I get a lot of questions about sex—it's my job as a certified sex therapist, relationship expert, and neuroscientist studying the effects of pleasure on the brain. But there’s one question I get more than any other: How do I increase my sex drive?
Getting into a sexual rut or losing your libido can happen to anyone. It doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed or that there’s something wrong with you. The loss of sexual desire is by far the most common issue I deal with in my practice. In fact, we are in the midst of a sex recession—a major representative survey of Americans conducted in 2018 reported that 23% of adults had no sex in the previous year. This includes young adults 18 through 30 years old too.
Sexual pleasure is key to lubricating our relationships, making them flow better (especially through times of challenge). And when it evaporates, the loss of sexual desire not only has the power to cause relationship problems but also robs us of something vital to health: pleasure. Sexual pleasure feels good and is good for us. It can lower stress and enhance immunity, and it gives an overall feeling of well-being—all things I discuss here in my Ask Dr. Nan column and in my new book Why Good Sex Matters.
Here’s how to increase your sex drive:
1. Understand your libido.
The first step in working with your libido is understanding the two types of sexual desire: "active" sexual desire (when we feel “horny”) and “responsive” sexual desire.
Responsive sexual desire is the type that lies beneath the surface. It kicks in under the right circumstances, like when something great happens in life (a book deal, a big raise, or meeting a fabulous potential partner). It also can bump up when a present partner behaves in ways that are particularly appealing (making you dinner, touching that sensitive spot on your neck, engaging in active listening).
2. Give yourself time.
The old model of desire was that it came before arousal: You got horny and then had sex. Our new model of desire is that it doesn’t need to come first. You get aroused and then desire kicks in. In other words, getting some form of physical or mental sexual stimulation going can help prime sexual desire by arousing the mind or body.
Although we might not be feeling particularly in the mood, we can ignite the more active type of sexual desire by jump-starting our engines. An easy way to do this is to use a vibrator to get physical arousal going. Another option is to engage in the fine art of flirting to get the mental juices flowing.
3. Prioritize self-care.
Chronic stress can truly derail sexual desire. Cortisol, a stress hormone that lingers, is rough on the brain and body. It can lead to impaired immunity, mood disorders, weight gain, sleep problems, and memory and concentration difficulties, and can also decimate your libido.
This is one of the many reasons it’s so important to prioritize mental health. If you’re climbing into bed at night anxiously going over what happened at work that day or worrying about your to-do list for tomorrow, there’s no way you’re going to be in the mindset to think about sex. Try starting a relaxing bedtime routine—a hot shower, some yoga, reading something unrelated to work—to help you physically and mentally unwind at the end of the day.
4. Do a digital detox.
A major source of stress is the way we use our attention. Continuous partial attention (CPA) describes how we are constantly plugged into our devices—even when we're not actively using them, our devices sit nearby keeping us on perpetual low-level alert. The American Psychological Association finds that constantly checking electronic devices is linked to significant stress for most Americans.
The remedy? Unplug from your devices and turn them off for some portion of the day. I recommend three device-free periods each day. That means the phone or computer is turned off or in another room. Not only will this give you a break from the drain of continuous partial attention, but it can also help boost your mood—and your sex drive.
5. Try breathing exercises.
When you unplug from your devices, use that time to plug into your body. Scientists call this the relaxation response: how we can use our bodies to calm our minds. There are various ways to do this including focusing on the breath or a soothing sound or image. Any strategy that allows you to break the chain of everyday thought can help ramp up the calming ability of the autonomic nervous system, known as the parasympathetic response. This state is key to all sorts of bodily functions including digestion, healing, and most relevantly, sexual arousal.
A simple practice that can reduce our stress reactivity: Breathe in for a count of four, breathe out for a count of six. Repeat six times.
6. Use your words.
Getting what you want sexually can help increase both your active and responsive desire. If you’re really into nipple orgasms, but your partner has no idea they’re a thing, speak up. Taking a risk to ask for what we want can be scary, but it's also the way to boost the ongoing sexual potential of our partnerships. And remember, it's important to prioritize our own pleasure.
7. Understand your cycle.
For women, active desire tends to vary across the menstrual cycle, usually peaking at the time of ovulation. This is the time of the month when women are most likely to initiate sex. In fact, women tend to have 24% more sex during the days when they are fertile, even if they aren't trying to get pregnant.
Understanding the natural fluctuations in your sex drive can help you boost it. If you were all over your partner last week but this week feel as though you’re in a desire desert, don’t panic. Instead, make time for activities that can help boost your responsive desire like tapping into what turns you on in life in general. Tuning into what makes us feel fully alive, engaged, excited, and enthusiastic about our lives beyond the bedroom can translate into a kind of erotic energy we can bring back to our sex lives.
8. Check your birth control.
Some women taking birth control pills experience a decrease in libido. If this is happening to you, consider speaking to your doctor about finding a nonhormonal method of birth control that doesn't dampen your desire.
We know that masturbating strengthens the neural connections between our genitals and the places in the brain that register sexual sensation and pleasure. (I should know since my lab mapped them.) This practice will literally strengthen these pleasure pathways, making orgasms easier to access and even more potent.
There also appears to be a hormonal explanation for why self-pleasure can increase your sex drive with your partner. Masturbation can provide a short-term boost to our testosterone levels. And since testosterone is what drives the sex drive in both sexes, we can end up feeling more desire as a result.
10. Have more sex.
And the more sex we have, the more sex we usually want. Once we've had an experience, like having sex, it's more likely to stay on our minds. This can prime us to be more attuned to our sexual selves.
11. Don’t stress if you’re not feeling it.
Everyone’s desire curve is different. Some people have a high baseline level of active sexual desire; others don't.
So don't worry if you don't feel actively like having sex. Take advantage of when you do. And as the course of desire flows over the month, or the course of relationship, learn what works for you to jump-start the engine of your responsive desire.
Nan Wise, Ph.D., is AASECT-certified sex therapist, neuroscientist, certified relationship expert, and author of Why Good Sex Matters: Understanding the Neuroscience of Pleasure for a Smarter, Happier, and More Purpose-Filled Life. Follow her @AskDoctorNan.
Originally Appeared on Glamour