Meta-analysis finds mindfulness-based therapies are helpful in treating female sexual dysfunction

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Mindfulness-based psychotherapy can help women who are experiencing sexual problems, according to a meta-analysis published in the Journal of Sex Research.

The new research found that mindfulness-based psychotherapy is linked to moderate to large improvements in most aspects of sexual function. But the initial trials have some notable limitations.

“Sexual dysfunction is one of the most common health concerns in the world,” said study author Kyle Stephenson, an assistant professor of psychology at Willamette University. “It can have a huge negative impact on relationships, other aspects of mental health, and overall quality of life. However, given the hesitancy of governments and organizations to fund sexuality research (and the increasingly anti-science stance of government agencies in general), it is very difficulty to conduct good research on effective treatments.”

“So, I think it is incumbent on scientists to squeeze every bit of knowledge we can out of existing research,” Stephenson told PsyPost. “Lori Brotto and others have done the very difficult work of testing mindfulness-based therapies for sexual dysfunction in multiple trials and this meta-analysis was an attempt to combine and synthesize the results of that work to A) provide a summary that can inform clinical practice, and B) set the stage so that future work in this area can be as targeted and efficient as possible given limited resources.”

Mindfulness-based therapies promote the use of meditative practices in order to teach patients how to monitor and observe their thought patterns and body sensations. While cognitive-behavioral therapy is focused on restructuring thought patterns to manage negative emotions, mindfulness-based therapies are focused on the acceptance of conscious thoughts and feelings. (However, these two forms of psychotherapy are not necessarily opposed to one another.)

The researchers used a statistical method to combine and analyze data from previous research. Their meta-analysis of 11 prior studies found that mindfulness-based therapies tended to improve sexual function and sexual well-being.

“Mindfulness-based therapies seem to be helpful in treating female sexual dysfunction, especially more subjective aspects of sexual experiences like desire and satisfaction, and especially for women currently in romantic relationships,” Stephenson said.

Mindfulness-based therapies tended to produce smaller improvements in physiological aspects of sexual functioning like vaginal lubrication and sexual pain.

“However, the research has notable limitations that, if addressed, would increase our confidence in this conclusion, and allow us to make treatments more effective. We have a long way to go.”

Many of the studies suffer from small sample sizes, for example.

“There are only a few people doing this research and we need to make sure the treatments are effective when implemented by people not affiliated with these labs,” Stephenson explained. “Also, we need more comparisons between alternative types of treatment. Some women may benefit most from mindfulness, others might benefit most from cognitive-behavioral therapies, and some might benefit from more medical interventions. Matching the person to the most effective treatment is a common goal in most areas of medical and behavioral health, including sexual dysfunction.”

“As a sexuality researcher, I often return to the same important points: A) Sex is important! We should study it! B) It is possible to apply high-quality scientific methods to the study of sexual experiences. Doing so provides increased understanding and helpful treatments. C) To speed progress in this field, we need more resources. As with the broader field of mental health, increased open and honest conversation can help reduce stigma and increasing the willingness of organizations to provide funding.”

The study, “Effects of Mindfulness-Based Therapies for Female Sexual Dysfunction: A Meta-Analytic Review“, was also co-authored by Jonathan Kerth.

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