How is mindfulness relevant to the treatment of sexual problems?

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As a contribution to World Sexual Health Day 2013, Attuned Psychology organised a Mindful Wine Tasting (“Attuned to Wine and Sex”) for medical professionals to visit the practice, meet our team and learn about and experience the impact of mindfulness on daily activities and in the treatment of sexual dysfunctions. A wine tasting seemed like the perfect vehicle to experience mindfulness and gave an opportunity to relax and learn about its application to sexual dysfunction in a creative and engaging way.

This turned out to be a very interesting, engaging and enjoyable evening and provided a valuable opportunity to meet our colleagues in the medical field.  After an enjoyable beginning of mingling, drinks and wandering through the practice, the evening started with a mindfulness exercise guided by Alexandra Frost. From there we enjoyed a step by step journey through the sexual arousal process, with a wine to match each stage, exploring the relevance of mindfulness in everyday life and sexual dysfunction. Food and wine gave us a great opportunity to practice mindfulness and to then see the relevance of this process for sexual arousal and sexual functioning. The beautiful  “Mindful Images” photography by Leonard Choice of My Best of Photography added to the experience and allowed all of our senses to be engaged, reminding us of the importance of full engagement in life to create a rich, meaningful experience.

So, what is mindfulness? For those who have read some of our earlier blogs, you will have come across this concept before.  Mindfulness is about paying attention, with an attitude of openness and curiosity.  It allows us to use all of our senses to engage with life and is a powerful tool that is relevant in managing emotions and sensations, learning to manage our thoughts and approaching tasks in a considered, focused way. It’s not a trick, or a quick fix, but more an attitude or an approach to living that may be learned.  Mindfulness can be learned through formal meditation but can also be applied in everyday activities without the need for meditation. Mindfulness forms a foundation of many evidence based therapeutic approaches including Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an approach that all of us at Attuned Psychology are trained in and passionate about.

Research focused on the effectiveness of mindfulness for the treatment of a broad range of psychological problems is extensive. Recently researchers have also started to examine the use of mindfulness in the treatment of sexual issues. The outcomes of this research include the following: mindfulness is a useful method to narrow the attention to physical sensations during sensual touch, to become more aware of and attuned to sexual feelings (instead of worries, stress, self judgements), to decrease performance pressure and increase sexual desire and pleasure.

Let me explain this by applying the principles to a case scenario.

Lisbeth is 46, married and has 3 children. She suffers from a low sexual desire. She describes her problem as following: she has always been very physically and mentally active, racing around, helping her children, being actively involved at their school, also working part-time and taking care of the household. She describes herself as an achiever and likes problems to be solved. Over the last 2 years of years she has difficulties in getting in the mood for sex. This causes stress in the relationship: her husband has expressed his dissatisfaction with the level of sexual interaction between them, he feels disconnected. This again has a negative impact on Lisbeth’s self confidence. She is afraid this low sexual desire will cause severe problems in the marriage or infidelity of her husband.  She wants to change and feel sexual again.

After an assessment of the possible causes of her decreased sexual desire and exclusion of medical causes, we have started a process of becoming aware of the out of sync moments of Lisbeth’s mind and body and teaching her the basics of mindfulness. We started with applying this process of paying attention to her activities with curiosity and openness in daily life, and Lisbeth realised how often she was distracted by thinking about possible problems or being concerned about the past. By applying mindfulness she noticed a more engaged way of interacting and more enjoyment. After these experiences we diverted this approach to her sexual feelings, paying more attention to the moments of intimacy with her husband. She noticed that her sexual feelings intensified, intensifying her enjoyment. She became gradually more aware of her sexual feelings again and this resulted in a more satisfying and comfortable sexual relationship and more self-confidence.

This is just one example of the implications of mindfulness in the treatment of sexual dysfunctions. We can utilise this approach also in the treatment of arousal disorder, pain during intercourse, orgasm problems, erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation and sex addiction.  Watch this space for future blogs about the application of mindfulness and other approaches to the treatment of other sexual dysfunctions.

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