Sex and Your Nervous System

Photo by  Genessa Panainte

I want to have better sex (but I’m not really sure what that means or what that looks like).

I want to enjoy sex. 

I want to experience more pleasure.

I want to experience orgasm in a different way.

I want to have more connected sex. 

These are some of the most common desires that I initially hear from clients and students that are wanting to work with me. People are attracted to my work because there is something that they want to shift in their sexuality.  What occurs when we begin our work together is that we embark on a winding road that ventures into all kinds of territories that they have never connected to their sexuality.  I ask them about their childhood, stress, lifestyle habits, the various voices in their head and the stories they’re telling about their life, the ways that they process emotion, how and what they eat, their digestion and elimination. We begin to widen the field around sexuality and question what sexuality even means. In a culture that still runs largely on the story of original sin, most of us have cut off and compartmentalized sex from the rest of our lives—which is where the longing for “more” in our sexual lives actually originates from! 

What I have learned from working with many people over the years and from my own healing is that unless there is a supportive foundation that includes a strong sense of safety then the relaxation, receptivity, freedom and openness required for all of the “mores” and “betters” when it comes to sex is not possible. 

I have been surprised as a somatic sex educator how much of my work has focused on understanding how stress and trauma unwind in the body, not only how important learning to regulate the nervous system is but also how pervasive chronic stress and trauma patterns are in all of us and their far reaching affects for everything from decision making to orgasm. All of the sexual technique in the world will not help you to have multiple orgasms if you are in a state of hypervigilance.

The Stress Response System and the Sexual Response System are located in the same region of the brain and function simultaneously and in response to one another. Your emotional, pleasure, learning and motivation centers are all also located in this area called the mesolimbic cortex. Emergent neuroscience is showing us that we constantly have the ability to learn and to rewire our stories and habits. Whatever is playing out for you as a sexual script that is not serving or has become limiting or boring, is just a deep groove that you created in your brainbody and we are all capable of rewriting our scripts. My experience tells me that a primary key to shifting anything in our lives is, again, to access a strong sense of safety and belonging first in the nervous system. 

The nervous system is the master communication system of the body. It is made of a complex circuit of nerves and specialized cells called neurons that transmit electrical impulses and signals for every experience in the body—thought, action, instinct and emotion. For most modern humans our nervous systems are generally in an upregulated and hypervigilant state most of the time or in other words: stressed

When we are in a stressed state, the nervous system will start to translate almost everything as stressful, or as a threat—the traffic jam, the voicemail from your mother, the birthday party you are going to later and the sexual advance from your partner.  We have all had the experience of “blowing up” over something that was relatively insignificant. When we are in a downregulated, relaxed state in our nervous system we experience a state of flow and ease and the same sexual advance that seemed stressful at a different time translates as enjoyment and pleasure. 

We know that stress is the number one cause of disease in contemporary western culture. I think it could easily be argued that it is also the number one inhibitor to sexual pleasure. When the nervous system feels safe and can enter a state of relaxed downregulation the body can enter the processes it needs for both physical and emotional healing as well as the opportunity to experience more flow, pleasure and “better” sex. 

What this tells me is that we do not necessarily need to add more to our wellness regimens and in many cases, what is required is doing a lot less. What I would like to drive home here is an opportunity to shift perspective around what healing looks like. Trying to do more and seeking outside of ourselves for the right supplements, practices, exercise regimens and sex techniques can be a way of actually reinforcing a state of stress and the feeling of not being, or having, enough while at the same time avoiding the real work required to clear the way for new patterns and experiences to take place. 

It is no mistake that our upcoming Artemis School module is called “Nurture” and it is also not a coincidence that it is scheduled during autumn, the season that promotes slowing down and inward focus. We will be exploring the nervous system and how this relates to healing core and pelvic related challenges through the lens of working with postpartum women. Culturally we are failing postpartum women and, hence the future generation. There is a painful lack of knowledge and support for this critical right of passage and developmental threshold for both mom and baby. By looking at how this specific population is being underserved we reveal these insidious cultural blindspots that effect all of us that desire to inhabit our wholeness, embodied pleasure and thriving. 

What postpartum women need most is rest, warmth, nourishing foods, a supportive community, spaciousness (and permission) to just be. They need a safe, caring space to allow the flow of all emotions to move through as they process the enormous transformation of birthing and becoming a mother. 

When we give any body, postpartum or otherwise, a safe and supportive container to just be, to relax and to slow down, it begins to regulate itself and any healing that needs to take place will. When we learn to partner with our nervous systems and learn how to support them for optimal thriving we become empowered to be in choice around more and more aspects of our lives including how we process stress and respond sexually. 

If you are finding yourself reading this, chances are you are already doing at least some things to help support and regulate your nervous system whether you have been aware of it or not. In addition to having supportive people in your life and incorporating more down time into your days, exercise, getting out into nature, mindfulness practices and self care for the body all help your nervous system to find its alignment in flow. 

Remember that your body is your partner—not something that needs to be controlled, suppressed or even balanced. In this partnering with body you can discover your desires for more pleasure and deeper sexual connection and expression.