The Impact Of Cortisol On Intimacy & Relationships
THE IMPACT OF CORTISOL ON INTIMACY & RELATIONSHIPS
Note – In writing this article I have needed to identify gender as it is relevant for the communication of the content. For people who are gendered differently and identify as LGBTQIA+, please note that the majority of my clients are cisgender male/female dynamics; therefore, I predominantly use the words male/female, man/woman and pronouns him/her/he/she.
What I’ve discovered within my own relationship journey and from working with individuals and couples, is that stress, increased levels of Cortisol (stress hormone), is the major cause of hormonal disharmony and sexless relationships.
When stress hormone Cortisol increases, this causes Estrogen to lower in the cisgender female body, and Testosterone to lower in the cisgender male body. Increased Cortisol not only impacts health and shortens our life, it depletes motivation, inspiration, desire, libido, romance and passion.
When an individual has raised levels of Cortisol, their sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) becomes active and their body up-regulates. If nervous system re-harmonization isn’t re-established through down-regulating activities that activate the para sympathetic nervous system (rest and digest), the sympathetic nervous system remains active and survival mode becomes their way of being.
Survival mode switches off the hormonal systems that regulate growth, reproduction, metabolism and immunity. This response allows the body to divert biochemical resources to dealing with the stress, threat or danger. Lack of focus, memory loss, fatigue, intestinal problems, emotional reactivity, being more impulsive, low libido, erectile dysfunction and irregular menstrual cycle are symptoms that may be experienced in oneself or observed in another.
If individuals and couples aren’t equipped with the tools they need to support themselves and each other in lowering Cortisol, sexual desire, libido and intimacy are compromised in their relationship.
Often, I hear clients in heterosexual relationships expressing feelings of anger, resentfulness, guilt and shame – intimacy is very challenging for a couple with all of these emotions in the way. Navigating their way through this requires having the practical tools needed to recalibrate their nervous system, and embodying the language needed to express their needs and desires.
When working with clients I don’t focus on painfully pulling apart what’s wrong, I empower and support clients in exploring the education that’s missing, and new pathways that are fully aligned with the thriving relationships they desire.
It’s an absolute honour to witness the old, clunky and painful behavioural patterns transforming, as we explore liberating and empowering pathways that ignite curiosity, innocence, love and deeper understanding.
Recalibration begins with the biology of the body, brain chemistry and endocrine system. Hormones are molecules that are produced by endocrine glands, including the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, adrenal glands, gonads, (i.e., testes and ovaries), thyroid gland, parathyroid glands, and pancreas. Every action we choose throughout every moment of our lives stimulates the production of specific hormones via the endocrine system.
In the act of:
Taking Action with an Agenda – Testosterone is produced
e.g. working to get paid, exercising for a healthy body, competition
Giving without an Agenda – Progesterone is produced
e.g. nurturing, giving to others or self for joy and pleasure, collaboration
Receiving without Guilt or Obligation – Estrogen is produced
e.g. receiving touch, gifts, compliments or support without feeling guilty or obliged
CISGENDER MALE HORMONES
In a healthy male body Testosterone is high and in harmony with the other hormones, he then experiences strength, vitality, clarity, libido, attractiveness, ultimate health and longevity.
There are two main reasons a male may be experiencing stress:
- He is overdoing, overworking or over exercising, which results in the production of Cortisol rather than Testosterone.
- He is living a passive lifestyle and not taking enough action with an agenda to produce the levels of Testosterone needed to feel healthy, strong and vital. When Cortisol is high he may experience rapid weight gain (mainly around the face, neck, chest and abdomen), muscle weakness, mood swings and irritability.
Testosterone plays a major role in reducing stress and has a major effect on his mood. When he achieves balance within work/play and manages his stress, he feels on top of the world.
In the male body, Progesterone is produced in the testicles and the adrenal glands. The more Progesterone a man produces, the more Testosterone he can produce. This is why it’s important for a man to be giving without agenda as much as he is taking action with an agenda. Progesterone is responsible for caring, nurturing and friendly behaviour.
“Social bonding” = close, harmonious and friendly social interactions
If the activity primarily supports the expression of his masculine side, Testosterone is exchanged. e.g. Watching the soccer, catching up for a beer, Men’s group.
If the activity primarily supports the expression of his feminine side Progesterone is exchanged. e.g. Group exercise, Yoga or Pilates class.
“Pair bonding” produces Estrogen and Oxytocin
If the activity primarily supports the expression of a man’s feminine side only while in a 1:1 setting with a female this is “Pair Bonding”. e.g. Having a massage, talking about feelings and emotions.
Often a male is stressed in relationship because he’s not taking enough “guilt free” time for himself for social bonding experiences. Whenever a male feels resentful, it is generally a sign he needs to have an open conversation with his partner about his need for solo time/space “cave time” to lower his stress. e.g. go to the gym, play sport, martial arts, watch sport on television, chat with his mate on the phone.
A male’s support has more power to lower his partner’s stress when his stress is low. If his partner makes him feel guilty about taking time for himself to recharge, his cortisol rises and Testosterone is not exchanged. If his partner allows him to take his stress-free solo time, his Testosterone recharges and his stress is reduced. His presence, attention and affection can now support his partner in reducing her own stress by supporting her in getting the time she needs for “Social or Pair bonding”.
CISGENDER FEMALE HORMONES & THE MENSTRUAL CYCLE
In a healthy female body Estrogen is high and in harmony with the other hormones, she then experiences strength, vitality, clarity, libido, attractiveness, ultimate health and longevity.
There are two main reasons a female may be experiencing stress:
- She is overdoing, overworking, over exercising or over giving and not balancing this with receiving from others or self without feeling guilty or obliged. In this case, it is common for a female to experience an irregular menstrual cycle, mood swings, irritability and premature menopause.
- She is living a very passive lifestyle, not taking enough action to produce the Testosterone and Progesterone needed to balance the high levels of Estrogen circulating in the body. High levels of circulating Estrogen in the body can cause weight gain, fibroids, the uterine lining to thicken, which can result in heavier blood flow and larger blood clots during menstruation.
During menopause the ovaries no longer make female hormones, but her adrenal glands continue making hormones to continue her cycle as before. Hormonal swings are not as pronounced and are more flexible. During this time of no menstrual bleeding, she can consider the moon cycle. Full moon and new moon will signify her menstruation and ovulation.
Testosterone levels in the female body are not required to be as high as the male body. Too much Testosterone can lower a woman’s Progesterone (feel good hormone). Testosterone expresses a woman’s masculine side and temporarily suppresses her feminine side. Testosterone helps a female meet her daily challenges without additional stress, as long as she can look forward to having the opportunity to express her feminine side later in the day or in the near future. Testosterone is produced when she expresses her masculine side in an impersonal setting, while Progesterone is produced when expressing both her masculine and feminine in a more personal setting.
Progesterone plays a major role in reducing stress and has a major effect on mood. Estrogen excites the brain and Progesterone calms the brain. In the female body Progesterone opposes Estrogen to maintain the correct balance of hormones for the ability to become pregnant. Progesterone is produced after ovulation to counterbalance Estrogen and reduce stress. Both are required in the second half of her menstrual cycle however Progesterone needs to be higher, otherwise her stress symptoms will increase. Progesterone is responsible for caring and friendly behaviour.
“Social bonding” produces Progesterone
Social bonding = close, harmonious and friendly social interactions with women or men who are just friends. If the activity primarily supports the expression of both her masculine and feminine sides, this is “Social bonding”. e.g. Group exercise, Yoga class, Women’s group.
“Pair bonding” produces Estrogen and Oxytocin
If the activity primarily supports the expression of her feminine side only in a 1:1 setting, this is “Pair Bonding”. e.g. Having a haircut, massage, 1:1 therapies/coaching, receiving or allowing during intimacy with partner.
Progesterone is also produced when a female takes time to nurture her own needs for fun, happiness, love and pleasure. Anytime a female depends on herself for fulfilment during a non-stress producing activity, Progesterone is produced.
In the second half of her menstrual cycle Progesterone is most important – after ovulation (days 14-28 of her cycle). In the first half of her menstrual cycle Estrogen and Oxytocin are the most important for happiness and wellbeing – after menstruation (days 1-14 of her cycle).
During the second half of her menstrual cycle when Progesterone is important, if she is giving more than she is getting, then Progesterone is not produced. Often women are stressed in relationship because they’re not taking enough “guilt free” time for themselves or social bonding experiences.
Whenever a female feels resentful, it is generally a sign she needs to back off from looking to her partner for more “Pair bonding” and makes more Progesterone through “Social bonding” to lower her stress. Her partner can help her make Estrogen and Oxytocin, but it’s primarily up to her to make Progesterone.
During the second half of her menstrual cycle, her partner’s support has less power to lower her stress, but his presence, attention and affection can support her in reducing her own stress by helping her get the time she needs for “Social bonding”. If her partner tries to change her mood by giving advice or explaining why she should be happy, this just makes her feels worse.
TESTOSTERONE PRODUCING ACTIVITIES
-Driving a car (without stress or road rage)
-Effort and hard work
-Solving problems (rather than complaining)
-Working on projects
-Making a difference
-Prayer, meditation, silence
-Learning and developing skills
-Facing challenges with confidence
-Success and winning
-Physical exercise (like running)
-Taking care of romance
-Listening to understand
-Joking or making light of problems with men
TESTOSTERONE WITHOUT PROGESTERONE
-Working for money and serving people who aren’t friends/family
-Solving problems that don’t involve nurturing
-Being in leadership, making decisions and not sharing accountability with others
-When wellbeing is dependent upon competition as opposed to co-operation
-Making choices for job requirement: following rules & instructions rather than feelings, preferences & intuition
-Deadline and goal based achievement
-Denying needs to fulfil job requirement
-When conscience is ignored (being willing to kill to protect country)
-Jobs that are technical, impersonal problem solving and don’t require love, nurturing & intuition
-When a female doesn’t have time or support for being a parent
PROGESTERONE PRODUCING ACTIVITES – SOCIAL BONDING/GROUP NURTURING
-Playing cards or board games
-Sports or other team activities
-Singing in a group
-Group yoga or exercise classes
-Making a meal with others
-Sharing time with a parent, family member or friend who thinks or feels in a similar manner
-Sharing in a woman’s group or other meetings of people who share the same experience
-Being involved in a fundraiser or charity event
-Sitting together and sharing with friends at a gathering or girl’s night out
-Attending a concert or event and dancing with friends
-Giving touch to another without a sexual agenda
PROGESTERONE PRODUCING ACTIVITIES – SELF NURTURING
-Following a healthy eating plan or working out to improve health and wellbeing
-Taking time to learn a new skill
-Reading a book that is enjoyable to read
-Making a new recipe
-Creative time to organise or clean the home
-Taking time to journal thoughts, emotions, feelings
-Exercising or walking in nature
-Enjoying a candlelit bath
-Listening to great music and dancing alone
-Self pleasure that’s not orgasm focused
-Womb and/or breast massage
ESTROGEN & OXYTOCIN PRODUCING ACTIVITIES
-Talking about problems
-Talking about relationships
-Hugging & cuddling
-Expressing feelings and feeling heard
-Receiving a haircut, pedicure or massage
-Cooperating and collaborating
-Having plenty of time to do the things that bring feelings of joy
-Receiving extra support to take solo “me” time
-Romance & going on dates
(most commonly women exchange estrogen & men exchange testosterone)
-Receiving physical affection
-Receiving attention to feelings and needs
-Receiving flowers, gifts, notes, greeting cards
-Receiving help or support
-Feeling respected and honoured
-Feeling loved and cherished
-Receiving touch without feeling guilty or obliged
-Allowing self to be “taken”
-Shopping: a female anticipates her new purchases will impress, please, support herself and others
-Buying and wearing new clothes, shoes, accessories: a female anticipates receiving increased attention and protection from social scrutiny
-Getting dressed up in a way that makes her feel special and beautiful: a female anticipates being seen and adored
-Wearing sexy lingerie that makes her feel more desirable: a female anticipates her partner being more attracted to her
-Giving gifts: a female anticipates that others will include her and appreciate her more
-Helping others: a female anticipates being included and valued by her community and later supported if she needs it
-Cooking dinner and other nurturing activities for her partner: a female anticipates when her partner comes out of his “man cave” he will give her more attention and affection as well as do things for her & their relationship
-Caring for children: a female anticipates receiving extra support from her partner and unconditional love from her children
I have just released a program for anyone who desires health, harmony, vitality, longevity and thriving relationships. The program is online and the format is video learning with a reference/workbook. You’ll be equipped with somatic learning and tools to integrate harmonious hormones and transform current relationships to a higher octave, or be empowered to create new ones.
Here is the link for more information:
Somatic Sexologist, Sexological Bodyworker, Intimacy & Relationships Coach