Common notions about what sexual experiences "should" be like are not limited to the act itself. There's also "the afterglow," which, according to one female-focused website, is "one of the most wonderful feelings in the entire world," a state of bliss that women "should just bask in."
Given such expectations, feeling anxious or depressed after sex must make many women think of themselves as strange, or hopelessly screwed-up. But newly published research suggests this experience is surprisingly common.
In the journal Sexual Medicine, a research team led by Queensland University psychologist Robert Schweitzer describes a study featuring 195 female Australian college students. It finds nearly half had experienced symptoms of "postcoital dysphoria"—defined as "a sense of melancholy or depression, anxiety, agitation, or aggression following sexual intercourse"—at least once in their lifetimes.
If you feel "fused" with a lover and unsure of who you are on your own, it's not surprising that you could feel anxious or depressed in the wake of an act of intense closeness such as sex.
In addition, one in 20 reported experiencing such post-sex symptoms at least once over the previous four weeks.
Schweitzer and his colleagues, clinical psychologist Jessica O'Brien and Andrea Burri of the University of Zurich, recruited the students via email and Facebook. Participants filled out a lengthy survey designed to measure their overall sexual functioning and emotional health, as well as their experiences, if any, with post-sex depression.
"Approximately 46.2 percent of the current sample reported that they had experienced PCD symptoms at least once in their lifetimes," the researchers report. Two percent reported experiencing such symptoms "always" or "most of the time;" 5.1 percent said they had experienced them within the past four weeks.
The lifetime number is higher than the 32.9 percent found in a 2011 study, which suggests the actual figure remains somewhat elusive. It's worth noting, however, that both studies featured college students, most of whom presumably did not have long sexual histories. The lifetime figure could be larger if older women were also surveyed.
Not surprisingly, the researchers found that "a history of childhood sexual abuse appeared to be the most important predictor" of post-sex depression. This, they write, could be due to the women's "emotional and/or psychological problems, including anxiety, about sexual contacts." Alternatively, "women with an abusive history may be more prone to enter relationships in which they do not always feel in control of their experience, or assertive about their wants/needs," which can easily result in an emotional let-down.
The researchers found no relationship between post-sex blues and emotional intimacy between partners. But they did find a connection between these symptoms and psychological issues relating to "differentiation of self."
That's a concept coined by seminal psychologist Murray Bowen, who argued that having a solid sense of your own principles and values is essential for healthy psychological functioning. Without it, he argued, people feel pressure to think, feel, and act like those around them, especially in emotional charged circumstances. This, he wrote, can lead to chronic anxiety and poor decision-making.
This connection makes considerable sense. If you feel "fused" with a lover and unsure of who you are on your own, it's not surprising that you could feel anxious or depressed in the wake of an act of intense closeness such as sex.
Schweitzer and his colleagues caution that the psychological components they investigated are complicated and not entirely clear. But their work clearly suggests that anxiety or depression following sex can be an indicator of deeper psychological issues that need to be addressed.
So don't think of it as a freak aberration, but rather as a signal that it's time for some serious self-exploration.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.