Recent research in the Archives of Sexual Behavior sought to expand on findings that had indicated that sexual desire decreased when women were in a negative mood or anxious. But no consistent pattern could be found when looking for a relationship between mood, anxiety, and sexual desire.
The lack of consensus on what emotional experiences lead to changes in sexual desire points to the importance of practitioners recognizing that women’s sexual experiences and health should be examined on a case-by-case basis.
Research is consistently trying to unravel the complexities of sexual desire to understand what current circumstances, past experiences, or biological mechanisms would serve to increase or decrease desire. Sexual desire is seen as a measure of relationship and physical health, but questions about how emotions and mental health play a role remain.
The research team of Celeste Bittoni and Jeff Kiesner sought to provide longitudinal data to the body of work exploring women and the variables affecting sexual desire.
Participants in the study were 213 female university students from Italy with an average age of 21 years. Potential participants were excluded if they were on any form of birth control or medication that affects the menstrual cycle. If they were experiencing seasonal illness, they were asked to wait to begin the daily survey until the illness had resolved.
Participants were asked to complete a digital survey daily for two months. The survey measured daily sexual desire by asking them if, in the last 24 hours, they had experienced an increase or decrease in sexual desire. Depressed mood and anxiety were measured with five questions asking subjects to reflect on the last 24 hours and rate themselves on components like nervousness and crying spells on a 1 to 5 scale.
Analyzing the data gathered from these endeavors revealed that some women did experience increased sexual desire at both low levels of anxiety and depressed mood and at high levels. The effect was more profound for anxiety over depression.
An important finding was that individual women often experienced paradoxical rises and falls in sexual desire. One woman may experience high sexual desire when not anxious and also when experiencing high anxiety, but not when experiencing mild anxiety.
According to the research team, individual diversity in sexual desire may be the most important takeaway from their work. They state, “Our interpretation of these results suggests that causal mechanisms of sexual desire are very idiosyncratic, requiring in-depth assessment of multiple factors, such as causes of mood symptoms, personality, past learning, coping strategies, and types of sexual or romantic relationships, that may moderate the effects of mood on sexual desire.”
“Although testing for possible moderators will be methodologically demanding, we believe that to better understand these paradoxical associations, and sexual desire more broadly, it is both possible and necessary.”
There were some acknowledged limitations of the study. First, no data was collected about the type of sexual relationships the participants were in or if they were sexually active. These variables could have unmeasured consequences.
Second, participants’ coping strategies when feeling depressed or anxious were unknown. Some coping strategies, like exercise, may alter sexual desire. Finally, participants were mostly free from mental health diagnoses. The results may be difficult to generalize to a population with average rates of mental illness.
The study, “Sexual desire in women: Paradoxical and nonlinear associations with anxiety and depressed mood“, was authored by Celeste Bittoni and Jeff Kiesner