How Does Sex Relieve Stress and Anxiety?

Plus, 6 Major Health Benefits of Sex

Young man kissing woman on shoulder, close-up
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Stress and sex are linked in several ways. Most of us instinctively know this and feel it unmistakably when a particularly stressful week or two zaps our sex drive—or when we successfully use sex to relieve stress. And scientific evidence supports these instincts.

Sex can relieve stress and anxiety by triggering the release of "feel good" hormones including oxytocin. These hormones promote relaxation and can help relieve feelings of anxiety.

Sex not only boosts your hormones and other brain chemicals—but it also reduces levels of stress hormones.

It's also important to note that sex with a partner isn't your only option. In many cases, solo sex can relieve stress and have other health benefits too.

How Sex Relieves Stress and Anxiety

Sexual activity and orgasm can relax your body and release many hormones that are supportive of overall health and wellness. Similarly, sex can boost dopamine, a neurotransmitter sometimes called the "feel-good chemical" because it reinforces feelings of pleasure.

Increased Oxytocin

Oxytocin is known as the "love hormone" because it is released during physical touch, as in affectionate touching and sex between adult partners, as well as during pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding.

The physical closeness of sex, along with orgasm, delivers oxytocin. This hormone can relieve pain. among other positive effects—including stress relief and improved trust and mood.

Increased Endorphins

Endorphins are neurotransmitters, not hormones, but they are also released during sexual activity (as well as other physical activity, such as running, and in response to pain). Like oxytocin, they can relieve stress and improve mood.

Reduced Cortisol

Just as it can boost hormones with positive effects, sex seems to decrease levels of adrenaline and cortisol, known as "stress hormones." The body produces these stimulating hormones in response to stress, and elevated levels can lead to a "fight or flight" response. While this can be necessary and helpful in a temporary, emergency situation, having too much cortisol all the time is not healthy for your brain or body.

Sexual activity seems to be one way to release stress by reducing cortisol. One study looked at women’s heart rate and cortisol levels as a measure of stress response and found that they exhibited less of a stress response after "positive physical contact" with a partner. Emotional support alone didn’t have the same effect.

These findings suggest that having sex can lead to less of a stress response during challenging situations, which is a good thing.

6 Health Benefits of Sex

In addition to flooding your body with hormones that can help you feel less worried, anxious, and stressed, sex also has a number of other important health benefits. Some other stress management components of sex include:

Sex As a Mood Booster

Sex can serve as a positive distraction, taking your mind off stressful thoughts. This, in turn, can improve mood both in the moment and beyond. For example, a study of married couples found that having sex was associated with a positive mood at work the following day.

However, it also showed that work-family strain and conflict reduced the likelihood of sex. This may be something to be aware of if you are experiencing frequent work-life conflict.

Because sex can boost mood, you might wonder if it might also help combat symptoms of depression. The relationship between sex and depression is complex, since depression symptoms and treatments can both play a part in decreasing libido.

While more research is needed, a 2021 study did find that people who had an active sex life during the COVID-19 pandemic had significantly lower scores on measures of anxiety and depression.

Sex for Better Brain Function

In addition to helping your body and mood, sex may also help keep your mind sharp. Research has found that adults aged 50 and over who had sex more frequently had better performance on memory tests.

Sex for a Stronger Relationship

Sex also strengthens feelings of intimacy with a partner, which can reduce stress and improve overall mood. People who have a supportive social outlet, including a strong intimate partnership, tend to manage stress better, live longer, and enjoy increased overall health.

Sex As a Workout

Depending on your level of enthusiasm, you can burn a lot of calories during sex, and gain the stress management benefits of exercise as well. Research into the energy expenditure of sexual activity suggests it is moderate in intensity and burns about 150 to 200 calories per hour. That's comparable to walking, swimming laps, and downhill skiing,

Sex for Better Sleep

Research shows that sexual activity promotes better sleep—specifically, having sex may help you fall asleep faster, and the quality of your sleep may be better too. Once again, hormones may play a role. Increased oxytocin and prolactin (which can surge after orgasm) and decreased cortisol are all associated with both sexual activity and improved sleep.

The sleep-promoting benefits of sex are another way that sexual activity contributes to stress relief. Chronic stress can interfere with sleep, and sex can help counteract those effects.

Sex for Cardiovascular Health

Another benefit of sex is that it may help improve your heart health. Research has found that men who have sex twice a week have a lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease. 

Is it safe to have sex if you have heart concerns? According to the American Heart Association, as long as you are safe to exercise without heart problems in the range of three to five metabolic equivalents (METs), then you should be safe to have sex. METs are a measurement used to estimate the energy expenditure required for an activity.

If you have existing cardiovascular problems, always talk to your doctor first before engaging in sexual activity or strenuous physical activity.

How Often Should You Have Sex?

How often do you need to have sex to reap these health rewards? Weekly? Daily? The right frequency of sex varies for each person, but once a week is often cited as the ideal.

A Word From Verywell

It's likely not a surprise to you that sex feels good, and that pleasurable activity can help reduce stress. But knowing more specifically how and why sex can relieve stress may give you a few more reasons to have sex, since it offers so many benefits.

If stress is interfering with your relationship with your partner or your ability to have or enjoy sex, it's important to work to manage that stress. That could mean individual or couples' therapy, where you can learn healthy ways to cope with stress and conflict and strengthen your bond.

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