When Mindful Awareness Meets Sexual Desire

Millions of women struggle with low sexual desire. Researcher Lori Brotto explores how mindfulness teaches women to become more aware of their internal bodily sensations, including sexual sensations.

Shelina was a typical 48-year-old married woman and mother of two. She had a thriving career as the lead realtor at her firm, her teenage children were well adjusted and confident, and she and her husband, Akmal, had a rich circle of friends and social activities. However, Shelina had a secret she could not share. The fire that she once felt when gazing at her partner was now a dull flicker. 

During her weekly sexual encounters—planned for Friday nights between 11:00 and 11:15 pm—she deliberately avoided the foreplay she used to enjoy. No more kissing, touching, or caressing. She would zone out while Akmal touched her—thinking about plans for the next day and engaging very little with her body—prompting him to move directly to sexual intercourse, which she found unrewarding. And the less gratifying that sex had become, the more her sexual motivation had diminished. 

Many women can relate to Shelina’s dilemma. Despite the societal obsession with sexuality, sexual difficulties are immensely prevalent. Women around the world and across ages have difficulty reaching orgasm; insufficient lubrication affects not just postmenopausal or breastfeeding women but women of all ages, regardless of their hormonal status. Like Shelina, many women find that sex is often unrewarding. And the motivation for sex is drastically reduced, or simply not there, for countless women.

What We Know About Women and Sex

Sexual difficulties are common. And low sexual desire, in particular, is consistently the most common sex-related concern that women report, whether they are from North or South America, Europe, Australia, or Asia. 

Women also experience a great degree of shame about their sexual concerns, believing that they “should” want sex more, they “should” enjoy sex like everyone else they know does, and they “should” know what they want sexually and how to ask for it. 

Unfortunately, women are often oblivious to the fact that some of the women they believe are enjoying frequent and passionate sex are actually secretly experiencing a similar set of sexual problems.

Stress: The Libido Killer

Increasingly, we rely on technological advances to accomplish the never-ending list of tasks on our to-do list and “multitask.” Being “able” to eat, respond to emails, surf the internet, check Facebook, and help a child with homework all at the same time makes many of us feel proficient, and we take pride in balancing all these different activities at the same time. 

Yet research suggests that the daily grind can be extremely stressful for many of us, and multitasking may contribute to our feeling that we cannot get our head above water. In fact, according to the Stress in America Survey, up to one-third of Americans have reported extreme stress in their daily lives since 2013.

Neuroscientists have shown that multitasking may not be as productive as we think it is. We shift between tasks in rapid serial progression. This rapid shifting carries a “cognitive load,” or certain amount of mental effort, and each “switch” is associated with a cost in our brain’s processing ability and speed. 

How are we dealing with never-ending to-do lists, floundering in a sea of tasks, and feeling the burden of daily challenges relevant to sexuality? It turns out that they are implicated in the loss of desire for sex in particular. 

How are we dealing with never-ending to-do lists, floundering in a sea of tasks, and feeling the burden of daily challenges relevant to sexuality? It turns out that they are implicated in the loss of desire for sex in particular. 

If our brains are perpetually engaged in multitasking, as we continually attend to numerous competing demands on our attention, we actually spend very little time living in the present moment. We vacillate between thinking about the future (planning, worrying, strategizing) and living in the past (replaying scenes, ruminating over conversations, mourning missed opportunities). We spend far more time living outside of the present moment than in the present moment.

Brain-imaging studies show that distraction and inattention impair our ability to attend to and process sexual cues. Even in a highly sexually arousing situation, our brains may not be paying attention to sexual triggers that are necessary to elicit a sexual response. It is as if the body is present but the mind is elsewhere—lost in thoughts, memories, or plans.

How Mindfulness Helps

Mindfulness is about fully inhabiting the present moment, without trying to change anything. It involves a complete acceptance of who you are and what your experience is—without judgment.  Whether it is for the treatment of chronic pain, stress, or arousal, it can be used to tune in instead of tuning out and to bring our full awareness to these bare sensations—moment by moment. 

There is great variability in people’s awareness levels of their bodies. For example, some people are aware of their heart rate and can estimate, within a few beats of accuracy, their own heartbeats per minute. Other people are aware of small changes in muscle tension and can use that awareness. There is also evidence that judgmental thoughts about being inadequate or feelings of embarrassment, guilt, or anxiety can interfere with a person’s interoceptive awareness (awareness of stimuli within the body). 

In a study from the University of Toronto comparing novice meditators with experienced meditators, participants had areas of their brain scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging under two different conditions. In one condition, the participants were given instructions to focus mindfully on their moment-by-moment sensations and during moments of distraction to gently guide their attention back to the present moment. In the other condition, the participants were presented with words and told to figure out what a presented word meant for them, to judge themselves for what they were feeling, and to allow themselves to get caught up in the contents of their thoughts. There were distinct differences in brain activation when participants engaged in mindfulness and when they allowed themselves to get caught up in their thoughts. 

There were other interesting findings from this study. The group that had participated in an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program showed reduced activity in areas of the brain associated with emotions, suggesting that one of the ways mindfulness is effective is through reducing emotional activation associated with body sensations. Thus, when one experiences the sensations of pain, for example, mindfulness reduces the tendency to feel emotions such as sadness, anger, and despair in response to that pain. 

Furthermore, when the meditators were distracted, they maintained awareness of their body, whereas those untrained in mindfulness did not. The researchers postulated that even in stressful conditions, experienced meditators maintain an awareness of what is happening in their body at all times. And the more daily mindfulness that participants practiced, the more they could maintain this state of body awareness.

How might this be relevant to women with low sexual desire? 

The research shows that women low in interoceptive awareness are more likely to have clinical symptoms such as depression, poor self-image, and symptoms of an eating disorder, and training in mindfulness improves each of these conditions. They are also more likely to judge themselves negatively, which impedes sexual desire. 

Could it really be this simple—that teaching women to tune in to their body, to the signs that their body is already producing, and making them aware of these sensations can be enough to trigger sexual desire?

Furthermore, we have evidence that, in general, women’s concordance between their self-reported and physical sexual response is low, and that training in mindfulness significantly increases the degree of mind-to-body communication and improves self-reported interoceptive awareness. In turn, improvements in women’s interoceptive awareness predict improvements in their levels of sexual desire and reductions in their feelings of sex-related distress. 

The take-home message is this: Mindfulness teaches women to become more aware of their internal bodily sensations, including sexual sensations, and this may improve their motivations for sex and increase their tendency to notice sexual arousal and have that arousal trigger sexual desire.

Could it really be this simple—that teaching women to tune in to their body, to the signs that their body is already producing, and making them aware of these sensations can be enough to trigger sexual desire? I offer a tentative “yes” to this question. 

Why tentative? Because awareness of internal bodily sensations is only one of potentially many different ways that mindfulness exerts its beneficial effects on sexual desire. Without a doubt, when we pay attention to the body in a kind, compassionate, nonjudgmental, and present-oriented way, it offers us a new way of being in the world. And that new way of being might just be critical for the sexual satisfaction that so many women crave.

Try It: Bathing Mindfully

Take a bath or a shower. As you do so, notice particular parts of your body, such as your hands, arms, breasts, stomach, legs, and feet. Focus your attention on your body and let your thoughts simply “be as they are” in the background. Use all of your senses as you do this to enhance the experience. For example, notice the texture of your skin, its color, and what sounds or smells might emerge as you bathe.

Once you have finished and have dried off, spend a few minutes noticing yourself in a mirror. What can you appreciate about your body? (Think about function—not just appearance.) Are there parts of your body that give you a sense of pleasure or pride? Are there any parts of your body that you do not appreciate? Your body is alive. What does it feel like? Are there aspects of your body that deserve more attention? As you do this, notice any emotions you may be feeling, both positive and negative. It will be important to leave this exercise with the feeling that your experience of your body is a balance of things you do like or appreciate and perhaps things you do not or wish were different. 

Throughout the rest of the day, be aware of your body as you engage in your daily routine.

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About the author

Lori Brotto

Dr. Brotto completed her PhD in Clinical Psychology from the University of British Columbia (UBC), where her research focused primarily on psychophysiological aspects of sexual arousal in women diagnosed with sexual dysfunctions. Her psychology internship at the University of Washington (UW) specialized in the use of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for mood, anxiety, substance abuse and psychotic disorders. Following her internship, Dr. Brotto’s Fellowship in Reproductive and Sexual Medicine at UW was mentored by Dr. Julia Heiman, director of the Kinsey Institute. As a registered psychologist, Dr. Brotto offers psychological therapy to patients referred from both UBC Departments of Obstetrics & Gynaecology and Psychiatry, as well as the BC Cancer Agency. Dr. Brotto also sees private patients.