Stress and sex and sleepy hedgehogs

Kim Thompson/Little Village

The anxiety that comes from living in the midst of a global pandemic is not exactly an aphrodisiac. For many of us, sex is the last thing on our minds. Others might find it an effective stress management tool, but struggle to feel safe with their partner(s) at a time when even Tinder has warned users about the risks of pandemic dating.

In Emily Nagoski’s book Come As You Are, she lays out the way the emotions associated with stress impact our minds and ultimately our bodies, provoking a fight, flight or freeze response.

Stress comes in many forms: worry, anxiety, fear and terror (“There’s a lion! Run!”); irritation, annoyance, frustration and rage (“There’s a lion! Kill it!”); and emotional numbness, shutdown, depression and despair (“There’s a lion! Play dead!”).

“And none of these,” Nagoski said, “indicate that now is a good time to get laid.”

If we want to reduce the impact of stress on our libido, and have more joyful and pleasurable sex, we need to learn how to manage our stress, Nagoski advises. (Duh — add that to the list of other things I need to do.)

But if we have any hope of staying connected emotionally, physically or sexually, we might consider another concept Nagoski breaks down in her book: maintaining our emotional center of gravity. You can do this, she explains, by “owning your feelings, listening to them and being responsive without being reactive, taking emotions seriously without taking them personally.”

The process of staying over your own emotional center of gravity is simplified in the “sleepy hedgehog” model.

If you find a sleepy hedgehog in the chair you were about to sit in, you should:

Give it a name
Sit peacefully with it in your lap
Figure out what it needs
Tell your partner about the need, so you can collaborate to help the hedgehog

Each of us is responsible for our own emotions and how we manage them. Folks in healthy relationships help one another navigate those feelings. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this can mean sharing new household duties equally and getting on the same page when it comes to preventative measures such as mask-wearing and surface-cleaning, so no one feels they’re taking the virus more or less seriously than their partner(s).

Staying connected is going to be a lifeline for many of us during these uncertain times. It makes me think about John Gottman’s emotional bank account idea. The idea is this: When you turn toward your partner, making a bid for connection, you make a deposit in your emotional bank account. When you turn away from your partner, you are making a withdrawal.

Imagine your partner is perturbed by the latest article about COVID-19 numbers or police violence against protesters, and they share their anxiety with you. Turning towards them might sound like, “I hear you. It is so hard right now, and I’m here for you.” This is an investment in your emotional bank account. You could also say nothing and continue to read more apocalyptic articles on your own, turning away from your partner, and therefore not seeing or showing up to how they feel.

Shows of comfort and solidarity, whether they be made in the same household or virtually, don’t need to be grand gestures. They can be small ways we show our love, appreciation and compassion for one another, like thanking your husband for bringing you a cup of coffee in the morning and helping your girlfriend clean all the door knobs with Clorox wipes. You can also work together to channel your shared grief, anger or helplessness into making COVID-19 masks or face shields, attending anti-racist protests or penning a letter to a local representative.

This isn’t just a great way to build emotional capital, but could even be a form of foreplay. Psychotherapist and relationship expert Esther Perel (who released a COVID-19-focused spin-off miniseries of her podcast Where Should We Begin? called Couples Under Lockdown) says that foreplay starts at the end of our last sexual encounter. You never know how much of a turn-on it could be for your partner to see you do the dishes, take the kids’ temperature or finish a long-term project.

As we navigate a moment of reckoning in our culture, prepare for the possibility of epiphanies (or impulses) when it comes to your love life.

“Disasters generally operate as an accelerator in a relationship,” Perel said on the Pivot podcast. “Either people say, ‘Life is short, let’s get married, let’s have babies. What are we waiting for?’ Or on the other side, ‘Life is short. I’ve waited long enough, I’m out of here.’ And so we’ve known that there is generally a spike in divorce and a spike in marriage and babies that follows disasters.”

The feeling of losing control can be the biggest stressor of all. No matter how chaotic life gets, cling to love and know you’re not alone.

Natalie Benway LISW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Coralville. She has a certification in sexuality studies from the University of Iowa and is currently pursuing additional licensure with the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 283.

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