Most men will experience a sexual difficulty at one time or another. In fact, researchers have found that as many as 42 percent of men report having experienced at least one sexual problem in the last year alone. Premature ejaculation, low sexual desire, and erectile difficulties are among the most common issues men encounter.
When faced with such problems, many men turn to their doctors seeking a medical fix; however, this isn’t necessarily always the most helpful or cost-effective approach because many sexual difficulties have psychological roots. When things like distraction or performance anxiety are the true cause, taking a pill is unlikely to help.
It’s for this reason that researchers are increasingly turning their attention to non-medical treatments that can help men prevent and resolve sexual problems. One technique that shows a lot of promise is mindfulness.
Mindfulness has been defined as “non-judgmental, present-moment awareness,” which basically just means being in the moment—being aware of your thoughts, feelings, and body sensations, without judging whether they’re right or wrong. In other words, it’s a way of focusing and redirecting attention to your body.
You’re essentially “tuning in” to your senses and “tuning out” mental distractions. You aren’t thinking about anything other than what you’re physically feeling and experiencing in that moment.
Mindfulness has its basis in Buddhist traditions and meditation techniques, and psychologists have long recognized its potential to help people cope with a range of psychological issues, including sex problems.
In the 1960s and 70s, William Masters and Virginia Johnson—the original “masters of sex”—were really the pioneers of applying mindfulness-based practices to the solution of men’s and women’s sexual difficulties. Although they never used the term “mindfulness,” the cornerstone of their approach to sex therapy was to get patients to focus on being in the here and now and to pay attention to body sensations evoked from a partner’s touch instead of getting lost in their heads.
Modern mindfulness practices go well beyond those developed by Masters and Johnson in the sense that they can be practiced individually or with a partner, and they involve paying attention to more than just the sense of touch—breathing, sound, taste, and other sensory input is part of what people are instructed to pay attention to as well.
So far, most research on mindfulness and sexual difficulties has focused on women, and the results have been impressive. Studies have found that mindfulness training significantly increases sexual desire and arousal, vaginal lubrication, and sexual satisfaction.
Research has only just begun exploring the effects of mindfulness on male sexual difficulties, but the results suggest that it is similarly effective.
A study published last year in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that mindfulness may be a useful approach for treating situational erectile dysfunction. This is when a man is still physically capable of getting erections when he’s masturbating, but cannot sustain them in certain contexts, such as when he’s with a specific partner with whom he feels high performance demands.
This was a small study, to be sure—just 10 men—all of whom participated in a month-long mindfulness training group. However, the results pointed to improvement in erectile functioning and sexual satisfaction over time.
Dr. Lori Brotto, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia and co-author of that study, says that the potential for mindfulness to help men have better sex goes far beyond this. In fact, in a 2013 paper published in the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, Brotto writes that her own clinical impressions suggest that “mindfulness can also be extended to the treatment of men with premature ejaculation, delayed ejaculation, [and] low sexual desire.”
Brotto also has a multi-year study underway exploring the impact of mindfulness on the sexual functioning of male prostate cancer survivors, a group she believes could benefit from this treatment approach tremendously.
Prostate cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in men, affecting nearly 200,000 new men each year in the United States alone. Although survival rates are high, treatments for prostate cancer often result in sexual side effects.
Brotto suggests that mindfulness has the potential to help these men considerably, because the sexual difficulties they face are compounded by sexual anxiety, changes in body image following treatment, and distress from having been diagnosed with cancer. In other words, male cancer survivors are a group that may be especially in need of tools that can help them get out of their heads and into the moment when they’re in the bedroom.
If you’re interested in using mindfulness techniques to improve your own sex life, where do you begin? “Start by doing 10 minutes per day of formal mindful practice in your chair. Choose one time and do it every day,” Brotto says. “During those 10 minutes guide your attention to different locations in your body and ask yourself ‘what do I feel?’ Always focus on the sensations themselves, not the story behind the sensations.”
Brotto adds that, after a few weeks of practice, and gaining more proficiency of using that mindful muscle, you can begin incorporating that skill into sex itself and ask yourself the same question: “What do I feel? Where do I feel it? Can I pay close enough attention to detect subtle changes in those sensations?” she says. “And when the mind distracts, gently guide it back. Over and over.”
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