Could mindful sex put an end to unhappiness in bed?

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So there you are, in bed with your partner, having perfectly pleasant if serviceable sex, when your mind starts to wander: what was it you needed to shop for? Why didn't your boss reply to your e-mail?

Many of us feel disconnected during sex some or most of the time. At the more extreme end, sexual dysfunction - erectile problems, vaginal pain, zero libido - can severely hamper our quality of life and our relationships. In many cases, there could be a relatively simple, if not easily achieved, fix: mindfulness.

In essence, mindfulness involves paying attention to what is happening in the present moment and noticing, without judgment, your thoughts and feelings.

After mindful eating, drinking, parenting and working, mindful lovemaking is starting to be recognised more widely as a way to improve one's sex life.

A Public Health England survey published in June found 49 per cent of 25-to 34-year-old women complained of a lack of sexual enjoyment; across all ages, 42 per cent of women were dissatisfied.

The most recent National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, published in 2013, found people in Britain were having less sex than they once did, with low sexual function affecting about 15 per cent of men and 30 per cent of women.

Difficulty achieving orgasm was reported by 16 per cent of women, while 15 per cent of men suffered premature ejaculation and 13 per cent experienced erectile dysfunction. About 42 per cent of men and 51 per cent of women reported one or more problems with sexual response in the last year.

In essence, mindfulness involves paying attention to what is happening in the present moment and noticing, without judgment, your thoughts and feelings.

At the time, the researchers said modern life could be affecting our sex drives. "People are worried about their jobs, worried about money. They are not in the mood for sex," said Dr Cath Mercer from University College London.

"But we also think modern technologies are behind the trend, too. People have tablets and smartphones and they are taking them into the bedroom, using Twitter and Facebook, answering e-mails."

Mindfulness is one of the tools that can help people focus in a world full of distractions.

"When people have sexual problems, a lot of the time it's anxiety-related and they're not really in their bodies, or in the moment," said Ms Kate Moyle, a psychosexual and couples therapist.

"When people say they've had the best sex and you ask them what they were thinking about, they can't tell you, because they weren't thinking about anything, they were just enjoying the moment. That's mindfulness."

Ms Ammanda Major, the head of clinical practice at the relationship support organisation Relate, said: "For example, if you're being touched by your partner, it's really focusing on those sensations."

Other than focusing on sensations, people can bring into sex an awareness of "how nice your partner feels, or how nice they smell, or the sound of their voice - something that will bring you right back into the moment".

At the Jane Wadsworth sexual function clinic at St Mary's hospital in London, mindfulness is used in almost all sexual problems, said Dr David Goldmeier, a clinical lead and consultant in sexual medicine.

"If you have a man who has an erection problem and is stressed by it, a lot of his mind (during sex) will be worrying: 'Have I got an erection or not?'" he said.

It is also used to help those with sexual problems relating to abuse.

Psychology professor Lori Brotto at the University of British Columbia in Canada agreed it can help. In her book, Better Sex Through Mindfulness, she wrote of a study she published in 2012 which noted that "teaching sexual abuse survivors to mindfully pay attention to the present moment, to notice their genital sensations and to observe 'thoughts' simply as events of the mind, led to marked reductions in their levels of distress during sex".

Sexual problems can be caused by many factors. Depression and stress can be triggers, as can the side effects of anti-depressants. Over time, these side effects can become a psychological factor, as people worry that they are no longer sexually responsive.

Problems can also be caused by physical conditions such as vaginal pain, or inhibitions and shame about sexual desire, particularly for some women and people in same-sex relationships.

At its most basic, Dr Brotto explained, mindfulness is defined as "present-moment non-judgmental awareness". Being "present" is critical. "Then there is the non-judgmental part - countless studies have shown that people with sexual difficulties tend also to have very negative and catastrophic thoughts: 'If I don't respond, my partner will leave me,' or: 'If I don't have an adequate level of desire, I'm done for.'

"Mindfulness and paying attention non-judgmentally is about evoking compassion for yourself." Body image issues come up consistently, she added.

"Women will often say they prefer to have the lights off, or they'll redirect their partner's hands away from the areas of their body they're not happy with, or they may be worrying that a partner is perceiving their body in a negative way. All of those things serve to remove them from the present moment."

As for awareness, Dr Brotto said: "Lots of data shows us that women, more so than men, tend to be somewhat disconnected from what's happening in their bodies."

Her experiments have shown that women can experience physical arousal, such as increased blood flow to their vagina, but it barely registers mentally.

"There may be a strong physiological response, (but) there's no awareness in their mind of that response," she said.

"We know that healthy sexual response requires the integration of the brain and body, so when the mind is elsewhere - whether it's distracted or consumed with catastrophic thoughts - all of that serves to interrupt that really important feedback loop."

It can be the same for some men, she pointed out, but "there tends to be more concordance between the body's arousal and the mind's arousal. When men have a physical response, they're also much more likely to have a mental sexual arousal response".

When we have better sex, we tend to want more of it, so it becomes a satisfying circle.

"Desire is not a fixed level that each one of us has, but rather is adaptive and responsive to our situation," said Dr Brotto.

"When sex is not satisfying, it makes sense that the brain adjusts itself and creates less (desire)."

Mindful sex does not have to be an intense, time-consuming session. "It can be very everyday; it doesn't have to be a different type of sex," said Ms Moyle.

"You might have sex the same way, in the same position, but you're in a different headspace, so you're experiencing it differently.

"People can think: 'I'm not into mindfulness,' or 'It's a bit spiritual and I'm not,' but it doesn't have to be that. It can just be really straightforward - focusing your attention and fully experiencing sensations."

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2018, with the headline 'Could mindful sex put an end to unhappiness in bed?'. Print Edition | Subscribe