Sex and The Nervous System
Ah sex, we know it. We love it. And here at Intimina, we love to get down to the nitty-gritty science of it.
Examining what’s going on physiologically when we’re having sex, is not only fun to geek out on, but can help us have better sex by knowing how to work with the complexities of our bodies.
That brings us to our topic at hand – sex and the nervous system.
What is The Nervous System?
The human body is an incredibly intelligent piece of work. The nervous system is essentially the command center of the body, with a sort of “electrical wiring” that regulates the brain, skeletal system, organs, and essentially every function of the body.
The central nervous system regulates the brain, spinal cord, and nerves. While the peripheral nervous system connects the CNS to the skin, limbs, and organs – including the genitals.
You can see how this complex network is important when it comes to sex.
Sex and Your Nervous System
Given that the nervous system controls so much of how our bodies work, it makes sense that it also has a huge impact on arousal, connection, and experiencing orgasm.
The limbic system helps regulate parts of the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for regulating autonomic bodily responses like breathing, blood pressure, and pulse. Thought of as the “primitive” area of the brain, the limbic system, also plays a role in physical drives and emotional processing – and is activated during sex.
While we might give a lot of rational thought to our sex lives (or not), the act itself is more instinctual and emotional than something that is thought out. The cerebral cortex, which is responsible for reasoning, becomes less active during sex.
Sexual response across genders is not fully understood, yet some researchers suggest that sexual hormones help integrate the body and autonomic sexual systems via the cerebrum, or part of the brain.
In layman’s terms, they are saying that arousal responses such as erections, engorgement, vaginal secretions, and orgasmic contractions work in the body as a response from the communication between our hormones and nervous system.
When The Nervous System is Dysregulated
Sometimes our nervous systems become dysregulated. Whether that be through trauma, physical or mental stress, or an injury.
When the nervous system isn’t working optimally, it can affect how and when we become aroused, our sexual responses, our comfort levels in sex, and so much more. Much of the hormone regulation in our bodies is regulated by the nervous system. Which means if something is off, it can hinder your ability to have a thriving sex life. Even hormones like oxytocin, aka “the love hormone” is under the whim of the nervous system, and its ability to function effectively.
Adrenaline, aka the stress hormone, actually inhibits oxytocin. Given that oxytocin helps facilitate trust, sexual activity, and orgasm, high amounts of stress hormones from a dysregulated nervous system, can make it difficult to feel connected and orgasm during sex.
How to Calm The Nervous System for Better Sex
Of course, much of the nervous system’s functions are out of our control, and much more complex than we can dive into in a short article. Scientists have yet to understand much of it!
That being said, the ways that we do understand its workings, and how that relates to sexual function, means being able to heal and strengthen what parts we can.
Living in a high-stress society that prioritizes production over relaxation can complicate our sex lives. One of the biggest ways to do this is by attempting to regulate stress levels and responses.
Some of the ways we can do this are:
- Breathwork, and simple breathing exercises, like deep belly breaths throughout your day.
- Yoga, meditation, and other movement-based activities.
- Acupuncture and other holistic healing modalities.
- Therapy, and mental health services.
- Spending time outdoors. A brisk walk in some fresh air can help destress you, and is a great way to connect with your body before having sex.
- Do things that bring you joy and a feeling of softness. The more you’re able to tap into this in everyday moments, the easier it is when you’re intimate.
- Masturbate! If having sex with another person brings you anxiety, practice becoming more present in your body and pleasure when it’s just you and you.
The ability to relax into the moment, allows us to experience more pleasure throughout life – especially when we’re having sex.
Much like any other biological function, sex is a complicated act, that is partially driven by the electrical wiring that makes up our nervous system.
At the risk of oversimplifying things, sex does not have to be complicated. Knowing what puts you in a state of stress, and what brings you ease, helps you to create sexual experiences that bring you pleasure, and how the things you do in your everyday life can help aid that.
Natasha (she/they) is a full spectrum doula, reproductive health content creator, and sexual wellness consultant. Her work focuses on deconstructing the shame, stigma, and barriers people carry around birth, sex, and beyond, to help people navigate through their lives with more pleasure, softness, and sensuality. You can connect with Natasha on IG @spectrumoflovedoula.