How Might Life Events Contribute to Erectile Dysfunction or Other Sexual Difficulties?
Erectile dysfunction (ED) is the inability to get and keep an erection long enough to have a satisfactory sexual experience. This may occur in many individuals with a penis at one point or another, but that does not necessarily mean that they have ED. To be considered ED, one must experience recurrent difficulties with achieving an erection or see a noticeable decrease in the firmness of their erections.
You may be aware that ED is associated with several factors such as advancing age, smoking, diabetes, certain types of medications, cardiovascular disease, and high blood pressure. However, did you know that life events may also contribute to ED or sexual difficulties?
Although good blood flow and neurological functioning are necessary for firm erections, one’s mental health is also extremely important. In fact, numerous studies have demonstrated an association between mental health disorders and sexual dysfunction. When individuals feel stressed, anxious, or depressed, their erections and sexual health can suffer.
Thus, while there may not be a proven direct causal relationship between stressful life events and ED, these life events may still indirectly contribute to a person’s ED.
For example, an event such as losing a job can certainly create stress and anxiety in a person’s life. If the individual who loses their job is very worried about their future job prospects and financial stability, it may be more difficult for them to remain present and undistracted during sex. These concerns, though seemingly unrelated to sex, may infiltrate the person’s thoughts during a sexual experience and negatively affect their performance or overall sexual satisfaction.
Similarly, caring for a new baby or an aging family member, moving houses, starting a new job, taking on new responsibilities at work, or making a large financial or health decision can all be catalysts for stress. Since sexual health does not exist in a vacuum, any of these stressors may have an impact on this aspect of a person’s wellness.
Perhaps even more applicable to sexual health are the life events that are related to relationships. Research has shown that experiencing tension or unresolved conflict with a romantic partner can have a negative effect on the couple’s sexual connection as well. As such, an event that creates mistrust or strain between a couple may contribute to sexual difficulties.
Other relational stressors such as experiencing fertility issues while trying to conceive a baby may cause sexual anxiety and ED. Alternatively, if one member of a couple receives a critical medical diagnosis, fear, apprehension, and other health-related concerns may weigh on the couple and disrupt their sex life. Lastly, going through a difficult breakup or the death of a long-term sexual partner can affect a person’s sexual performance.
Unfortunately, negative sexual experiences can decrease one’s confidence and may further contribute to ED. Biologically speaking, the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, or the network of nerves that helps the body relax, helps with erections. The sympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, activates the body’s “fight or flight” response and hinders erections. Therefore, it is important to be in a calm state of mind and try to limit or cope with stressors to support good erectile function.
At this time, it is not possible to conclude that life events such as the ones mentioned above can cause ED or any other type of sexual dysfunction. Nevertheless, it is important to view sexual health in the context in which it resides, recognizing that any of these events could lead to stress, overwhelm, or uncertainty that could affect other aspects of a person’s life. If you are experiencing a sexual dysfunction like ED that could be related to psychological or relational causes, talk to your provider about getting a referral to a sex therapist or mental health professional.
- DeLay, K.J., Haney, N., & Hellstrom, W.J. (2016). Modifying risk factors in the management of erectile dysfunction: a review. The world journal of men's health, 34(2), 89-100. DOI: 5534/wjmh.2016.34.2.89
- Sand, M.S., Fisher, W., Rosen, R., Heiman, J., & Eardley, I. (2008). Erectile dysfunction and constructs of masculinity and quality of life in the multinational Men's Attitudes to Life Events and Sexuality (MALES) study. The journal of sexual medicine, 5(3), 583-594. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1743-6109.2007.00720.x