As a women’s sexual health expert, I often have conversations with my patients about their sexual health difficulties. Take Ruth, who came to my office one day and asked:
“What happened to my sex life? I used to have good libido and great, intimate, pleasurable sex. I adore my partner, but my interest and pleasure in sex have evaporated. What happened?”
To address concerns like Ruth’s, I usually start with a simple question: What are you doing to maintain your sexual health?
Ruth was exercising 3 to 5 days a week to maintain her physical health. She was practicing yoga and meditation to maintain her emotional health. Yet she had never considered that there were exercises that she could do to improve her sexual health.
Sexuality is a vital form of expression. As part of individual identity, it can offer meaning, maintain interpersonal connections and relieve suffering, all while bringing pleasure and intimacy.
But sexual problems are common across all genders, preferences and age groups. Lack of sexual intimacy and satisfying sexual relationships often leads to a sense of failure and insecurity for couples.
Sexual desire is closely related to internal thoughts, and sexual difficulties often are linked to psychological patterns, including anxiety associated with negative or disappointing past experiences, sexual inhibitions, negative emotions, low self-esteem, and stress.
All these negative thoughts and emotions respond well to mindfulness practice. For better sex, consider working on the mind.
A skill with many benefits
Mindfulness has a long history in Eastern tradition and has since been adopted in contemporary psychology. Mindfulness means the awareness of thoughts, behaviors, emotions and physical senses. It’s considered a special form of attention that values being present in the current moment and avoiding judgment.
Some people are naturally good at practicing mindfulness in their day-to-day lives. These individuals are said to have innate mindfulness — also called dispositional mindfulness. Innate mindfulness has been linked to better self-care behaviors, physical health, psychological outcomes and relationships. These people consequently experience increased sexual satisfaction and improved sexual function.
The bad news: Most of us are not lucky enough to be wired this way. The good news: Mindfulness is a skill that can be learned with regular exercises and practice.
In several studies, women who practiced mindfulness experienced significant improvements in sexual distress, sexual function and mood. And research has shown positive associations between mindfulness and sexual desire, sexual satisfaction and overall sexual functioning.
How to do it
Sexual mindfulness is about paying attention — with intention and purpose, and without judgment — to what is happening during intimacy. It’s about being present and accepting the moment as it is.
Here are some tips to get started:
- Start outside of sex. Begin by practicing mindfulness in your nonsexual life. It takes purpose, effort and frequent practice to develop mindfulness skills. Guided meditations on YouTube or at a yoga class may be a good place to start. Once you are comfortable with this concept, you can incorporate mindfulness into your sex life.
- Avoid distractions during intimacy. Turn off your TV and silence the cellphone. Shut the door so pets can’t wander in. Create a sacred space around you and your partner.
- Transition from your daily chores to intimacy. If you give yourself time to prepare for intimacy and wind down from the workday, you’re less likely to be interrupted by thoughts like “Did I turn on the dishwasher?” or to start composing work emails in your head. Writing down your to-do list before sex may help clear your mind.
- Breathe. Focus on your breathing. Sync your breath with your partner’s if you can.
- Engage all your senses. Light a candle. Try some quiet music. Feel different textures. Then, during sex, ask yourself: What do I feel? What do I smell? What do I see? What can I hear? What do I taste? Focus on each sensation.
- Make eye contact. Try to use each moment of intimacy to rediscover your partner.
- Don’t worry about wandering. When random thoughts pop into your mind, don’t berate yourself. Simply notice these thoughts, then gently bring your attention back to the present moment.
- Cultivate gratitude. Have a sense of gratitude for the special moment that you are sharing with your partner. Gratitude releases dopamine, which enhances libido.
- Release your expectations. When having sex, try to let go of your expectations about being perfect, having to perform or needing to experience an orgasm. Release your need to control, direct or have a routine.
- Be kind to yourself. Let go of self-criticism, negative body image concerns and sexual shame. If these thoughts pop up, don’t try to argue with them. Notice them, and picture them floating away.
- Be kind to your partner. Be willing to set aside judgments. As needed, gently set aside critical thoughts. Being less judgmental of others will help you be less critical of yourself as well.
Hopefully, mindfulness will help your sex life, but the benefits can stretch far beyond sex. Over time, you can move from practicing mindfulness to living in a state of mindfulness or being mindful.
As your mindfulness practice evolves, so too will your sense of happiness, love, harmony and satisfaction.
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