Winter can be a bleak period. The crisp brown leaves have fallen from the trees; the flowers have wilted; everything is freezing – especially amidst a cost-of-living crisis – and there’s little to no sunshine. Joy can be sparse, and amidst all the gloom, your sex life can take a hit.
Often termed “winter depression,” Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern. Symptoms can include persistent low mood, irritability, sleeping for longer than usual, feeling lethargic, and, importantly, a decreased libido.
In the UK, SAD impacts around 2 million people. It’s little surprise: during the winter, we’re plunged into darkness for months on end, and sadly, sunshine can be a rarity. Each year, around 5 percent of the U.S. population experiences SAD, and four out of five of these people are women.
Mental health and sex are completely intertwined, and like regular depression, SAD can impact intimacy and facilitate sexual dysfunction. The National Institute of Mental Health finds that SAD is diagnosed four times more often in women than in men. Elsewhere, one 2018 study concluded that women experienced seasonal variations in symptoms of depression alongside tiredness and anhedonia, or the loss of ability to feel pleasure. And that pleasure extends to the bedroom.
How does SAD affect your sex life?
So, how does SAD impact sex? Per the NHS, depression can result in women finding it more difficult to orgasm, and a loss of sex drive. Men with depression often experience these symptoms too, alongside erectile dysfunction or problems getting and maintaining an erection. Depression can impact self-esteem and body image, which in turn, can affect our desire to be intimate with partners.
Sex releases three feel-good hormones that can temporarily aid the symptoms of SAD: dopamine, endorphins and oxytocin, all of which facilitate pleasure, emotional regulation, and one-to-one bonding with a partner. Pre-bedtime sex – whether solo or partnered – can release prolactin, aiding feelings of rest and relaxation and inducing REM sleep. With all these sex-related benefits in mind, SAD’s infringement on sexual pleasure can be frustrating.
Ness, 33, has recognised her symptoms of SAD since she was a teenager. She’s always struggled with the darker periods of the year, suffering from low mood and tiredness. She’s tried everything from St. John’s Wort (a herbal medicine some people take for mental health conditions) to SAD lamps and has even had her rheumatologist recommend that she just “needs to go somewhere sunny” during winter. “I don’t want to be close to anyone – it’s like the darkness engulfs me. I find orgasms less pleasurable, too,” Ness recalls. “My sex life becomes more active during the spring and summer. I feel more connected with myself – I’m happier, and that makes it easier for me to connect sexually.”
“My sex life becomes more active during the spring and summer. I feel more connected with myself – I’m happier, and that makes it easier for me to connect sexually.”
In relationships, Ness’s SAD has been noticeable. She hasn’t always felt supported. “Past partners have often let me dwell in the sadness,” she explains. “My current partner supports me through and understands that I find everyday activity harder during the winter months, not just relationship-related matters.”
What to do when mental health is impacting your sex life
Dr. Caroline West — who has a PhD in Sexuality Studies and currently works as a consent educator — explains that our sex lives and our mental health are intrinsically linked. “If we feel depressed, that can lead to poorer physical health which can in turn lead to decreased desire and positivity towards sex and our bodies,” West says.
“When our mental health is overwhelmed, it can be a drain on energy levels which makes people not want to engage in sex as they see it as too much work. When we feel down about ourselves, sex can be the last thing on our minds, and our thoughts towards our bodies may not be very sex-positive,” West explains. “A lack of intimacy can in turn make us feel even more frustrated and depressed.”
So, how can SAD sufferers alleviate its impact on sex? Taking time out for self-care, reconnecting with the body through masturbation and allocating time for physical connection with a partner can help to alleviate the symptoms, facilitating happier, more pleasurable sex during the winter months.
“When our mental health is overwhelmed, it can be a drain on energy levels which makes people not want to engage in sex as they see it as too much work.”
Dr. Hana Patel is a GP specialist in mental health and a GP Expert Witness, issuing specialist information, guidance and opinion on the medical care provided by GPs. “Mental health problems can affect our sexual health. People suffering from depression describe symptoms of feeling tired, having low self-esteem, having less energy, feeling a reduction in sexual desire and finding it difficult to find pleasure in things they used to enjoy,” Patel tells Mashable. As she explains, low levels of vitamin D can also impact the likelihood of developing SAD, as can a family history of depression.
“To increase your vitamin D, go out as much as possible during the day, sit near the window at work, increase your exercise levels, eat a varied, balanced diet, and avoid stress as much as possible. Consider mindfulness and stress management techniques,” Patel advises. “Some people prefer to take vitamin D supplements over the winter months, and may want to try an SAD lamp.”
Likewise, mindful sex can help. According to meditation app Headspace, incorporating mindfulness into sexual experiences — whether partnered or solo — can alleviate the experience. One study conducted amongst women at the University of British Columbia involved taking part in three mindfulness meditation sessions spaced two weeks apart alongside mindfulness meditation at home. This period of meditation increased desire, arousal, lubrication, and overall sexual satisfaction.
Jasmine Eskenzi is the Founder and CEO of The Zensory, a mindful productivity app. “Being mindful during sex can increase your self-esteem, self-acceptance and self-compassion,” Jasmine notes. “Try some mindful breathing before you head to the bedroom – breathe in for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds and breathe out for eight. Repeat this until you feel calmer.”
Try not to think of sex – whether partnered or solo – as a one-time event. Spend some time laying the foundations, whether that involves reading an erotic book, masturbating, or watching a sexy movie. If you are in a relationship – whatever that may look like – investing in that can be equally impactful. Prioritise regular date nights, whether that involves turning off the TV and cooking a nice meal together or ordering a takeaway. Creating these intimate memories can help to strengthen your bond both emotionally and sexually.
Communicate with your partner
Taking time to communicate is fundamental, so check in with your partner regularly, too. You can also practise this in your relationship with yourself – and better your solo pleasure – by examining what turns you on. “Ask your partner what they find sexy about you,” Pippa Murphy – sex and relationship expert at condoms.uk — advises. “Not only will this give you both a confidence boost, but it could also lead to better sex as you can accentuate or focus on these things in bed. The more confident you feel, the better sex you’re likely to have.”
Keeping the boudoir a no-phone zone can also have a poignant impact, as Murphy believes. “If you scroll on your phone before bed, you’re not only impacting your ability to build a deep connection with your partner, but chances are you’re decreasing your ability to get horny by being greeted with a social feed of negative news,” Pippa says. “Keep your phone outside the bedroom and spend the last 10 minutes before bed getting intimate with your partner, whether that’s through sex or a conversation.”
Remember: sex can be whatever you want it to be. As West reminds us, “sex doesn’t have to be a big production or involve penetration. Intimacy can be defined however you want.” Explore what works for you: consider keeping a SAD sex diary, noting down how you’re feeling each day mood-wise and libido-wise. That way, you’ll be able to spot patterns and develop self-tailored coping mechanisms for making your boudoir as spicy and depression-friendly as possible. Sex and SAD needn’t be enemies.
If you’re feeling suicidal or experiencing a mental health crisis, please talk to somebody. If you’re in the U.S., text “START” to Crisis Text Line at 741-741. You can reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988; the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860; or the Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. Text “START” to Crisis Text Line at 741-741. Contact the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI, Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m. ET, or email [email protected]. If you don’t like the phone, consider using the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline Chat at crisischat.org. Here is a list of international resources. If you’re in the UK, call the Samaritans on 116 123 or contact Shout, a 24/7 free mental health service in the UK (Text SHOUT to 85258).