Regular mindfulness practice may trump medication for women with low sexual desire

Compassionately paying attention to the here and now helps women address common causes of low sexual desire such as stress, anxiety, fatigue.

Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved the drug Addyi™ (flibanserin) – also known as “the female Viagra”, even though it does not work like Viagra – for women with low sex drive, its serious potential side-effects and contraindications (warranting a black box label on the medication) suggest that it may not be the answer for all women with low libidos. Luckily, women with sexual desire problems have access to a different drug-free and side-effects-free option. The therapy is called mindfulness – the practice of non-judgemental present moment awareness. And according to a study led by Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute Scientist Dr. Lori Brotto, mindfulness significantly improves low sexual desire, which affects at least a third of women across reproductive ages in the Western world.

“When we look at the causes of low desire, very often, though not always, it’s related to stress or mood, anxiety, fatigue, trouble concentrating, or a sense of disconnect with the body,” explains Dr. Brotto.

“And so mindfulness can be quite useful for helping women to address and overcome many of those causes. It made a lot of sense that this approach would work.”

Published in 2014 in Behaviour Research and Therapy, the study included 117 women who were assessed as having chronic low sexual desire and long-standing desire complaints. All women participated in four 90-minute facilitator-led mindfulness-based group therapy sessions every two weeks. 

The study found that the mindfulness therapy intervention led to a statistically significant and clinically meaningful improvement in women’s sexual desire and other domains of sexual functioning. Women experienced improved sexual arousal, lubrication, sexual satisfaction, and overall sexual functioning. Increases in mindfulness and a reduction in depressive symptoms predicted improvements in sexual desire. The study also found that sex-related distress significantly decreased as did orgasmic difficulties and depressive symptoms with treatment and even prior to receiving treatment; these findings may have been a result first, of the assessment process in which the nature of discussing sexual health and relationship issues and being validated and heard may have been therapeutic in and of itself and, second, the expectation that treatment would offer some benefits.

“It was quite nice to see that they had quite a considerable drop in their levels of sex-related distress,” says Dr. Brotto. “And this is important because often it’s distress that brings women into treatment. It’s because the low desire gets in the way of their life and their relationship. They feel bad, and their quality of life is compromised.”

Dr. Brotto says that the takeaway from the study is that a mindfulness approach can be quite useful and can have long-term effects. 

“We found the effects were maintained when we studied the women six months later,” she adds.

“There are lots of options for getting mindfulness training in the community: groups at community centres, some wonderful books, and there’s a whole host of free guided meditations online that women can use,” says Dr. Brotto.

She highlights though that the mindfulness practice needs to be just that – practice that happens on a regular basis in order to have a real and sustained effect.

“It’s important for women to know that you don’t just do meditation once and all of a sudden your desire is there,” she says. 

“Women need to be pretty consistent about having a daily practice – and it doesn’t have to be a long practice – but because it will likely benefit other parts of her life, like mood and anxiety, there’s often that motivation to do it.”

“Also, there are no side effects and it’s very inexpensive; it’s quite an appealing kind of treatment.”


Resources suggested by Dr. Brotto:

 

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