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Home » Health » Sexual Health » Problems Reaching Orgasm? Here’s How Your Busy Life Is Stressing Your Sex Life

Problems Reaching Orgasm? Here’s How Your Busy Life Is Stressing Your Sex Life

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Difficulty reaching orgasm is a common problem for women. Studies estimate that between 11 percent and 41 percent of women worldwide have persistent problems reaching orgasm.1 This struggle is much less common in men (only about 1 percent, according to the DSM-V), though it can certainly affect men as well.

If you’re having this problem, the good news is that there is probably nothing wrong with your equipment down there (although you should see a doctor if you have concerns about that). Trouble reaching orgasm is usually about what’s happening inside your head.

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In this article, we’ll go through some barriers that can stand between you and your orgasm, and discuss how to overcome those obstacles.

How Does an Orgasm Work?

Orgasms are different for everyone. When men orgasm, they usually ejaculate, but this is not necessarily a requirement. Men can have dry orgasms where no ejaculation occurs. Women, who don’t usually ejaculate (although some do) may have a more difficult time knowing exactly when they’ve reached orgasm because there is no outward physical demarcation of it.

Emily Nagoski, who has a PhD in health behavior with a concentration in human sexuality, presents a simple definition of orgasm in her bestselling book, Come As You Are. Nagoski defines orgasm as simply: “the sudden, involuntary release of sexual tension.” This can occur through any type of stimulation, or no stimulation at all.

“…orgasm, like arousal, isn’t about what happens in your genitals,” Nagoski writes. “It’s about what happens in your brain.”

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What Stops You From Reaching Orgasm?

Nagoski provided UMZU with this succinct explanation of why we may struggle to reach orgasm:

“Sexual response in our brain is controlled by a dual control mechanism—a sexual accelerator, which notices all the sexy stimulation coming in and send the ‘turn on’ signal, and the brakes, which notices all the potential threats in the environment and sends the ‘turn off’ signal. When people struggle with orgasm, it’s rarely because there’s not enough stimulation to the accelerator; if that’s the problem, a vibrator is a great solution because it provides an intensity of stimulation that no organic mode can match. Usually the problem is too much stimulation to the brakes—and many things can hit the brakes, including stress.”

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Let’s take a look at a comprehensive list of things that could be hitting your brakes:

Anxiety

Anxiety is anticipation of future threat. It is often characterized by muscle tension and vigilance. The anticipated threat does not necessarily have to be the threat of bodily harm. It could be a threat to emotional well-being. You may be anxious about your partner criticizing your body, or about an impending break-up. Maybe you’re anxious about something completely unrelated to sex — like the possibility of failing that exam next week.

One study1 found that anxiety was strongly correlated with problems reaching orgasm for women. The authors did not examine whether the same was true for men, perhaps because so few men report trouble reaching orgasm. However, they did find a strong correlation between anxiety and premature ejaculation. A similar study2 from 2014 on just women found similar results — women with more anxiety had more orgasm difficulties.

Depression

Some of the diagnostic features of depression include feelings of worthlessness, loss of interest or loss of pleasure and sustained fatigue with no or minimal physical exertion. All of these could hit your sexual brakes. According to a prominent literature review3, sexual problems are common in people with depression. The most commonly reported sexual problem among people with depression is low libido, but absent or delayed orgasm is also prevalent. Research has shown that the more severe the depression, the more prevalent the sexual problem.

It is also well-established that low sex drive and problems reaching orgasm are side effects of SSRIs, the medications typically prescribed for depression.3 However, these sexual problems can be present even in depressed individuals who are not taking SSRIs.

Trauma

Multiple studies have found that men with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have more problems with sexual function than those without PTSD.4,5 One of the identified problems in both studies was trouble with orgasm.

One of the characteristic symptoms of PTSD is intrusive memories of the traumatic event. Such memories may invade your head when you don’t want them to — including during times when you’re trying to focus on sex. This problem may be particularly prevalent for individuals who have survived a sexual trauma. Just the act of sex itself, even if it’s consensual, could trigger those intrusive memories.

The authors of this literature review6 also posit that achieving orgasm may be difficult for people with PTSD because achieving orgasm often requires relinquishing control. Individuals with PTSD often already feel out of control as is, due to the intensity of the symptoms they are experiencing. Relinquishing control in order to have an orgasm may not feel safe. Even if  you’ve never received a PTSD diagnosis, a traumatic event from your past could still impact your sex life.

If you are struggling with a sexual trauma, you can contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE.

Stress

Problems with orgasm could just be due to run-of-the-mill stress. Decades of observations by physicians and clinical sex therapists can reliably tell us that individuals experiencing sexual dysfunction are very often coping with stress.7 This could be stress specifically about sexual performance or about the relationship with your partner, or it could be stress about life circumstances, like work, school, family problems, body image issues, etc.

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How to Overcome Orgasm Difficulties

The first step in overcoming your difficulties with orgasm is identifying what is causing the problem. If it’s depression, trauma, or severe anxiety, you may need help from a mental health professional in order to get better.

What if your problem is that you’re stressed out by all the things going on in your busy life?

“Fortunately,” Nagoski says, “the solution to this particular problem is simple … if not always easy: complete the stress response cycle. Physical activity, laughter, social connection, creative self-expression and sleep are all evidence-based strategies for doing that, and they’ll not only improve your orgasms — they’ll improve the rest of your life too.”

The stress response cycle is the cycle that our bodies go through when we perceive that there is a threat. In caveman times, that threat may have been a grizzly bear. In modern times, it may be a major exam, an angry boss, an overdue credit card payment or insecurities about your body. But no matter the threat, you need to complete the stress cycle, which means your body needs to metabolize all those stress hormones, like cortisol.

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Ever notice that you feel less stressed after a good workout, or a yoga class, or even just a nice walk? That’s because physical activity helps to complete the cycle. Think of some activities that make you feel less stressed, and plan those into your routine. You’ll probably find that your sex life will benefit.

An image of a couple embracing in a garden.

Can Orgasm Reduce Stress?

Might having more orgasms help to reduce your stress levels? It’s possible.

Right after orgasm, both men and women get an increase of oxytocin8, which is sometimes called “the love hormone” because it promotes bonding. Multiple studies9,10 have found that oxytocin can actually lower cortisol levels.

So, having an orgasm may reduce your stress. But just cuddling with your partner could also help. Multiple studies have found that physical touch on its own can get the oxytocin flowing.

Unexpected Benefits of Orgasm

Does orgasm carry any other benefits besides reducing stress? It does have a few that are evidence-based:

Promotes sleep

If you’re having trouble falling asleep, an orgasm could help. Orgasm stimulates the release of a hormone called prolactin.8 Prolactin was named for its role in stimulating nursing mothers to produce milk, but is also has a role in sleep. Scientists have observed that human prolactin levels are higher when we’re sleeping.9

Lowers risk of prostate cancer

A study on over 30,000 men10 found that more frequent ejaculation may provide a protective benefit against prostate cancer. The more ejaculations per month, the less likelihood a man had of developing the disease.

Relieves headaches

A survey of migraine sufferers11 found that sexual activity, particularly orgasm, can provide some headache relief. About 60 percent of migraine sufferers reported that they had experienced a lessening of symptoms when they had sex during a migraine. The majority of them said the relief occurred when they achieved orgasm or shortly afterwards.

Longer life

In this study,12 researchers recruited about 900 middle-aged men and followed them for 10 years. They asked them to report how frequently they had an orgasm, and they kept track of how many died from heart disease, or other causes. The results? Men who had more frequent orgasms had lower heart disease mortality rates and lower mortality overall.

We can’t go as far as to say that orgasms will delay death. But there does appear to be an association between greater sexual satisfaction and longer life.

An image of a young couple embracing.

The Bottom Line

Orgasms are great for a lot of reasons. If you’re struggling to have them, don’t be hard on yourself. It’s a common problem, particularly among women. Sometimes, in order to have a great sex life, you need to take a look at what’s going on in all the other aspects of your life. Stress can interfere with orgasms in a big way, but this is one aspect of sexual health that is simple to address.

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Katherine Ripley

Katherine is a professional writer with over three years of experience. Her areas of expertise include health, food, environmentalism, and animals. To view more of Katherine's samples, please visit her online portfolio: https://www.clippings.me/katherineripley.
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