Better Sex Might Be All In Your Head
How To Bring A Mindfulness Practice to Your Love Life
We were all born aware of only each present moment. As we grew up, we learned to anticipate, plan, or stress about the future, as well as remember, reminisce, or feel emotions about the past, in addition to being in the moment. The values that we've learned about multitasking, reflecting, and planning all have distracted us from an awareness of the present. The challenge with these habits is that our attention is in the future or the past, but rarely in experiencing the present. With practice we can re-learn the how to remain in the present using the skill of mindfulness.
"Mindfulness" may come off like a buzzword, but more and more, it's become relevant, with the current version popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn proposes "being present in the moment with non-judgmental awareness." It means being kind to ourselves while we pay attention to whatever is happening in the here and now, without focus on or judgment of thoughts that travel through our minds, feelings, or distractions, that course through our bodies.
It's not about emptying the brain, but rather keeping the brain focused on the present by paying attention to all the senses. This shift in how we experience life can be helpful in many aspect of our lives, including sexual health, pleasure, and intimacy.
Mindfulness and Sex
Dr. Lori Brotto is a professor and psychologist at the University of British Columbia. In her many years of working with women in particular, mindfulness has helped many clients have better sexual experiences. In particular, women experienced less self-judgment and better body awareness—including of their libido and arousal—after mindfulness classes.
Studies have shown that sexual desire, arousal, lubrication, orgasm, pleasure, and satisfaction all improve with mindfulness exercises. And improvements have been shown in men, as well.
In addition, Alex Iantaffi and Sara Mize at the Center for Sexual Health at the University of Minnesota found that those who practiced mindfulness also developed better communication skills such as talking to their partners more openly, which can also enhance pleasure and intimacy in a relationship.
Those who experience pain have also found that mindfulness exercises can help alleviate their pain. This practice has been shown to decrease sexual and other kinds of pain, as well, as well as as anxiety associated with them, and those who continued the practice after the initial training period found that the effects continued to be increasingly positive.
Most people stated that mindfulness also contributed to a better mood, overall, with a better ability to manage stress and reduce anxiety. Brain scans revealed that mindfulness and meditation actually make small changes in the structure of the brain, amazingly, and Dr. Brotto’s book Better Sex Through Mindfulness explains and outlines ways in which anyone can apply mindfulness to enhance their sexual life.
How Does It Work?
Mindfulness brings our attention to the present so that we notice and feel more. For example: how many times have we had sex while compiling grocery lists? It's also a way of becoming more aware of the many negative thoughts that get in the way of our pleasure. These judgments about our performance, appearance, desires, and pleasure tend to block our positive experiences of the moment and often lead to stress responses (“I can’t lose my erection!”, “What if I can’t orgasm?”, “My partner must not be attracted to me, or is bored.”) These stressful thoughts take us into the past or future and trigger our fight/ flight/ freeze response rather than feeling relaxation and pleasure.
One key to mindfulness is to notice those judgments and then let them go. This process of letting go often involves observing and identifying: “There is that thought (again)" and not pushing it away, but also not giving it more attention. The judgment often at first does not disappear, but it can become quieter in the background. Once we are aware of sensations in the moment without the loud noise of judgments, there is more capacity to feel desire, arousal, and pleasure.
Spicing It Up
Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that one benefit of mindfulness is that it facilitates an approach to our experiences with a "beginner’s mind." In whatever we do, we embrace it with new eyes as though for the first time, noticing more fully all of the sensations. No matter how many times we have prepared and eaten a meal, walked on the beach, taken a shower, or had sex with the same partner, we feel much more pleasure and satisfaction when we give it our full attention, curious with all of our senses to experience it as its own novel event.
Couples are constantly in search of how to spice up their relationship. New sex toys, positions, outfits, personas, and locations are always fun and can make sex more adventurous; however, simply being more present and aware in the moment is also an easy way to bring more pleasure and connection to sex no matter what we do. If we can approach every moment as a new experience and our partner for who they are in that moment, sex becomes less robotic and more intense. When each moment is new, there is less need to bring in different objects and experiences in order to spice things up. This does not mean that incorporating new activities or sex toys is unnecessary; it means that any new or repeat adventure is enhanced by incorporating a mindful approach to whatever we do.
Practice Makes It Easier and Better
Mindfulness takes practice. Many of us are so used to the constant inner dialogues that we don’t even notice that they're there. And we're so used to being entertained that many of us cannot simply sit for a few minutes without turning to a screen. Dr. Brotto suggests taking advantage of those moments, such as waiting for an elevator or bus or meeting. Rather than pulling out a phone to check messages or social media, we can use that moment to be present to our feelings and five senses. It's ok to feel awkward or bored or anxious. The first step is awareness of those feelings and bringing attention back to noticing. The key to any habit is practice. The more we do it the better we will feel, both during intimate moments as well as in life in general.