Sex & Relationships

Want To *Actually* Improve Your Sex Life? Try Mindfulness. Seriously.

Psychologist and sex researcher Lori Brotto explains why your mind might just be the key to better sex.

You deserve good sex. But good sex can feel elusive — between work and kids and the routine of everything, there’s a lot that can put sex on the back burner, or just make it not all that satisfying. If that weren’t bad enough, studies show that roughly half of all women encounter some kind of sexual difficulty in their lifetimes, whether that’s low desire, or a hard time arriving at orgasm.

While she’d in no way call it an easy fix, Lori Brotto would tell you the key to a more satisfying sex life is all in your mind. Since the early 2000s, the Vancouver-based psychologist and sex researcher has helped hundreds of women achieve more satisfying sex lives by teaching them mindfulness — focusing on touch and sensations and being in the present moment. That’s how, she writes in her forthcoming book Better Sex Through Mindfulness: How Women Can Cultivate Desire, these women have formed better relationships with their sexuality, enjoy themselves in bed and orgasm more often. She spoke with Chatelaine about everything from how multi-tasking is the enemy of good sex to how the benefits of mindfulness have won over even the most resistant skeptics.

When you put the words sex and mindfulness together, I think Sting and Trudie hippie-dippy tantric sex. What are you actually talking about?

Yes, it’s about practising mindfulness during sexual encounters, but what we’ve found, and what we teach in the groups we’ve been running now for years, is it’s about learning and cultivating that skill in your life in general. If you’re constantly multi-tasking throughout your life and never fully present, it’s going to be really hard to just do that during sexual activity. The brain has been hard-wired and it’s going to find it very difficult to do that.

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A lot of women pride themselves on being expert multi-taskers — but you say that can be bad for our sex lives? Tell me more.

Research has shown that rapid multi-tasking is really bad for our brains in general. We might feel like we’re accomplishing a lot by switching between tasks very quickly, but with each switch it’s actually more taxing on our brains. So when we take that and apply it to sexuality and sexual response for women and for men, it really requires this brain-body integration. It’s not just a reflex. And so when we’re switching, it could be switching in terms of getting distracted, or switching to thinking about more negative things – like, “Will I respond, will I have an orgasm, will I disappoint my partner?….”

Lori Brotto. Photo, Martin Dee.

That sounds like we’re putting a lot of pressure on ourselves in those moments.

Tons of pressure. When we put that pressure on, it elicits the limbic system part of the brain, the amygdala that elicits fear and anxiety – and when that happens, we release cortisol, which is the stress hormone, so it’s fight or flight, and our body prepares itself for combat. That system is actually the opposite to the sexual arousal system. So the sexual arousal system is parasympathetic and when we go to that judgmental, stressful, worrisome place, the sympathetic nervous system is activated.

Doesn’t sound hopeful for orgasms.

No, it’s going to totally turn it off!

So what has your research found about the benefits of mindfulness in sex?

One very consistent finding since the earliest 2003 study is that women will report more desire, more arousal, more sexual satisfaction. We also finds improvements in mood, reductions in anxiety. We’ve got a big randomized controlled trial we’re doing now in which we’re trying to figure out: Who are the women that benefit the most? Is it the women who have a background in yoga? Is it the women who are more depressed? Is it the women who are in great relationships? We don’t know yet.

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You write in your forthcoming book that early on, you and your team were sure that busy women weren’t going to buy in to practising mindfulness to improve their sex lives — but they totally did. How’d you win them over?

We do have these people all the time, where in their first session they’ll say, “I hate yoga, meditation is not for me, I’m actually someone who loves multi-tasking, I love getting everything done.” It’s going to take a little bit longer to have some buy-in and they will have to, on their own, personally notice the benefits before considering incorporating that into partnered encounters. It helps to show those women the neuroimaging studies where we can actually map out the different parts of the brain that change in response to mindfulness. For the really busy women, framing this as something you can do in your office at noon while you’re taking a brief pause for lunch, or right before you go into that busy meeting, or while you’re eating dinner goes a long way.

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And hey! I’m helping my sex life in the meantime!

Usually it’s an “aha moment” for them — they’re at the dentist in excruciating pain and they practise mindfulness and they notice, “Wow, when I tune into that pain, it’s not actually pain, it’s warmth and pulsing and swooshing and it comes and goes.” So it’s usually an encounter like that — a non-sexual one.

So how do you know when you can bring it to the bedroom?

Over time, you can start to bring it into sexual encounters. It’s usually after about five weeks with our groups. First you do it on your own, through masturbation. Then you can use that awareness to really tune in and maybe feel sensations in a way you’ve never done before. But, of course, every person is different.

Imagine you’re in an elevator with a total mindfulness skeptic. What do you say?

I would say there’s actually strong evidence that shows us we can exercise that muscle of mindfulness. It changes our brain and it changes how our brain functions. It doesn’t matter what age you are, we can exercise that ability to notice things in a new way. And when you do that — wow, the outcomes are so vast. We suddenly now have a way of dealing with negative thoughts, we can maybe notice sensations we haven’t noticed before. And suddenly our experience in the moment is so full and so different than it was before.

Full of orgasms!

Well, maybe not in the elevator.