The hallmark of most new romantic relationships is a passionate physical connection. But when one or both partners suffer from clinical depression, a couple’s sexual chemistry can suffer. Approximately 35 to 47 percent of people with clinical depression report having sexual problems. Sexual problems worsen depending on the severity of one’s depression; sixty one percent of people with severe depression report having sexual problems. In my practice as a clinical psychologist, problematic sexual functioning is a common complaint of people seeking treatment for depression and anxiety.
What leads to the reduction of sexual functioning in those experiencing depression?
The human brain is the body’s most powerful “sex organ.” Sexual desire begins in the brain, shaping our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters help brain cells communicate with each other in order to stimulate blood flow to the sex organs. In a depressed person, their neurotransmitters are out of balance, which can lead to diminished sexual desire. In addition, low levels neurotransmitters can dull a person’s ability to experience pleasure, both physical and emotional.
Are men and women’s sexual functioning affected differently by depression?
Both men and women suffering from depression describe experiencing a host of the following symptoms:
- intense sadness that inhibits one’s ability to carry out daily activities
- loss of interest in things that were previously enjoyable
- changes in appetite, weight, and/or sleep patterns
- feelings of guilt, irritability and worthlessness
- loss of energy, feeling slowed down, or ‘keyed up’
- impaired concentration
- thoughts of death or suicide.
But some important gender differences may be found in how people experience depression. Many men fail to identify themselves as clinically depressed because they don’t relate to feeling sadness. Their depressive symptoms may only include feelings of tiredness, inability to concentrate or sleep well, hopelessness, as well and loss of interest or pleasure- all of which may be associated with loss of libido and erection problems.
For women, depression can commonly be experienced as feelings of sadness, feeling physically slowed down, worthlessness, and/or guilt along with loss of interest or pleasure- all of which can lead to lack of interest in sex and/or difficulty in reaching orgasm.
Helpful tips in coping with a relationship impacted by depression:
- Seek out professional consultation. Many people are reticent to reach out for professional help because they feel they ought to be able to overcome problems on their own, or worry about the financial or time commitment of psychotherapy. But an experienced mental health professional will be able to use their expertise to establish what type of support and resources are best suited for you, given your personal, familial and medical history. A consultation can typically take place in 1-3 visits, after which, you should have a clear picture of what your options are for improvment. Evidence-based treatment such as Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be suggested for you, a widely accepted form of treatment for clinical depression.
- Try to avoid saying “I know what you’re going through” to your partner. You don’t. Instead, try: ‘I can’t know exactly how you’re feeling, but I am trying very hard to understand and help.’
- Take care of yourself. Being in a relationship with a depressed person can be incredibly taxing, so make sure you do whatever it is that helps you feel healthy and happy. See friends, get in touch with your body through enjoyable physical activity, pursue your own interests and goals, and spend some time away from your partner. Depressed people often want to stay home and/or isolate themselves from the world. If you attempt to join them in this pattern, you’re sure to end up feeling badly too.
- Try not to take your partner’s lack of sexual interest personally. This is crucial to staying invested in making the relationship work. If you come to believe that your partner will not ever regain their sexual interest, you may end up terminating the relationship before determining if treatment can help.