Stress Is Causing a Lack of Erections

Marcelina Hardy, MSEd, BCC
Couple dealing with lack of erections due to stress

If your stress is causing a lack of erections, you may be wondering when and if you will ever be able to return to satisfying sex life. The good news is you will, but it will take some work on your stress levels before that is possible.

How Erections Happen

Erections are an involuntary process your brain controls. It's the same type of involuntary response as getting goose bumps when you're cold or blushing when you're embarrassed. The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) has two parts that work together to cause you to have an erection: The sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system helps you become sexually aroused and prepares your body to take action when stressed, also known as the fight or flight response. The parasympathetic nervous system kicks in after a stressor is no longer a threat by calming your body down.

When you become sexually aroused, the sympathetic and parasympathetic parts of the ANS work simultaneously to cause an erection. The parasympathetic calms you down enough so the sympathetic can get you aroused and send the message to your penis to erect. However, when you're under a great deal of stress, the two parts of the ANS compete with one another, and messages aren't sent to the penis.

When Stress Is Causing a Lack of Erections

When you're stressed, the parasympathetic part of the ANS is unable to calm your body down because the sympathetic is working overtime trying to make the stressor go away (either by preparing your body to get away from whatever is causing you stress or giving you the energy to fight it off). Therefore, when you are trying to have sex and introduce a new stressor (sexual arousal), your body can't process the new message, which is how stress is causing a lack of erections.

Stressors That Cause Erectile Dysfunction

Just about any type of stress can cause erectile dysfunction. Problems at work, relationship conflict, illness, financial burdens, or even fear of aging can be stressful enough to interfere with sexual responses. For some men, erectile dysfunction is the cause of their stress. If they've had problems with having or keeping an erection before, they may fear it will happen again, causing stress and then repeat lack of erections.

How to Know if Stress Is the Cause of Your Erectile Dysfunction

There are a few indicators stress is the likely culprit for erectile dysfunction.

  • If you are able to have an erection while sleeping or first thing in the morning, stress is most likely the cause of your loss of erections.
  • If you're able to have and maintain an erection during masturbation, performance anxiety is most likely the cause for your erectile dysfunction.

Performance Anxiety and Erectile Dysfunction

Stressed man sitting on bed

Performance anxiety happens when you feel stress about your ability to obtain a strong erection for sexual intercourse or maintaining an erection to finish intercourse. You become fearful or embarrassed, and your anxiety increases to where you anticipate not being able to have an erection, which results in recurring difficulties actually having an erection. A 2005 study found performance anxiety was the only unique predictor of sexual dysfunction for men.

In a more recent study, researchers found symptoms of anxiety and depression were associated erectile dysfunction. While symptoms of depression accounted for 4.2 percent of patients' erectile dysfunction, anxiety accounted for 3 percent.

Increased anxiety causes stress and narrows blood vessels. Less blood flowing to the penis makes it more difficult to have an erection. Even men who generally do not have difficulties may not be able to get an erection because they are overcome by sexual performance anxiety.

Managing Performance Anxiety

Performance anxiety can be managed in a number of ways. Treating your performance anxiety may also help reduce erectile dysfunction.

Some options for managing your condition include:

  • Talk therapy to manage stress, depression, and other life concerns
  • Couples counseling to help with relationship problems
  • Sex therapy to work through intimacy and performance issues
  • Not rushing sex
  • Guided imagery

Solving Stress-Induced Erectile Dysfunction

If you've confirmed stress is the reason you are not able to have or keep an erection, stress management techniques can help you.

  • Start by eliminating as many stressors from your life as you are able to and then work on the ones you can't avoid.
  • If work is overwhelming, speak to your boss about delegating some of your tasks to others.
  • If you have a difficulty with time management, take steps to prioritize your time with a schedule.
  • For many situations, you may not be able to do anything about (i.e. the death or illness of a loved one). In these types of situations, try to calm down your physiological responses to the stress by exercising, meditating, or doing some other stress reliever. By doing this, you may be able to slow down the sympathetic part of the ANS so your parasympathetic can catch up to help you calm down enough to have an erection.

It's important to understand, however, that sometimes in times of extreme stress, you may just need to ride it out until life gets better. Alternatively, you can speak to your doctor about medication that can help you with your anxiety, depression, or specifically, erectile dysfunction. Usually, men who go this route have chronic issues with erectile dysfunction.

Supporting Your Partner

Do not blame your partner if he is having a problem with erections. The loss of erections is not because he doesn't find you attractive or sexually stimulating. Erectile dysfunction is a common occurrence in men, and it's usually temporary. Keep in mind if you pressure him about it or make him feel like a failure, the situation can become worse. The best thing you can do is ask your partner what is troubling him. Talking, listening, and helping will help him feel better about his inability to have an erection and ensure he will return to his normal sexual performance once he is no longer under extreme stress.

Stress Is Causing a Lack of Erections