Depression is the most common mental health condition worldwide, with an estimated 10% to 13% of people experiencing an episode of depression at some point during their lives. (1) While not everyone living with depression experiences changes to their sexual desire or ability to get turned on or experience orgasm, sexual changes are very common. Sex might be the last thing on your mind if you’re experiencing feelings of despair and hopelessness, or lack of interest in things you used to enjoy. That said, there are ways to manage the sexual side effects of depression if you are interested in strengthening that part of your life.
How depression impacts a person’s sex life
Some people with depression may experience common sexual side effects, such as a low sex drive, having a hard time getting turned on and reaching orgasm, difficulties getting or maintaining an erection, and reduced vaginal lubrication or wetness. (2)
Natalie Finegood Goldberg, LMFT tells O.school, “One of the primary symptoms of depression is a loss of interest in engaging in all or most activities. This includes sex.” Sex therapist Dr. Juliana Hauser adds, “Depression can make you feel emotionally blunted or cut off from feelings. This extends to sexual arousal and desire as well as pleasure during sexual activity.”
Research suggests that the brain differences in people with depression that are associated with mood changes and other symptoms can also affect sexuality. (2) “People with depressive disorders may have difficulties with sexual arousal due to the way their autonomic nervous system is working,” says therapist Dr. Justine Grosso. “Research on […] nervous system functioning suggests that [nervous system] imbalance is associated with Major Depressive Disorder and sexual arousal dysfunction.”
The side effects of certain antidepressant medications may also cause sexual changes. (2) Dr. Hauser tells O.school that “some medications have a side effect of inhibiting desire and others can affect the ability to experience pleasure or full orgasm.” However, she cautions that someone being treated for depression “should never stop taking medicine in order to orgasm without seeking detailed medical advice.”
6 tips for navigating sex when you have depression
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to managing the sexual effects of depression, but there are lots of things that you can try. Dr. Hauser tells O.school that the experience of navigating depression together with a partner can actually deepen intimacy and strengthen your relationship: “I have seen couples grow a beautiful bond through understanding the cycles and symptoms of depression and view it as a part of their relationship instead of a problem [with] one person.”
Here are a six things you can try to manage symptoms of depression impacting your sex life.
1. Prioritize your mental health. The first step to experiencing a more satisfying and connected sex life is to address your depression directly. Dr. Grosso explains that “symptoms of depression like low self-esteem, shame, and lack of pleasure in activities that were previously enjoyed may make it difficult to be fully present or enjoy sex.” Treating your depression through therapy, medication, exercise, or a combination of methods can help you to enjoy sex more, as well as increase your overall wellbeing.
2. Get support. Dr. Grosso recommends that people experiencing depression “seek individual psychotherapy or couples therapy that focuses on supporting the person who is depressed.” Dr. Hauser agrees, telling O.school that “Both people in the relationship should seek outside professional support to get tips for self-care, for understanding of depression and getting help in strengthening the relationship as it is impacted by depression.”
3. Communicate. Research suggests that depression is connected to communication problems between partners. (3) If you feel bad about yourself, it can be hard to relate to a partner in a positive way, or to feel invested in the relationship. Dr. Hauser tells O.school that “detachment is a common symptom of depression.” Although it can be challenging to share your feelings when you’re experiencing depression, it’s important to let your partner know what’s going on with you. Dr. Grosso encourages people with depression to “Explain to your partner that changes in mood and communication, interest in sex, and ability to be present in the relationship is not about them, but symptoms of depression.”
4. Connect in other ways. Removing the pressure to perform sexually can let you focus on addressing your depression and strengthening your relationship. Dr. Hauser recommends “hand holding, kissing, snuggling, massage, etc… focus on smaller pleasures, connectors with each other that don't apply pressure for penetration or performance.”
5. Experiment with timing. Some people who experience depression find that they have more energy at certain times of day or after doing certain activities. Goldberg recommends that “If you know you tend to feel more ‘up for doing things’ after spending time with friends or exercising, try planning activities (including sexual ones) around those moments.”
6. Talk to a healthcare provider. Not all treatments for depression are associated with sexual side-effects. If you’re taking medication and experiencing sexual changes that bother you, your healthcare provider may be able to adjust the dosage or recommend a different treatment. It’s important never to change medication dosage or discontinue treatment without consulting your healthcare provider.
The bottom line
Depression can impact every area of your life, including sex. Addressing your depression with the help of a mental health professional, communicating with your partner, and experimenting with different ways of managing your symptoms can help you to maintain a satisfying sex life.