During a long bout of depression last year, I felt incredibly numb and hollow for several months. It was as if I the person I had been for 28 years had completely evaporated; at the time, I couldn’t understand what was happening with my body or brain. My well of optimism and wonder seemed to run dry, and I lost the desire to do any of the things that once brought me joy. On top of this, the thought of putting myself out there and going on dates overwhelmed me to an extreme while I experienced a complete and utter loss of my sex drive. My desire to be intimate with myself or anyone else disappeared, and I grew more and more anxious.
According to Emily Roberts, a psychotherapist based in New York, the connection between depression and sex makes sense. When one is depressed, life can feel heavier as if there is a dark cloud sucking up all of a person’s joy. Depression can cause someone to feel immense sadness and hopelessness, which can impact their daily life, their work, and their relationships. Moreover, intense fatigue, sleeplessness, feeling worthless or inappropriate guilt are all common while someone wrestling with depression may also have thoughts about death and suicidal ideation. And this is due to a number of things since one’s mental health can be impacted by genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors.
Roberts says, “The depressed brain is not a choice, it is an illness. People don’t wake up one day and decide they are tired, they are quite literally exhausted due to changes in their brain chemistry, receptors are not communicating like they once were and with their hormones.” When depression has lasted every day for more than two weeks, it can become a major depressive disorder, which can take someone a great deal of time and effort to bounce back from.
It’s no wonder that someone who is feeling depressed might have a loss of interest in pleasurable activities, which includes sex and intimacy. According to Roberts, depression can impact our hormones and serotonin levels, meaning it is more challenging to feel happy or motivated to do anything, let alone have sex or masturbate. This is because the brain is not in a place where it is not craving any sexual activity. Roberts says, “It’s not your fault if it’s occurring biologically. Often people think it’s due to medication and while this is a side effect of many SSRI’s and SSNRI’s the root cause is usually the depression itself.”
Engaging in sex while depressed may feel impossible since it can be already challenging to take care of oneself, get exercise, and eat right. Getting out of bed alone can feel like an immense, overwhelming effort. Beyond this, it can be intimidating to initiate or re-engage in sexual activity after a stretch of depression or gap in one’s sex life, which can cause fear and anxiety.
To recover from this, Roberts recommends talking to one’s primary care doctor, seeing a psychiatrist or starting talk therapy. It can also be invaluable to go to counseling with your partner, which can help with communication during depressive episodes. Roberts says, “Couples counseling doesn’t mean you are going to break up, it’s the healthiest thing you can do, it saves relationships by allowing you and your partner to understand each other better.”
Additionally, she says doing things to reintroduce touch into your life can help your body remember pleasure while it also releases feel-good neurotransmitters into your brain. This can include practicing yoga, getting a back massage, hugging an animal or a loved one, putting soft sheets on your bed, and noticing all the ways you are engaging in your senses.
Though it can be easier said than done, it’s important to try and be gentle with yourself whenever you’re feeling depressed. As you move through these challenging emotions, one’s sex drive should slowly return. With all of this in mind, partners should be supportive and compassionate towards their loved ones, especially when they are dealing with depression.
Thanks to self-care and therapy, I’ve learned how to move through my depression, and I am slowly opening myself up to the idea of being intimate with another person. But the biggest lesson I’ve gained is to stay compassionate towards myself, and remain patient regarding my sex life. The right partner will also be empathetic towards my needs.
Sara R. Radin is a writer and journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her writing has been published by outlets such as The New York Times, Buzzfeed, and Vice.