Intimacy and Mental Health
While most assume that intimacy is something we only experience physically, intimacy also depends on, and greatly impacts, our brains. In fact, mental wellbeing and intimacy are so closely related that each can affect the other.
What is intimacy?
Intimacy can be both emotional or physical, oftentimes both.
Emotional intimacy refers to a feeling of closeness with another person. This can be with a sexual partner, but can also occur with close friends and family members. Often, these relationships are characterized as trusting, and committed.
In comparison, physical intimacy consists of spatial closeness between two people. While this can be expressed platonically through hugs or handshakes, it is also commonly expressed through more sensual touches like kissing and sex.
No matter whether it is physical or emotional, relational closeness can impact, and be impacted by, mental health.
Intimacy’s Impact on Mental Health
Healthy and intimate interpersonal relationships are a large component of mental health. Close relationships can not only give you a strong support system to better manage mental struggles, but the intimacy they provide can also help fight symptoms of certain mental health disorders.
An emotionally intimate relationship is one that’s founded on trust and compassion. This closeness offers a great platform to share feelings and fears about mental illness with trusted friends, family members, and partners in order to find support and guidance on the journey to recovery.
If you have a loved one who has reached out to you about a mental health problem, you can offer this person support in several ways. Whether that’s pointing someone to recovery resources, or just lending an ear to listen, your support is a critical aspect of your loved one’s recovery.
Humans are social creatures and are ultimately built to crave physical connection with others. Physical signs of affection can cover a wide range of actions from something platonic like a hug or handshake to something much more intimate like a foot rub, kissing or sex.
Receiving and giving physical signs of affection can actually boost your mental health no matter the form in which you engage. In fact, research has found that those who are “touch-deprived” are more likely to experience stress or depression.
Sexual experiences, in particular, can have a significant effect on mental health. During sex, the brain releases dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin which are all neurotransmitters that boost feelings of happiness and relaxation, while also cutting stress hormone levels. This natural influx of chemicals can temporarily improve feelings of depression.
Similarly, the exercise and sleep benefits that often accompany sexual experiences can improve your daily health. Together, they can reduce symptoms of depression or anxiety such as fatigue and stress.
Mental Health’s Impact on Intimacy
It’s important to note, however, that while intimacy is beneficial for those who experience mental health issues, their disorders can sometimes make it difficult for them to engage in these forms of closeness.
Certain mental health issues or past experiences can cause intimacy avoidance, a condition in which a person is afraid of developing close relationships with others. This is typically caused by anxiety, a fear of abandonment, or a history of abuse. It can manifest in a lack of commitment, the inability to express feelings, or relationship-sabotaging behavior.
Some mental health disorders, especially depression, can also cause people to distance themselves from loved ones out of fear that their presence negatively affects others. Or, sometimes they simply don’t have the energy to socialize and end up withdrawing from others. Social isolation, however, can drastically reduce feelings of closeness or intimacy with loved ones and ultimately worsen other mental health symptoms.
If you or your loved one consistently experience these symptoms, there are several ways to get help. A therapist or psychiatrist can offer different treatment plans that work with your routine. It’s also important to adjust your lifestyle to become physically and mentally healthier: try to get more (better) sleep, exercise regularly, and be mindful of your eating habits.
Certain psychological factors can also make it much more difficult for some people to engage in physically intimate acts like sex. In particular, depression and anxiety, as well as some of the medications used to treat them can lower libido and cause performance issues like erectile dysfunction or painful intercourse.
There are several ways you can address these issues from lifestyle changes to treatment or even therapy. Above all, however, doctors recommend that you never stop taking your prescribed medications just to improve your sex life. Instead, speak with your doctor to find the right balance of treatment.
Navigating love and intimacy during a lockdown
These times have brought a lot of challenges to stay safely connected with friends and family but something we do have is the internet. This can allow us to nurture those important relationships and we should all take advantage of it.
Here are some tips to help you stay close to your friends and family while staying at home.
Schedule in regular calls and video calls with loved ones – there’s plenty of apps and options out there for different phones and devices. And don’t forget the regular landline for relatives who might not be digital.
Calls don’t have to just be for a catch up – you can play games, or even prop your phone up for a video call while eating your dinner to make it feel like you’re together. (I'm planning on having some tea with a friend this week via video chat)
Quizzes are fun for the whole family to get involved in – gather a team, give each household their own round to write questions for, or take it turns to host a weekly quiz, with a household crowned a winner at the end of each week.
Being physically intimate while social distancing is a trickier thing. But long-distance relationships aren't a new thing and have been creative in their own ways more than once. One approach might be that if you are able to set up some private time, you might want to try something new. If you are looking for ways to spice up your activities, consider asking a partner about their fantasies, or what is something new that they might be open to trying.
Another thing to consider is how you are showing love to yourself during this time. Self-care has never been more important than it is now. If one of the ways you can care for yourself is to be sexual, then give yourself permission to do so.
In conclusion, your body and brain crave all kinds of closeness to maintain your overall wellbeing. Although some mental health problems may make it more difficult to feel close with others or engage in intimacy, it’s important to speak with experts and work with your body to stay healthy, happy and close with your loved ones.