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Intimate Issues with Marloe: Your Brain in the Bedroom

by Marloe Esch RN, BSN, OCNSurvivorJuly 8, 2021View more posts from Marloe Esch RN, BSN, OCN

Editor’s Note: Contains Mature Content

Let’s start off with a bit of trivia.  And it isn’t a trick question, I promise.

What’s the biggest sex organ?

If you guessed the brain, you’re right!  Wait, did the title of this post give it away?  Ok, that’s fair.  But now that I have your attention…

While it’s true that the physiological aspects of sexual functioning, like vaginal lubrication, erection, and orgasm, are impacted in part by both our hormones and the health of the blood vessels and nerves that supply our nether-regions, that’s not the whole story.  As it turns out, the more subjective or cognitive components of sexual functioning, like our interest in engaging in sexual activity and how we perceive and respond to sexually relevant stimuli (our partner touching our back, for example, or giving us “the glance”) totally depends on our mental and emotional state of mind.

If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense.  Things like fear, anxiety, or worry tend to activate our brain’s stress response — the same stress response that was responsible for saving our ancestors from getting eaten back in the day.  It’s our brain’s job to ignore sexy stimuli when it feels like there’s trouble lurking.  Essentially, it’s thinking “I ain’t got time for that! We’re going to die!”  I mean, if our ancestors were too busy getting distracted by the sheer ecstasy of getting it on to run away from lions and tigers and bears, well….

Prioritizing stress over sex is normal.  Our brains are built to do this, and they’re really good at it.  Sometimes TOO good.  Sometimes, even when we want to be able to enjoy a sexual experience, or we want to want sex with our partner, our stressed out brain gets in the way.

That’s the bad news.  The good news is that once we understand that our interest in and ability to enjoy sexual experiences can be inhibited by negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions, we can then deduce (correctly!) that working to change our state of mind can help.  This is the magic of understanding the brain-as-a-sex-organ.  Let’s call it your B-spot, shall we?

The full potential of the B-spot depends on a couple of things.  First, you gotta clear away all the noisy clutter that’s taking all your brain space.  Secondly, you gotta figure out what kind of stimulation your B-spot responds to.  How can these things be accomplished, you ask? Let me count the ways!

  1. Identify and Address Your Stressors

Cancer sucks, and there is a whole crap-ton of stress that comes with it.  Things like anger or grief over losses, changes in our bodies and our self-confidence, uncertainty about the future, or fears of recurrence can follow us through treatment and beyond.  I call these our existential stressors.

When it comes to sadness, fears, or anxieties, expressing yourself can be really, really helpful.  Truly honest conversations with a close friend, your family, or a support group can ease distress.  So can expressive writing or art therapy.  When negative thoughts or feelings are persistent and interfere with sleep, the things you used to enjoy, or your work or social life, it is important to seek professional help.  Sometimes our stress can be related to changes in our romantic relationships after cancer, and it can really help to involve your partner in counseling sessions, too.

Identifying and addressing your stressors is easier said than done, I know.  But this is crucial.  No matter how much effort you put in to implementing any of the other suggestions to follow, if there are things on your mind that are stressing you out, your brain will absolutely focus attention on what’s stressful instead of prioritizing any other want or desire.  Minimizing the stress that can hog brain power leaves room for potentially sexy stimuli to get noticed as… potentially sexy!

  1. Make Space for Relaxing Routines

But what about those super annoying day-to-day stressors?  Dishes, laundry, traffic jams…All of these can add up, and to our brain, stress is stress is stress. Whether from a lion, the fear of missing a deadline, or the fact that your partner left their dirty socks on the floor again, these types of stressors are as equally as likely as our existential stressors to be hitting the breaks on our potential for getting hot-and-heavy.

This is where “me-time” can play a role.  In addition to your daily or weekly To-Do’s (because, yes, it DOES feel good to check things off the list!), make a list of activities that bring you pure joy – spending time in the garden, puttering around the garage, bubble baths, reading a good book, being creative with wood-working or writing, enjoying the stars, whatever.  Make it a habit to set aside time for yourself.  Intentionally making space for doing the things that we enjoy is what keeps us sane, and what reminds us of the good things in life.  And there are lots of good things in life… like being intimate with our partner.

  1. Practice Mindfulness

Alright, so you took to heart suggestions #1 and #2, and what happened?  Your brain wouldn’t shut up?  Instead of inner Zen, you had a constant stream of distracting thoughts?  Totally common.  Totally normal.  And totally manageable… by strengthening your mindfulness skills.

Mindfulness is the act of focusing your awareness on the present moment, being attuned to physical sensations, and ignoring distractions.  It’s beneficial for all kinds of reasons.  Studies have shown that over time, practicing mindfulness can increase your sense of well-being, promote energy, combat fatigue, and decrease depression and anxiety.  All of which, by the way, can really put a little spring in your step, or your libido.  Mindfulness, though, can also help us avoid distractions during intimacy.  Being mindful improves our ability to tune out the noise of negative thoughts and tune into whatever pleasurable sensations are happening right now – whether physical (“That feels good!”) or emotional (“I really enjoy spending time with my partner!”)  Sounds like B-spot stimulation to me…

If you are an evidence-based kind of person, I hear ya, and I’m happy to report that there is a whole body of research devoted to the idea of mindfulness and sex.  Check out Dr. Lori Brotto’s book, titled Mindfulness and Sex, to dig into how and why mindfulness is so awesome.

  1. Develop a Sexual Fantasy

Thinking about a sexy scenario before or during sexual activity can lead to a chain reaction of increased desire and arousal, and can even help with achieving orgasm. Sexual fantasies are really, really good at stimulating the B-Spot!

When it comes to what turns us on, we’re all a little different.  If you’re not sure exactly what you find stimulating (some of us have never really thought about this before), or if you feel like you never experience sexy thoughts, consider keeping a desire diary.  This exercise was outlined by Dr. Leslie R. Schover in the 2007 American Cancer Society publication Sexuality for the Man with Cancer (but it works for the ladies, too), and it looks like this: Every day for a week, carry a paper with you wherever you go, and whenever you have a sexual thought or feeling, write down where you were, time of day, activity, what triggered the thought or feeling, who you were with, and what you did about it.  That’s it!

Our brains are so good at shutting down sexy thoughts when they show up at inconvenient or inappropriate times (in the check-out line at the grocery store, say?) that we hardly even recognize our own arousal reaction sometimes.  Making note of these fleeting thoughts can teach us a lot about ourselves, and can be really helpful in a couple of ways.  Firstly, you might be surprised at how often you actually have thoughts about sex, and simply having this awareness can improve interest.  Secondly, you might find patterns in what turns you on, and you can use what you’ve learned to put yourself and your partner in these mood-enhancing situations, or for creating a private sexual fantasy all your own.  Happy day-dreaming, my friend.

  1. Take Advantage of Your Partner’s Libido

You may not have a fully spontaneous urge to initiate sexual activity, but that doesn’t mean that a sexual encounter is out of the question. This might seem counter-intuitive, because we are taught that desire is the obligatory first step in sexual response.  Not true!  Sometimes, once you’ve made the conscious choice to participate in sexy activities and things get going, you end up finding that sexual “wanting more” feeling.  This is called responsive desire (vs. the spontaneous kind), and can happen for both men and women.  In fact, for women in particular, this is the most common way desire is experienced.

Have you ever found yourself not thinking about sex or not feeling particularly sexual, but your partner initiated something and you thought “Sure, what the heck?” and when it was all over, you thought, “OMG, that was great!  Why don’t we do this more often?” That’s responsive desire.

Sometimes our brains have to be reminded of how fun sexy encounters can be, and how great we feel afterward (all that oxytocin promoting bonding, affection, and love, blah blah blah).  We don’t need to be actively seeking sexual pleasure in order to enjoy it once we’ve decided to engage.  So what if it wasn’t on your radar two minutes ago?  Allowing your brain to be stimulated with a little bit of action (B-Spot!), can leave you wanting more.  Not that you are required to say Yes to your partner every time he or she asks (absolutely not!) … but … What if the next time your partner brushes up behind you, instead of an immediate “Nope!” reaction, you lean in and think, “Maybe….?”

  1. Creativity and Imagination

If you have a long-term romantic partner, no doubt that you probably have a fairly routine sexual script that has developed over time.  After all, practice makes perfect!  Knowing what works and how to make it happen is great… until something like cancer comes along and suddenly you don’t, and it isn’t.  Like I said before, cancer can change our self-concept, self-confidence, and how our bodies work.  Now what?

It’s important to keep an open mind and drop the idea of some arbitrary end-goal; there’s more than one way to give and receive pleasure!  Embracing curiosity and playfulness can be a no-pressure way for you and your partner learn what’s changed and what works.  Challenge your sexual “status quo” by trying different positions, different times of day, using pillows, and experimenting with “extras” (lube, personal massagers, etc), manual or oral stimulation, and sensual massage (which may lead to discovery of new erogenous zones)  Embrace planning over spontaneity.  It may take a little extra effort to set yourself up for a satisfying sexual encounter, but with preparation and thought comes anticipation, and that’s just another prime example of B-Spot stimulation.

Bottom line: Don’t underestimate the B-spot!  Your brain can be your biggest barrier or greatest ally when it comes to sex.  With practice and patience, we can learn how to give less attention to what’s stressing us out and more attention to what makes us feel good.  Cancer brings challenges, but it also brings opportunity.  Time to see what your mind is made of!

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