It’s natural for some people to crave the comfort of an embrace to ease anxieties. But it’s also perfectly understandable to feel apprehensive about physical affection right now. A pandemic isn’t sexy.
“All day long, we’re trying to protect ourselves physically [against covid-19],” says psychotherapist Dana Dorfman. Unlike other traumatic experiences such as 9/11 when people sought the solace of physical intimacy, “humans are contaminating each other with something invisible, and we’re being conditioned to not let anything penetrate us.”
So, she says, it logically follows that some people may feel more guarded. The physical vigilance required for our safety right now runs counter to intimacy, and it can be difficult to reconcile that.
For many people, there are additional issues and circumstances compounding this. Here are some you may be experiencing — and tips for dealing with them.
Close quarters, decreased desire
For those who share their home with partners, family members or roommates, Dorfman says the lack of privacy plays a role. Intimacy is often a natural result of “two separate individuals” who desire “a closeness, merging or fusion of themselves.” But now, day in and out, “you’re aware of everyone’s presence” in the home. And with “so few boundaries to delineate us” while we eat, sleep, work and navigate the same space all day long, she says, “the idea of merging [physically] may no longer be of interest.”
This can be particularly challenging in small living spaces, such as studio apartments, where there may not be separate areas for work or escape.
Sheila Addison, a licensed marriage and family therapist, points out that in Esther Perel’s book “Mating in Captivity,” Perel talks about desire and how it’s often felt most intensely when there’s some kind of separation. Even something as simple as sitting in the audience, watching your partner give an acceptance speech or putting on their uniform to go to work helped create those moments of “separation” in our pre-pandemic lives. But now, Addison says, “when we are constantly on top of each other, we don’t have the chance to long for one another.”
Dorfman and Addison both suggest carving out some space for yourself — even if the only possibility for now is a walk around the block or a sliver of time in the bathtub — and communicating that to your partner or others in the household.
“In order to love someone else,” Dorfman says, “you have to have some sense of your individual identity.” Scheduling a call with a friend, for example, can help you stay connected to yourself and “other relationships that nurture you,” and that can restore some balance.
'Overtaxed and under-resourced'
Another thing working against us is that stress often manifests physically. “Trauma and crisis really sap people’s resources,” Addison says. The pandemic and related concerns about health, income, work, children and the uncertainty of it all can leave us feeling “overtaxed and under-resourced.”
Psychotherapist and sex and relationship expert Pia Holec says, “Trauma can cause us to go into fight, flight or freeze. When that happens, our body releases the stress hormone, cortisol. That can cause us to feel withdrawn, and it might be hard to relax or desire intimacy.”
In addition, Addison says, when under pressure “our body will pull resources from anything that’s not essential to our basic life functions.” So, even people who typically have a high sex drive may experience a decrease in desire. Unlike in an action movie or romance novel where, Addison says, the characters may go out and fight the good fight then come home and throw themselves passionately into each other’s arms, the prolonged nature of the pandemic is exhausting rather than exhilarating.
“Trauma, grief, stress and crisis all have one thing in common when it comes to libido,” Jordin Wiggins, who operates a naturopathic health clinic, writes via email. “It’s like slamming on the brakes.” She says that during times of chronic or prolonged stress, “the body favors the production of cortisol — to keep you alert and safe — over other hormones that would increase your interest in sex.” Stress also cranks up our sympathetic nervous system, she says, which creates “the opposite state we need our bodies to be in if we want to experience arousal.”
If you’re not feeling frisky, don’t place blame on yourself or your partner. “Sex is a natural drive like hunger or sleep,” Addison says. “But it’s so mediated by our conscious thinking, I think it’s very normal for folks to just not have any resources for that right now.”
Whether or not you want to increase intimacy, all of the experts we spoke with agree it’s important to counter the influx of cortisol with activities — such as dance, yoga, walking or other physical movement — that increase the feel good hormone, oxytocin.
Wiggins notes that the activities need not necessarily be sexual, but should still be pleasurable. She recommends simple practices such as deep breathing, laughing and hugging your partner for longer than 20 seconds.
Holec says to think of it like your “relationship bank account”: stress, impatience and arguing withdraw from your account, and you need to “deposit” positive memories. She suggests keeping a gratitude journal where you list your partner’s positive attributes or sweet gestures and “scheduling a caring day where each partner does something nice for the other without telling them what it’s going to be. This can be making their favorite meal, taking something off their to-do list or trying something new together.”
Trauma, triggers and trust
The pandemic may also trigger people with a history of trauma, grief, anxiety or depression. “This [pandemic] experience is replete with feelings of loss and grief,” Dorfman says. “And, as a result, it may reignite any kind of previous traumas that one experienced.” Because intimacy — emotional and physical — requires an element of trust and security, Dorfman says some people may be emotionally guarded and find it difficult to connect to others while revisiting these intense experiences.
Holec says that trauma can cause “hypersensitivity and hypervigilance to any situation that can make [a person] feel unsafe,” and a natural reaction may be to “put pause to physical touch or intimacy.” Current restrictions preventing us from accessing our preferred coping and self-care outlets — such as gyms, group yoga classes and massages — may be exacerbating the situation, she says.
“People are feeling trapped, literally and figuratively,” she says. When we’re facing so many obstacles just to meet daily needs, for some people, “sex might be the last thing on the agenda.”
Offering support and understanding are key, but it’s also important to consider bringing in the professional guidance of a therapist, especially if one or both partners are dealing with overwhelming emotions. Some insurance companies are waiving co-pays, many therapists are providing telehealth services, and some are offering reduced and sliding fee scales for folks who are uninsured or facing financial hardships.
Holec says although you might be hesitant to dive into these issues while you’re juggling so much, a therapist can actually help alleviate stressors by teaching you coping tools and communication strategies.
Of course, not everyone is struggling with intimacy and some may even be experiencing increased connection right now. “When there is implicit trust and closeness between people,” Dorfman says, “they may respond to crisis in that way — drawn toward one another and finding comfort in the presence and closeness to another person. This [pandemic] is bringing out a range of responses that really run the gamut.”
Addison says that dating and single folks may also be feeling an increased sexual drive and “hunger for someone to be close to.” But, she adds, whether you’re in a relationship or not, it’s important to be patient and respect that not everyone is feeling the same.
“Don’t hold it against your partner if they’re not in sync with you,” she says. “It’s fine to feel sexual, but don’t expect things to be normal right now because what we’re going through [the pandemic] is not normal.”