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Better Sex Might Be All In Your Head

Bring A Mindfulness Practice to Your Love Life

Mindfulness is a buzzword gaining increasing attention, so to speak. It involves being present to the moment with non-judgmental awareness. More than just paying attention, it is also about how to pay attention: it means being kind to ourselves without judgment around what goes through our minds, what we feel and how often we are distracted from what we are doing. It is not about emptying the brain, but rather keeping the brain focused on the present through paying attention with all the senses.

We were all born aware of only the moment. We learned to anticipate, plan or stress about the future, as well as remember, reminisce or feel anxious about the past, in addition to being in the moment. The values of multitasking, reflecting and planning all take us out of awareness of the present. The challenge with multitasking is that it involves juggling multiple things at once, meaning that the attention is actually never really on the present. But with practice, mindfulness with a focus on the present is a skill that can be relearned or simply honed, helpful for our sexual experiences in addition to other aspects of our lives.

Mindfulness and Sex

Dr. Lori Brotto is a professor and psychologist at the University of British Columbia as well as the Executive Director of the Women’s Health Research Institute in Vancouver. Her new book is Better Sex Through Mindfulness.  In her many years of working with women, she has found that mindfulness has helped many have better sexual experiences. In particular, women experienced less self-judgment and better body awareness (including of their libido and arousal) after mindfulness classes.  Studies have shown that sexual desire, arousal, lubrication, orgasm, pleasure and satisfaction all improve with mindfulness. In addition, Alex Iantaffi and Sara Mize at the Center for Sexual Health at the University of Minnesota found that those who practiced mindfulness also developed better communication skills such as talking to their partners more openly, which can also enhance pleasure and intimacy in a relationship.

Those who experience pain have also found improvements. A mindfulness practice has been shown to decrease sexual and other kinds of pain as well as the distress and anxiety associated with it. Those who continue the practice after a training have found that the effects continued to be increasingly positive.  And most people have stated that mindfulness also contributed overall to a better mood, better ability to manage stress and reduce anxiety. Brain scans reveal that mindfulness and meditation actually make small changes in the structure of the brain.

How Does It Work?

Mindfulness brings our attention to the present so that we notice and feel more. How many times have we had sex while compiling grocery lists? It also is a way of becoming more aware of the many negative thoughts that get in the way of our pleasure. These judgments about our performance, appearance, desires and pleasure tend to block our positive experiences of pleasure and often lead to stress responses (“I will lose my erection”, “What if I can’t orgasm?”, “My partner must not be attracted to me or is bored.”) These stressful thoughts take us into the past or future and trigger our flight/ flight/ freeze response rather than relaxation and pleasure.

One key to mindfulness is to notice those judgments and then let them go. This process of letting go often involves observing and identifying (“There is that thought (again)”) and not pushing it out but also not giving it more attention. The judgment often at first does not disappear, but it can become quieter in the background. Once we are aware of sensations in the moment without the loud noise of judgments, there is more capacity to feel desire, arousal and pleasure.

Spicing It Up

Jon Kabat Zinn, a proponent of mindfulness and health, suggests that one benefit of mindfulness is that it facilitates an approach to our experiences with a “beginner’s mind”. In whatever we do, we embrace it with new eyes as though for the first time, noticing more fully all of the sensations. No matter how many times we have prepared and eaten a meal, walked on the beach, taken a shower or had sex, we feel much more pleasure and satisfaction when we give it our full attention with all of our senses as its own novel event.

Couples are constantly in search of how to spice up their relationship. New toys, positions, outfits, personas, and locations are always fun and can make sex more adventurous; however simply being more present and aware in the moment is also an easy way to bring more pleasure and connection to sex no matter what we do. If we can approach every moment as a new experience and our partner for who they are in that moment, sex becomes less robotic and more intense. When each moment is new, there is less need to bring in new objects in order to spice things up. However, these are not mutually exclusive and practicing mindfulness while exploring new activities can be amazing as well.

Practice Makes It Easier and Better

Mindfulness takes practice. Many of us are so used to the constant inner dialogues that we don’t even notice that they are there. And we are so quick to need entertaining that many of us cannot simply sit and take in the moment for a few minutes without turning to a screen. Dr. Brotto suggests taking advantage of those moments, such as waiting for an elevator or bus or meeting. Rather than pulling out a phone to check messages or social media, we can use that moment to be present to the feelings and five senses. It is ok to feel awkward or bored or anxious. The first step is awareness of those feelings and bringing attention back to noticing. The key to any habit is practice. The more we do it the better we will feel, both during intimate moments as well as in life in general.  

Carlyle Jansen is the founder of Good For Her, a sexuality shop and workshop centre in Toronto. If you have questions or comments, email carlyle@goodforher.com or go online to goodforher.com