We live in a distracted world. We eat our lunch while staring at a computer screen and flipping through news updates on Twitter or Facebook. We respond to e-mails from our boss while ordering groceries online from the sidelines at our kids' soccer game.
For many of us, this type of multitasking and obsession with devices is a well-polished art. Although we may pat ourselves on the back as we successfully cross things off our perpetually growing to-do lists, scientific studies have shown the damage done to the brain if this pattern becomes a habit.
We are not actually multitasking when we engage in many tasks at once, but instead are rapidly switching between tasks, which, if repeated over time, can impair our problem-solving abilities. Research shows that chronic multitasking adds up to the same effect as losing a full night's sleep, and has about twice the effect of marijuana on thinking skills.
This "mindlessness" can also negatively affect that very basic human drive: sex. Have I got your attention now?
Sexual dysfunction is very common in women, affecting up to a quarter of women across age groups. Age, health setbacks and menopause only add to the problem. So does being in a long-term union – there is an inverse relationship between sexual desire and relationship duration. In other words, the longer you are with a partner, the less sexual desire you feel, likely because of boredom, loss of novelty and making less time and effort, leading to less arousing sexual activities. In men, low libido is even more common than erection problems, though over all the prevalence of low desire in men is lower than in women.
Although hormones have a part to play in problems with sexual desire, orgasm, erections in men and vaginal lubrication in women, emotional and relationship factors play an even greater role. Stress, in particular, is a major culprit behind sex-starved relationships, dwindling desire and unsatisfying orgasms.
By stress I mean the daily, mundane events and hassles that erode our quality of life. Research finds that such chronic stress can build up and negatively affect both our physical and emotional well-being.
A common scene in the offices of most sex therapists is one in which a woman has trouble focusing on her partner's touch and does not notice signs of her body responding with sexual arousal. She is preoccupied with thoughts about her "flawed" body, is worried about disappointing her partner by not squealing with glee in the way she believes her partner wants her to and is distracted by the incessant chatter and to-do list in her mind.
Although a medication (currently not approved by Health Canada) may boost her vaginal arousal, her mind may remain bored, irritated or close to falling asleep.
Mindfulness meditation, a practice born out of Buddhist tradition, has been welcomed in Western medicine and society over the past 40 years. In the past decade, mindfulness has also made its way into the bedrooms of sexually dissatisfied men and women.
In my role as a psychologist and researcher specializing in the treatment of sexual problems, I have been especially interested in the benefits of mindfulness.
Enter a raisin. In our mindfulness-based group treatment, participants are guided to fully take in all aspects of a raisin in a slow, deliberate, fully present and accepting manner.
They are instructed to notice its shape, size, colour, contour, weight, shine and dullness. As they smell the raisin, they pay attention to the qualities of its scent. When memories of eating home-baked raisin bread as a child fill their mind, they're guided to notice this as a memory – as a sensation in their mind – then are redirected back to the present qualities of the raisin.
When the raisin is placed in their mouth, they inevitably begin to salivate, and are told to notice how the body responds in anticipation of chewing. They are instructed to slowly bite into the raisin. Even after they have swallowed it, participants are still paying close attention to the lingering aroma, the remaining saliva, the sounds of digestion.
In this potent experience involving a single raisin, participants are provided with the building blocks for cultivating a lost sexual response. Over the next eight weeks, they practise similar guided meditations daily at home and meet weekly with a group of others led by a trained sex therapist and mindfulness practitioner.
As members acquire the skills to notice when their mind has taken off like a curious puppy, they become adept at redirecting themselves back to the present moment, with a hefty dose of kindness – not judging themselves for struggling or finding this challenging. They then gradually adapt this skill to progressively more sexual scenarios, starting with practising mindfulness while in the shower, using a hand-held mirror to explore their own body, and, eventually, while sharing an intimate encounter with a partner.
Research has found that as a result of this type of mindfulness practice, sexual desire, arousal, satisfaction and pleasure increase, and sex-related distress and symptoms of depression lessen.
I am the lead investigator for two large trials funded by the Canadian government comparing mindfulness with other treatment for women with sexual dysfunction and those with a chronic vaginal pain condition called vulvodynia.
If you find yourself struggling with an unsatisfying sexual experience and wanting to escape in your mind, consider reaching for a raisin and see if you can train your mind to remain right here.
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