A recent publication in the journal of the Ontario Association of Naturopathic Doctors; a meander through the evolution of my understanding of cultural sensitivity.
It’s that time of year! We’re supposed to feel in love, sexy, horny, romantic - right? Hallmark expectations aside, I hear from women in my practice ALL THE TIME that they’re not that into having sex. Their libido isn’t where they’d like it to be. They love their partners (and I find this happens more typically among women who are in committed, long-term relationships), they want to be intimate, but they’re just not feeling it. So here are some ideas to consider … just in time for Valentine’s Day!
(Sexual function is a complex topic; if you have concerns about yours, consider this article that I wrote about exploring and managing low sexual desire in women, and talk to your healthcare provider. Or me :)
Think of intimacy as a holistic concept.
When partners are vulnerable with one another in general - sharing their imperfections, their emotions, their experiences - and ACT with love, they are more likely to feel close to one another, enhancing relationship satisfaction, and naturally fueling a desire for physical connection. (I love this article about the research of John Gottman’s “Love Lab”). One of my most important life lessons is that love is an action, not a feeling … but I know that choosing to act with love can deepen the feeling … the trust and appreciation and deep connection that enhances sexual desire.
Broaden your definition of “sex”.
Particularly for heterosexual couples, “sex” often means “penis-in-vagina”. But there are so many ways to explore sex! And so many ways to give and receive sexual pleasure. When the need and expectation for orgasm is set aside, and space is created for mindfulness, “sex” can be many different things. “Guide to Getting it on” is a great primer. It is heteronormative, and it won’t make everyone happy (is that even possible??) AND there are many great books out there for folks of all orientations/kinks/persuasions. Explore! And comment with your favourites!
While familiarity is comfortable, and knowing and trusting your partner(s) builds intimacy, our brains seek novelty in order to stimulate reward centers. If sex is the same all the time, and predictable, it can get boring and less inticing. Consider talking to your partner about shaking things up a bit! There are many questionnaires available online that can facilitate the potentially awkward conversation and stimulate creativity - try this one! AND couples that engage in new experiences outside of the bedroom (or wherevever else you like to get it on - good for you!) are more likely to connect sexually as well. Try a dance class! Pottery (channeling Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore)! Eating in the dark! See what happens.
Make space for sexual intimacy.
As Dan Savage says, “Fuck first”. We often get busy, put other priorities ahead of our connection with our partner, and end up tired and sapped. Even if you're not exactly in the mood to begin with, being willing to dip in your toe can get the juices flowing. It could be argued that scheduling sex is contrived BUT imagine the turn-on when you sext one another all day in anticipation of what’s to come! Have sex before going for dinner, before catching up on Netflix, before your workout. Don’t succumb to not having time for … business time!
Be good to yourself!
Many conditions including (but definitely not limited to!) hypertension, diabetes, depression, and multiple sclerosis are associated with lower libido. Stress and fatigue can damage our desire. Eating well, exercising most days, getting sufficient sleep, managing stress effectively, and looking after any health concerns can make a big difference. Some medications can dampen libido - touch base with your healthcare provider to explore strategies to navigate this possibility.
And sometimes we just don’t feel like it. And that’s okay too. Especially mothers - we often feel touched out, particularly when our kids are small (and breastfeeding!). When we feel drained and needed, it can be overwhelming to know that our partners need us too. It may be okay to ask your partner to look after YOU … a foot rub, a back tickle, a head massage, more … without the expectation (today anyway) of reciprocity. It will pay long term dividends.
(Full disclosure: I am not a sex goddess, and am working through all of this myself. Just as I am doing with pretty much everything I recommend. As always, a work in progress.)
Over the last few years I've become utterly convinced of the value of mindfulness. The literature is bursting with evidence of the benefits of mindfulness practice on everything from cardiovascular disease to weight management to reducing the burden of infections. Likely much of the benefit is due to the impacts on how the brain perceives stress, and thus how the body manifests stress in a physical way. We know that chronic stress shifts the body into survival mode - storing fuel, increasing alertness, placing demands on the heart and lungs, and putting functions like digestion, growth and reproduction on the back burner. In the short term this is brilliant and wise. In the long term, the impacts of stress are so detrimental on health, impacting everything from fertility, sleep, diabetes and how satisfying your poos are.
Most stressors in our modern world are perceived. Deadlines, relationship tension, traffic jams ... these are not situations that will benefit from the way our bodies evolved to handle much more physical stressors thousands of years ago. Pausing to notice our emotions and thoughts when stressful situations arise can be remarkably helpful to temper the involuntary cascade of ALARM hormones and behaviours that can be so unhelpful. Much of the research into "Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction" suggests a daily practice of seated mindfulness meditation. Many people find this a challenging practice to nurture. I often encourage folks to give it a try for a period of time - even if it's only for 5-10 minutes a day. Sitting quietly, noticing thoughts, emotions, distractions without judgement. With an air of curiosity and kindness. Even acceptance. Translating those principles into the every day - pausing before reacting (eating, yelling, striking out, tensing up ...) ... practice can help foster an awareness of how we perceive situations, and whether we choose to interpret the situations as stressful.
Here's a little acronym that can help. If you're someone who engages in emotional eating ... try it when you're craving that treat. If you're a parent ... try it when your patience is running thin. If you're working on a deadline - take a five-minute pause (honest - it won't blow your deadline ... and might actually make you more efficient!) and do a quick scan. Start with whatever letter is most obvious to you, and then inquire about the others. It can help to learn about yourself ... again, with non-judgement, curiosity and compassion. Let me know how it goes!
B - behaviour ... what actions are you taking in this situation? (eating chocolate? yelling? pounding on the keyboard?)
A - affect ... what emotions are you feeling? (anger, joy, fear, sadness, variations of these)
S - sensation ... what physical sensations are you experiencing? (tight muscles, churning stomach, headache)
I - image ... what images are in your mind's eye? (a growling bear, a sad child, a tiny box)
C - cognitions ... what thoughts are in your mind?
Potential patients frequently inquire as to whether I can treat condition x, y or z. This question originates in the biomedical model that has been created by western medicine. Have psoriasis? See a dermatologist. Have abdominal pain? See a gastroenterologist. The difficulty with this approach is that it’s unusual for a dermatologist to know much about how your gut works, or for the gastroenterologist to know much about your skin. And less likely again for either of them to even consider how the two might be connected, and how they both may be symptoms of a broader imbalance in health.
This is why a foundational principle of naturopathic medicine is to treat the whole person – to consider how all symptoms may be connected, and to perceive the way in which these symptoms reflect what needs to be treated on a deeper level. The solution is rarely to apply a medicine or remedy to a symptom - whether natural or pharmaceutical. While this approach may be valuable in the short term to increase comfort, or slow the progress of the condition, it is unlikely to offer a permanent, curative solution to the source of the problem. What will make the most lasting difference is to take the time to explore and address the “determinants of health” – those factors in a person’s life that contribute to or take away from their ability to maintain a healthy balance. Diet. Stress. Sleep. Relationships. Physical activity. Time in nature. Cognitive outlook. Genetic vulnerability. Exposure to environmental toxins. And how previous health concerns have been addressed, or in many cases, suppressed.
Admittedly, this exploration, and the work to optimize these factors, is not quick or easy. It requires a commitment on the part of the naturopath and the individual to work together to shift how the person is caring for themselves, and towards a deeper and more permanent solution to their health concerns. Are you ready?