How mindfulness can improve your sex life

Sexual dysfunction is prevalent in women. iStock

Women who suffer from sexual dysfunction disorders could be helped by mindfulness-based therapy, a review of scientific literature has revealed. Problems such as impairment in sexual desire, difficulty to have an orgasm or genital pains may be eased thanks to this approach.

Female sexual dysfunction affects thousands of women in the UK of all ages, sexualities and relationship set-ups. The impact on relationships and quality of life can be very severe, and as such many women seek clinical help.

"Studies from the United Kingdom, United States, Sweden, and Australia have reported a prevalence of low sexual desire in women for example ranging from 33% to 55%. The most common sexual problems we see in our service for women are around pain during penetrative sex, and concerns about low sexual desire", Dr Karen Gurney a clinical psychologist and psychosexologist at the Havelock Clinic who was not involved with the review, told IBTimes UK.

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Perhaps the best-known for sexual dysfunction disorders is cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), a talking therapy that involves addressing the way in which the patient interprets herself, her experience and the works around her. A number of tools can be used in this context, including psychoeducation, communication training, directed masturbation and relaxation training.

"The causes of sexual dysfunction disorders can be psychological or physiological. Cognitive behavioural therapy is often offered to help people understand the patterns they have gotten into, the influences from their past, and we find that it works very well clinically" sex therapist Peter Saddington, from the charity Relate, told IBTimes UK.

Psychologists and sex therapists say this is a very useful approach that helps a lot of their patients. However, the review now published in the Journal of Sex Research notes that data published on the subject does have a number of limitations.

For instance, the majority of clinical trials only include small sample sizes and limited follow-up data. Some studies have also suggested that more than half of participants do not significantly benefit from treatment – so more robust evidence is needed.

Testing new approaches such as mindfulness-based therapy – described as a purposeful, nonjudgmental awareness of one's present experience – is interesting as it may provide therapists with many options to choose from to help women overcome their problems.

"Sexual medicine and psychosexual therapy have been catching up with other areas over recent years in gathering the best evidence about what works to resolve sexual problems. The treatments we have now do work, but there is always room to add in new approaches and techniques and as practitioners we should always be on the look out for new ways of working that might offer something additional," said Gurney.

Multiple interventions based on mindfulness principles have been developed over the past 15 years. The method focuses on the acceptance of current thoughts and emotions, whereas CBT typically aims to directly restructure people's thinking.

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The review analysed eleven trials, including a total of 449 participants. The researchers found that all aspects of sexual function and subjective sexual well-being exhibited significant improvement during mindfulness-based therapy (MBT), although there are limitations here as well, including the fact that these were small sample sizes with relatively little long-term follow-up of participants.

The researchers note that a number of questions remain unanswered and will have to be addressed in future studies. It's not clear for instance if improvements during MBT could result from the passage of time or could be the result of a placebo response.

Sex therapists and psychologists are keen to see the results of larger, more robust studies, but in the meantime they'll continue using the method when they feel it can help patients.

"Many people find their mind racing during sex about other things – work, the household jobs that need doing, a conversation they had earlier that day, worries about sex. Being distracted during sex not only detracts from sexual arousal as we stop paying attention to what's erotic, but we might also start to experience anxiety, irritation or another feeling attached to wherever our mind has wandered," Gurney concluded.

"Getting practised at mindfulness as a skill outside of sex can help someone use it effectively in sex to be present to whats going on in their bodies and to pay attention to arousing sensations rather than having their mind wander off and follow these less useful thoughts. Feedback from our clients is that they find it a really useful tool to benefit their sex life".

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