March 21, 2007

Q&A: Can Stress Really Affect a Man’s Erections?

A reader asks about how stress can impact a man's ability to achieve and maintain an erection.

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Question: After a few months of regular, satisfying sex my boyfriend started having difficulty reaching/maintaining an erection. My instant assumption was that he had lost sexual interest in me, but he told me [repeatedly] that it was not because of me but that it was because he was feeling very stressed because of his job. I’m not convinced. He’s an otherwise healthy guy in his twenties. Is it possible that he can’t function sexually due to a high level of stress at work?

Yes, it is entirely possible for a man’s erections to be affected by stress, whether that stress is from work, school, family, friends or a romantic relationship.

Men’s Sexuality: Simple?

A common myth is that men’s sexuality is simple and that men – particularly young men – should be able to get erections at any time and be able to keep them throughout sex (or until his partner is satisfied) and that men always want to have – and are ready to have – sex. In reality, men’s sexuality – like women’s – is far more complex.

Men’s sexuality can be influenced by health and lifestyle choices (e.g., weight, fitness, cardiovascular health, eating and sleep habits), body image, genes, medical conditions, side effects from medications, romantic relationships and more. Although men’s sexuality involves so much more than erections, we’ll focus on erections since that is what you’ve asked about.

Causes of Erections

Penises become erect due to mental (sexual) excitement, physical stimulation (such as a hand or mouth on a man’s penis) or both. If a man is feeling stressed, then even very high sexual excitement may not be enough to overcome the barrier of mental stress.

Women, too, may like or feel excited by a partner, but thoughts of work, school or family problems may keep them from becoming well lubricated or able to orgasm.

Talking Openly About Sexuality

Unfortunately, because people in our culture rarely talk openly about the reality of sexuality, many women and men do not know how common or normal these experiences may be. As a result, many people blame themselves or their partner for erection, lubrication and orgasm difficulties that are often beyond their control.

When you get upset with your partner or frequently ask if he is still attracted to you, he may feel pressured to “prove” his attraction by trying to get and maintain an erection.

The stress and pressure of trying to prove this to you may actually make it even more difficult for him to get or maintain an erection. As such, a vicious cycle of erection problems and stress may be created.

That said, sometimes men do find it difficult to get or keep erection problems because of relationship problems or a lack of attraction.

We cannot say why your boyfriend has been having difficulty with erections. It might be stress, medications, fatigue, relationship problems, performance anxiety (which is very common among younger men) or something else entirely.

Take The Pressure Off

Try taking the pressure off of your boyfriend to perform. His penis is not the only way to find out how he feels for you; his words should count for something too. If he says he likes you, is attracted to you and wants to date you, then that is worth listening to.

Consider being sexual together in ways that take the focus off of his penis. Try kissing, making out, trading back massages, or taking baths together. If he does become erect, try not to lead him quickly into sex. Instead, consider giving him the space to initiate sex if he wants to, or not to (avoid pressuring him to have sex, as that stress might cause him to lose his erection).

Recommended Reading

Finally, you might find The Sexual Male: Problems and Solutions to be of help.