What Is the Libido in Psychology?

In psychoanalytic theory, the libido is about more than sexual drive.

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What Is the Libido in Psychology?

Libido is a term used in psychoanalytic theory to describe the energy created by survival and sexual instincts. According to Sigmund Freud, the libido is part of the id and is the driving force of all behavior.

While the term "libido" has taken on an overtly sexual meaning in today's world, to Freud, it represented all psychic energy and not just sexual energy.

The Libido in Psychoanalytic Theory

Freud believed that the id was the only part of personality present from birth. The id, he suggested, was a reservoir of unconscious, primal energy. The id seeks pleasure and demands the immediate satisfaction of its desires. The id serves as the source of our wants and impulses.

How does the libido function in the id? The id is controlled by what Freud termed the pleasure principle. Essentially, the id tries to direct all of the body's actions and processes to achieve the greatest amount of pleasure possible.

Because the id is almost entirely unconscious, people are not even aware of many of these urges.

The id demands immediate gratification of even our most basic urges. If the id had its way, you would take what you want, when you want, no matter the situation. Obviously, this would cause some serious problems. Our wants and desires are not always appropriate, and acting on them could have serious repercussions.

The Influence of the Ego

So, what stops people from simply acting upon their most basic instincts and desires? The ego is the part of personality charged with harnessing the id's libidinal energy and making sure that these urges are expressed in acceptable ways. It's governed by the reality principle, which is focused on helping the person achieve their goals in ways that are realistic and acceptable.

So, while the libidinal desires of the id might tell you to grab that donut off of the store shelf and start eating it immediately, the ego reigns in this impulse. Instead, you take the socially acceptable actions of placing the donuts in your cart, paying for them at the register, and taking them home before you finally give in to your urge to eat the tasty treat.

The Role of the Superego

Adding a further complication to this process is the superego. The superego is the part of the personality that involves the ideals and morals internalized from parents, authority figures, and society. The ego must mediate between the basic demands created by the libido as well as the idealistic standards imposed by the superego.

The Libido and Fixation

The way in which libido is expressed depends upon the stage of development a person is in. According to Freud, children develop through a series of psychosexual stages. At each stage, the libido is focused on a specific area. When handled successfully, the child moves to the next stage of development and eventually grows into a healthy, successful adult. 

In some cases, the focus on a person's libidinal energy may remain fixed at an earlier stage of development in what Freud referred to as fixation. When this happens, the libido's energy may be too tied to this developmental stage and the person will remain "stuck" in this stage until the conflict is resolved.

For example, the first stage of Freud's theory of psychosexual development is the oral stage. During this time, a child's libido is centered on the mouth, so activities such as eating, sucking, and drinking are important.

If an oral fixation occurs, an adult's libidinal energy will remain focused on this stage, which might result in problems such as nail-biting, drinking, smoking, and other habits.

The Libido's Energy Is Limited

Freud also believed that each individual only had so much libido energy. Because the amount of energy available is limited, he suggested that different mental processes compete for what is available.

For example, Freud suggested that the act of repression, or keeping memories out of conscious awareness, requires a tremendous amount of psychic energy. Any mental process that requires so much energy to maintain has an effect on the mind's ability to function normally.

The Libido's Role In Psychoanalysis

The goal of psychoanalysis, Freud believed, was to bring the unconscious libidinal urges into conscious awareness. In doing so, such urges could be dealt with consciously without over-relying on the ego's defense mechanisms.

The Libido and Sexual Desire

Beyond its Freudian origins, the term libido is most often used today in reference to a person's sex drive. The libido involves more than simply the biological desire for sex, but also the psychological and social factors that contribute to sexual activity.

The modern usage of the term libido likely stems from Freud's original use of the term to apply to sexual desire. As Freud continued to develop his ideas, however, he began to view the libido as more than just sexual urges and more of a general life instinct that encompasses survival instincts and other motivations as well.

Some factors that can influence the libido or sex drive include:

  • Medical and health conditions can also influence a person's desire for sex. Medical conditions such as illness, fatigue, and medications can often lower the libido. Sexual disorders including hypoactive sexual drive disorder and female sexual arousal disorder can also lead to lowered libidinal drive.
  • Psychological factors that can influence the libido include stress, personality, age, relationship status, lifestyle, and past experiences. For example, sexual abuse and trauma can impact libido. Other issues such as body image, self-esteem, and depression can also make people desire sex less.
  • Sex hormones, including testosterone and estrogen, create the biological urge for sex and help regulate the libido.
  • Social issues including loneliness, poor relationships, and intimacy issues can also dampen the libido.

How to Increase Your Libido

Low libido is a common problem. Research suggests that 15% of men and nearly 32% of women experience low sexual desire. You can tell if your libido is low if you have little or no interest in sex, experience few sexual fantasies, and have trouble finding pleasure in sex.

Libido can fluctuate over time. If you suspect that your libido is low and are interested in boosting your desire for sexual activity, there are steps you can take that may help.

Talk to Your Doctor

Hormonal changes related to birth control can often result in low libido. Discuss your options with your physician. In some cases, switching to a different medication or method may help. Other medications, such as antidepressants, may also affect your sex drive, so checking your other medications may be helpful.

Check Your Stress Levels

Excessive stress can impair your libido, so finding ways to relax and cope with stress effectively can improve sex and intimacy. Physical activity is not only linked to better mood and cardiovascular health, it can also play a role in boosting body image and feelings of well-being.

Exercise

Physical exercise has many positive benefits, including improving the sex drive.

One study found that brief periods of exercise improve physical sexual arousal in women who were taking antidepressants.

Get Better Sleep

Problems with sleep are associated with decreased libido, so it is important to ensure you get enough quality rest each night. Practicing good sleep habits such as going to bed and waking up at the same time each morning can help. If you are struggling with sleep or suspect you might have a sleep disorder, talk to your doctor.

Follow a Healthy Diet

Foods that can improve your sex drive are referred to as aphrodisiacs. Some foods that might play a part in improving your desire for sex include foods high in zinc (such as red meat or oysters) and foods that can improve circulation, such as whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables. 

It is also important to avoid foods that might hurt your libido, such as foods high in saturated fat, sodium, and sugar.

A Word From Verywell

The concept of the libido continues to play an important role in psychoanalysis, but the term has taken on a somewhat different meaning in its modern usage. Today, when we talk about the libido, we likely refer to the general idea of the desire for sex.

A number of factors can play a role in the libido beyond biological influences, including psychological and social factors. If you are concerned about your libido, consider talking to your doctor or mental health professional.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.