Mentally raise your hand if this has ever happened to you: there you are, in the middle of a sexual interaction with your partner – who seems to be enjoying themselves quite a bit – and your mind is constructing a grocery list, or wondering, “Did I pay that credit card bill yet?” Or, worse yet, “Is this over yet? I have a million things to do.”
Hectic work schedules, exhaustion, social obligations, kids, family responsibilities, and everyday life events can consistently interfere with sexual desire and satisfaction. It’s incredibly difficult to orgasm or have a satisfying sexual experience when you’re miles away from your bedroom and your partner. As a therapist, couples come into my office time and time again complaining that their lives are too jam-packed to accommodate a fulfilling sex life – or their sex life is only satisfying for one partner.
“Spectatoring,” the oh-so-official therapy term, happens when we are physically present for sex, but our mind is not focused on the interaction. For some people, it can feel like they are watching themselves from a distance rather than directly experiencing sensations in their body. For others, it feels like they are disconnected from their physical selves and cannot concentrate on the sensations of pleasure that may be occurring. Spectatoring can happen for a variety of reasons. For survivors of trauma, this type of dissociation can result as a measure of self-protection. Some people unknowingly disconnect from their bodies because they struggle with performance anxiety, body image or self-esteem issues, or other sex-related anxieties. Still others tend to disconnect when their stress levels are high, they don’t feel at ease with their partner, or don’t feel comfortable in their physical environment (e.g. you’re worried your thin bedroom walls aren’t conducive to sex while your child is sleeping in the next room).
In the past several years, mindfulness has been a trending topic, touting to help solve… well, everything. While it’s unlikely that mindfulness can indeed solve all our problems, it can be beneficial for those struggling to stay mentally present during sex for a few specific, key reasons. First, let’s define mindfulness. Contrary to public opinion, mindfulness is not meditation. Meditation practices can and do involve mindfulness, but the two are not synonymous. Mindfulness is, essentially, focusing one’s awareness on the present moment while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. It makes sense why this would be important for staying present during sex: if we aren’t paying attention to what’s going on in our physical selves, how can we expect to experience sexual desire or pleasure?
A study conducted in 2014 (Brotto & Basson) revealed that women who participated in a mindfulness course over the course of four, 90-minute sessions had significantly improved sexual desire, sexual arousal, lubrication, sexual satisfaction, and overall sexual functioning when compared to a control group. Here are some tips on how to stay mindful during your next sexual interaction:
Practice mindfulness outside the bedroom. Try to stay present in the mundane, everyday life moments, like eating, for example. Put down your phone, turn off the TV, and simply focus on the delicious, healthful food you’re eating. What’s it like to JUST eat? Do you feel unproductive or antsy with just one task at hand? Notice, without judgment, what it brings up for you.
Name your anxieties. What gets in the way of staying present during sex? Are you preoccupied with the way you look naked? Are you worried it’s taking you “too long” to orgasm (it’s not, by the way)? Figure out what those negative thoughts are for you and stay aware of them if they creep into your mind during sex.
Foreplay. There can never be too much foreplay. I repeat, there can never be too much foreplay. Penetrative sex is better for both male and female partners if they are adequately aroused, and sexual activities distinct from intercourse can also bring intimacy and passion to a relationship. This is the perfect time to begin to notice where your thoughts go when foreplay starts. Are your thoughts drifting away to insecurities or to-do lists? What would it be like to close your eyes, pay attention to precisely where your partner is touching you, and non-judgmentally accept your body’s response?
Mindfulness isn’t easy, and it takes lots of practice to consistently refocus your mind on what’s happening in the present moment. But once you begin to reacquaint yourself with your physical body, you just might start to thoroughly enjoy sex again.
Brotto, L.A., Basson, R. (2014). Group mindfulness-based therapy significantly improves sexual desire in women. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 57, 43-54. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2014.04.001