Top

Life Stress and Erectile Dysfunction: How to Take Control

This article describes how stress can affect a man’s sex life while also exploring natural and medical treatment options for stress reduction. 

When you hear the words erectile dysfunction (ED), you might think the source of the problem is in a man’s pants. After all, the name suggests an issue with erections. And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong.

Erectile dysfunction is the inability to get or maintain an erection during sexual intercourse. However, ED can be caused by a number of physical, psychological, and lifestyle factors. In fact, one of the most common emotions humans experience, stress, plays a big role in erectile functioning.

Stress in Daily Life 

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) describes stress as the way in which the brain and body respond to a demand or stressor. Americans experience a variety of stressors in their daily lives related to work, health, family responsibilities, and major events in their lives.

Common life demands include:

  • Exercise
  • Work
  • School
  • Major life changes (marriage, having children, divorce, moving)
  • Traumatic events

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), more than half of Americans report feeling stressed due to their health insurance costs or the health insurance costs of their loved ones. Additionally, current events that dominate today’s headlines, including gun violence and sexual harassment, are a source of stress for young adults, according to the APA’s latest Stress in America survey.

In relationships, men also experience stress from performance anxiety. Given these findings, it is unsurprising that 1 in 5 men report experiencing depression or anxiety.

However, it’s important to note that not all demands are inherently bad. People derive a lot of satisfaction from exercise, marrying their romantic partner, or raising children. Some of these demands, or stressors, actually promote connection and healthier lifestyles, so we shouldn’t think about eliminating stress altogether. Still, it is important to know how stressors, both positive and negative, can affect health, particularly sexual functioning.

Effects of Stress

Diagram of kidneys and bladder.

When we experience stress, our body releases a hormone called cortisol. Though it may get a bad reputation, in healthy amounts, cortisol helps to regulate blood pressure and is essential to help the body’s cardiovascular, circulatory, and reproductive systems function properly. When men’s stress levels are elevated, this creates an overproduction of cortisol, leading to reduced testosterone production, a cause of ED.

Higher cortisol levels also restrict blood flow, which can make it difficult for a man to get or keep an erection. Alternatively, when men experience good stressors (think promotions, going out on a date with a partner, etc.), their body’s testosterone production increases.

Ways to Reduce Negative Stress 

Couple running.

The first step to reducing stress and improving erectile functioning is to identify the stressor(s). Once identified, you can start to consider lifestyle changes and medications to control them. The good news is, these changes might not be as big as you think.

Even making lifestyle changes like quitting smoking (smoking can lead to poor circulation, which can cause ED) can benefit one’s health, reduce stress, and potentially improve erectile functioning.

For instance, for men whose ED is caused by stress due to performance anxiety in the bedroom, it is recommended that they find someone to talk to, whether that’s with a partner or a professional that specializes in sex therapy.

Other natural options to reduce stress include engaging in physical activity, participating in hobbies that you enjoy, or taking on fewer projects at work.

If naturally reducing stress still doesn’t improve erectile functioning, ED medications can be a useful alternative (or even be a great motivation to engage in other positive lifestyle changes). Men can consult with their healthcare providers to learn about medication options, including if an ED drug like Viagra is appropriate for them. And not to worry, online retailers are taking the stress out of these consultations, allowing men to consult with a healthcare professional, obtain a prescription for Viagra or other ED medications, and order their prescriptions without having the physically step foot in a doctor’s office.

Kwynn holds a Master of Public Health and is currently pursuing a PhD in Social Work. Her research examines the intersections of health, technology, and gender-based violence.