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Stress and ED: how mastering life’s curveballs can help your erections

Written by Mojo, medically reviewed
by Dr Matthew Chan, Medical Doctor

Film crew filming psychosexual and relationship therapist Amanda Barge as she smiles on a couch

When stress creeps up on you, it can have a big impact on your mood, general health and erections. But it’s a pretty tough knot to unpick. 

So, for World Mental Health Day, we employed the help of not 1, not 2, but 3 experts to show us how stress and ED are related, and to teach us a few calming techniques for us to take into the bedroom.

Are you ready to meet them?

Roll call over. Let’s begin.

How can stress cause erectile dysfunction?

A little bit of stress can be helpful. It’s our brain’s first line of defence – keeping us alert and out of trouble (watch out for that bus!).

But when stress persists, it can lead to problems like psychological erectile dysfunction

We asked Dr Matt to tell us why: 

“Erections rely on a lot of interconnected bodily processes (from the right brain signals, to good blood flow and relaxed muscles) which need to work together to get things off the ground.

Stress can trigger a host of physical symptoms which hold up our sexual  functions or stop our systems communicating with each other. When there are too many spanners in the works, it can become difficult to get it up or keep it up.” 

Dr Matthew Chan, Medical Doctor

Okay, so now we know stress has the power to gatecrash date night, we’re not feeling any calmer. But let’s not panic, we just need to dig a little deeper to learn how to turn things around. 

Where does stress come from?

Stress might have the power to wreak havoc in our bodies, but it’s important to remember it’s actually governed by the mind. So we can help reduce the impact of stress by shifting the way we think. 

This doesn’t sound easy, but we’ve been told the first step is to become aware of how our own stress works, and notice when it starts to get in the way of our erections.

This starts by understanding that stress can come from two places:

  1. internal stresses are stress-inducing thoughts or beliefs. These come from our own personal mindset or expectations.
  2. external stresses are stressful things the world throws at us. These are often beyond our control.

How can internal stress trigger erectile dysfunction?

None of us wants to be the root of our own stress, especially if it’s keeping us out of the bedroom. So we asked Amanda to explain how our thoughts can grow into our erections’ worst enemies:

“Internal stresses often start out as small worries or doubts. These begin as little ‘what if?’ phrases. For example, ‘what if I’m not as good as the last person they slept with?’

When we put questions like this to our stressed-out brain, what we’d like back is some reassurance. Instead, what usually happens is our anxious mind keeps adding fuel to fire with even worse thoughts like ‘I will be humiliated’, or even ‘I will never have a loving relationship’.

Falling down an emotional hole like this can become a mental habit. In therapy, we call it catastrophizing.”

Amanda Barge, psychosexual and relationship therapist

Why is catastrophizing such bad news for our erections?

There’s no denying these thoughts don’t sound too sexy. But why can’t we just push them to one side and get down to business anyway? 

Sounds like there’s some science involved:

“When we’re catastrophizing, we start to spiral, which causes our rising stress levels to stimulate the quick release of adrenaline.

This stress hormone causes the body’s sympathetic nervous system to shift gears into a state of ‘fight or flight’ – the same process that raises your heart rate, makes you sweat, and slows digestion, so your body can focus on dealing with danger. 

When this happens, any chance of relaxation goes out the window, and the brain signals telling your penis to get hard are quickly replaced with new instructions designed to help you defend yourself.” 

Dr Matthew Chan, Medical Doctor

Not really the sensual vibe you were hoping for, ey? We get it, but did you really think we’d leave you hanging there with no handy hints? 

Please! Over to you Amanda. 

Amanda’s top tips for stopping the internal stress spiral

Next time you feel yourself getting pulled down by negative thoughts, Amanda shared a couple of things you can do to stop yourself from falling all the way down the rabbit hole.

  1. ask your brain to stop

If you’re by yourself, simply say the word “stop” out loud. It might sound silly, but over time your brain will listen and change the record. 

2. reach for a helpful thought 

Don’t let your flustered mind call the shots, instead focus on a positive mantra, like:

“I am okay” or “I am good enough”

Just saying this internally, or reading it from your phone, will help reset the stress and remind your brain that actually everything is going to be alright.

How can external stress cause erectile dysfunction?

Now we know how our thoughts and beliefs can trip us up, it’s time to head into the outside world. 

We asked Amanda for her professional opinion on why uncontrollable forces outside the bedroom can cause ED:

“External stresses can be big or small. They include everything like missing the train, losing your job, going through a break up, or even the small matter of living through a global pandemic.

None of these things are a certain cause of ED on their own. But when we experience a significant period of stress, or a bunch of little things add up, it can equate to trouble in the bedroom.

That’s because the more stress we encounter, the less we can take. And if the tension level builds beyond a certain point, our bodies and brains can buckle under the pressure – and erection issues might be the first sign you’re really struggling.”

Amanda Barge, psychosexual and relationship therapist

Why does excessive external stress have such an impact on our erections?

Yikes! We’ve all been through periods where things become too much, but do we really need to take stress that seriously if we want to keep it up? 

Dr Matt, what do you think? 

“It’s 100% important to address stress if it’s been going on for a long time and is negatively impacting your wellbeing and sex life.

Like temporary anxiety, a long period of stress messes with your hormones. However, this time we’re talking about another important hormone, cortisol.

Higher cortisol levels help the body mobilise energy and wake up, but are also directly linked with reduced sexual function, lower testosterone levels, and reduced libido. So it’s important to nip excess production from stress in the bud.”   

Dr Matthew Chan, Medical Doctor

Okay, we want to get off the cortisol express. Amanda, any therapy techniques that can help?

Amanda’s top tips to combat external stress

  1. focus on what you can control

If you can, try not to focus on stressing about things outside of your control, such as “how do I look naked?’’. Instead, try to focus on what you can control, such as where you choose to touch your partner to make them feel good.

It can also be easy to forget that you have lots of options when it comes to sex, even though you might feel under pressure to always ‘perform’ or make certain decisions. If you don’t want that one night stand, it’s okay. If you’re just not in the mood for sex tonight, that’s also okay. 

Try not to focus on guessing what other people will think of these choices. The relationship you have with yourself, and your mental health, is the most important thing. 

2. be a compassionate observer

This technique involves stepping outside yourself and trying to look at the situation through the eyes of someone independent (but who cares about you a lot). 

What would they say if you told them you were having trouble in the bedroom? Think about what practical advice and words of comfort they might share. Now, can you say those words to yourself?

By changing our internal chatter to something more positive, we can change the way we think and bring our stress levels down – leaving you more room to enjoy the moment.  

Want more therapeutic pearls of wisdom? There’s plenty more where those came from

If you think stress could be at the heart of your erection issues, there’s plenty of things that can help. 

Mojo is packed with courses, expert insights and access to a Community that can help you nurture the aspects of sex you can control, and make the rest seem like less of a big deal.

If you’d like to give us a try, your first 7 days are free, as is this final calm-inducing sex tip from the meditation extraordinaire, Mike… 

Before you go: A two minute erectile dysfunction meditation technique

“Being present and mindful during sex is important for a happy and healthy sex life, and to prevent stress from getting in the way of your erections.

Taking a few minutes to meditate before having sex can really help you get in the mood and leave you feeling relaxed and playful.

Simply take some slow, deep breaths in the belly, while mentally repeating the word ‘calm’ on each breath. Repeat for two minutes. 

This can slow the busy mind and activate the parasympathetic nervous system. You’ll feel more calm and increase your chances of getting it up. It’ll pull you from ‘fight or flight’ to ‘feed and breed’ mode, which is the zone you want to be in to get good erections.”

Mike Richards, meditation coach 

We’d like to say a big “thank you” to Matt, Amanda and Mike for sharing their stress-busting insights with us.

We also wish you a very happy and healthy World Mental Health day, and more good vibes than you could squeeze into an extra large condom.