident therapist at Blueheart, tells Stylist.
“There’s just so much more on our plates now. Part of the issue is that during lockdown, couples that lived together were spending so much time around one another that they weren’t able to miss, and therefore desire, their spouse as much. Or, if they had children or lived with housemates, there was always someone around, which gets in the way of sex. And then for those who lived apart, they simply weren’t able to see one another to be intimate.”
And as flirty dinner dates became socially distanced walks in the park, our libidos seem to have taken an intimacy hit.
“Not only has burnout impacted the amount of sex people are able to have, it’s created a mentality where people aren’t as motivated to go out and arrange dates or hook-ups,” she continues. “Just the thought can be so overwhelming and tiring, and then come the concerns about safety and catching the virus.”
According to Dr Vowel, burnout affects solo sex, too. “Masturbation and self-pleasure is something people often use as stress relief, but throughout the pandemic, when our anxiety levels were so high, for some people it became something that we just do, rather than enjoy and are fully present in. It fulfils some of our physical desires but doesn’t have the same kind of impact,” she explains.
The Centre For Women’s Health claims that the benefits of a healthy sex life include improved self-esteem, decreased depression and anxiety and even better sleep. And just as the act of sex can have physical and mental effects, so can the absence of it.
“While it depends on the reasons why you have sex and who you have it with, it generally releases endorphins and oxytocin, the happy, bonding hormone,” adds Dr Vowels.
“So when we’re not having it as much as we used to, it can create some tensions within relationships, particularly if one partner’s sex drive is unaffected. That’s when insecurities start to creep in and we might wonder, ‘What’s wrong with me?’” However, a fluctuating sex drive is completely normal, particularly during times of increased stress.
How to deal with sexual burnout
Dr Vowels advises taking stock of two main areas in your life: your routine and your mindset.
“If something is too overwhelming and putting you under pressure, try and remove the parts that cause you unnecessary stress from your life. This isn’t always possible and there are of course things that we all just have to do, whether we want to or not, but getting off the hamster wheel and taking stock is always a good thing,” she says.
“You also need to be ensuring that you’re taking care of all your physical and emotional needs,” she continues. “It’s like with airplanes: you have to fit your own mask first. Learning to recuperate and take care of yourself is so important, and sex can be a great part of that. It helps us to take our mind off of things and connect with our partner.”
Blueheart’s platform provides guided touch exercises, which aim to bring you closer together with non-sexual activities that facilitate intimacy without pressure, to make way for pleasure. “It works almost like a mindfulness exercise, teaching you to focus on the present moment and let go of all kinds of distracting thoughts,” explains Vowels.
“It’s normal to feel anxious about having sex again after a long time, but it’s an important journey for people to reconnect with themselves and their partners.”
Free advice on issues including low sex drive, difficulties with orgasm, vaginal dryness and more can be accessed online via the Sexual Advice Association.