According to Johannesburg psychologist, Dr Colinda Linde, a specialist in stress management: "Stress occurs when our perceived demands are greater than our coping resources." Looking at it like this, it is easy to see why stress can trigger immense anxiety and even depression.
Constantly feeling out of control, powerless and worthless, one can see why a decrease in libido is not uncommon in these situations.
In many people severe stress can be the trigger for depression, panic disorder or generalised anxiety disorder. A possible symptom of these illnesses is often a loss of interest in sex or the ability to enjoy it.
A constant state of anxiety has been shown by studies to correlate with reduced sexual desire in both men and women. Physiologically it makes sense that stress hinders sex drive, because in both sexes stress reduces testosterone levels.
Moreover the stress hormone adrenaline, which is secreted in our bodies when we are stressed, shuts blood flow away from the genitalia.
Over the past few decades it has become increasingly clear that any illness, including mental illness, is most often not specific to one part of the body or functioning. The way our bodies are designed causes there to be repercussions in a number of areas.
Hormones play a very important role in sex drive, and anything that affects our hormones, like the Pill, menopause, anxiety and depression, will obviously impact on our sex drive.
When looking at the symptoms of depression, like insomnia, a change in appetite, a feeling of worthlessness and anhedonia - a loss of interest in things that were normally enjoyed, including sex - we can see the immense impact this would have on libido.
Sleep deprivation is an underreported and underrated cause of decreased sex drive, and although researchers have yet to tease apart the sex-sleep connection, it's likely that the hormone vasopressin plays an important role.
The change in appetite common in depression can affect libido, either through weight gain and a combined feeling of helplessness and worthlessness leading to a negative body image, or even through weight loss due to restricted eating. Research shows that the brain chemical neuropeptide Y, which kicks into high gear in response to food deprivation, also undermines sex drive.
When depression is treated, a normal libido usually returns, although sadly in some cases, some of the antidepressants used in the treatment of depression, can cause sexual dysfunction themselves. Up to fifty percent of people taking SSRI's, a newer type of antidepressant, experience this side effect.
Fortunately, there are ways around this problem. Discussing the problem with your doctor will allow the two of you to decide which alternative is best for you.
The alternatives include: decreasing the dosage slightly, waiting six months until your body builds up a tolerance to the drug and the side effects diminish. Another option is taking a drug vacation, where you stop taking the drug on a Thursday and start again on the Sunday, allowing you a weekend with fewer side effects - although this can only be done with certain drugs under specific circumstances.
The other option is to change your drug altogether or to start taking another medication in conjunction to counteract the sexual side effects of the first.
Give your libido a boost
A healthy lifestyle is the best way to ensure a healthy libido. Eating correctly, moderate exercise and enough sleep will help you cope with stress, maintain a good body image and keep those hormones in balance.
Nevertheless like weight and romance, libido can wax and wane for any number of reasons, but there is no reason to suffer in silence and feign enthusiasm for a spouse's sake, for fear that diminished interest signals a decaying marriage. A decreased libido is something millions of people around the world each year seek treatment for, and like most other medical conditions it can be treated.
For more information please contact the Depression and Anxiety Group on (011) 783-1474/6 or (011) 884-1797.