Sad After Sex

Postcoital dysphoria. After-sex blues. Sexytime sadness. Whatever you choose to call the feelings of post-sex anxiety, angst, sadness, aggression, depression, melancholy, and general ennui, experiencing them is far more common than you might think. 
According to a study done by the International Society of Sexual Medicine in 2015, 46% of young, straight, white, cisgender female university students said that they have experienced postcoital dysphoria, or PCD, at least once in their lifetime. In addition, 5% reported experiencing it on a regular basis. PCD can last anywhere from five minutes to two hours and even though most studies have focused on young women, it can affect anyone of any age or gender. 

At the moment, there is no known specific cause, though there are several popular theories. Vice contributor Daniel Woolfson noted that famed philosophers such as Aristotle, Nietzche, and Baruch Spinoz attributed this phenomenon to the “expenditure of life force,” at least in terms of men. Freud speculated that sex makes us feel like we have achieved the ultimate feeling of connection with another person, so much so that when sex is over and that connection breaks, we feel more alone than ever. British psychiatrist, Anthony Stone, suggests that it all comes back to the circle of life, saying, “Do you feel sad at the end of an amazing film, wishing it could have gone on forever? Nothing lasts forever—we are always in the presence of our demise.” There is also the theory that people who experience sadness after sex have some kind of sexual abuse in their past, which may certainly be true for some, but not necessarily all.

I am personally a fan of the neurochemical explanation I found in a video made by the YouTube channel Stuff Mom Never Told You. The host, Cristen Conger, explains that during sex, specifically orgasms, our brain lowers activity in the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala (the part of the brain that controls fear and anxiety). The brain also does other things during sex, like release dopamine when you have an orgasm or two in addition to processing all of the goodness-signals we get from physical touch. However, after sex/an orgasm, the brain needs to start to get back to “normal” again, which is where the neurochemical prolactin joins the party—or becomes the party pooper, depending on how you’re looking at it. Prolactin starts to suppress dopamine receptors and increase feelings of sexual satisfaction and, as Cristen Conger says, “general chillaxin’” vibes. The prefrontal cortex and amygdala also start to get back up to their regular levels of activity. 

As a person diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and mood disorders, I know sometimes my brain doesn’t release enough dopamine or other “happy” neurochemicals like serotonin when it should, but I never really factored in what happens to the brain during sex when thinking about my own post-bow-chick-a-wow-wow melancholy. I always thought that I got sad after sex because something was wrong with me, like either my mental illness was out of control or I wasn’t “letting” myself be happy. While there are instances where either of those things may have been true, I have found a sense of comfort in knowing that it may just be my brain performing a more routine operation, and that so many people experience it. 

My question is, if large numbers of all kinds of people feel this way after sex, why do we never talk about it? Why is it not part of sex ed curriculums? So often we are presented with the idea that sex has to be this all-consuming and amazing experience that we love. But the reality is that, if you are a person who engages in sex (and not everyone does), then you know it can be awkward and messy. Just like the rest of life, sex is rarely, if ever, perfect. No one should feel like something is wrong with them for feeling less than stellar after a sexual experience. What has really helped me embrace the depressed feelings that I sometimes have after a mattress dance is talking to my partner about it. Having my partner check in with me after we’re done having sex to see how I’m feeling gets me out of my head and, while it may not always prevent or “cure” my postcoital ennui, it’s always good to (pillow) talk it out.

Photo by: Ben Frohman