Too much navel-gazing often gets a bad rep, but taking time to look inwards is actually packed with benefits - a fact you’ll know only too well if you’ve ever taken the time to journal or meditate. Not only is it linked with being a better leader and enhancing mental wellbeing, but taking a pause to reframe your thoughts could also have a big perk for your sex life.
Recent research, such as a study published in Scientific Reports, found that those who regularly use cognitive reappraisal skills - in other words, take time to interpret their feelings - around sex have heightened sexual desire, and the effects were found to be particularly strong among women.
We all know that self-awareness in the form of journaling and other reflection habits are good for us, but that sort of introspection isn’t usually associated with a spruced up sex life. In fact, ask any of the best sex therapists out there how to improve your bedroom time, and the answer is usually something about outward communication between partners.
But at a time when around 70% of women have a low libido, according to research from mental health app Headspace and community platform Peanut, perhaps it’s time to flick the switch on how we think about our sexual wellness.
Should you re-think your desire?
Cognitive reappraisal is the same technique that underpins cognitive behavioural therapy.
At its core, 'cognitive reappraisal involves reflecting on our thoughts or ways in which we see things,' explains Miranda Christophers, a psychosexual and relationship therapist and director of the Therapy Yard. In other words, it’s a reflective practice that involves altering your interpretation of a situation in order to reframe your response.
'Looking at things from different perspectives or considering the potential outcomes or positives to something can impact our mindset,' Christophers explains.
It might sound vague but it all comes down to becoming more in tune with yourself. 'When we self-reflect, we give ourselves the opportunity to gain a broader perspective and have a greater sense of ourselves: what we like, don't like, want to do or want to change amongst other things,' she adds.
What's sex got to do with it?
In our sex lives, this full menu of wants, needs and icks can take a lifetime to discover. But changing how you think about and interpret your sexual feelings is related to boosted desire.
The Norweign researchers behind the recent study compared cognitive reappraisal techniques to sexual shame and emotional suppression and found that only the former lead to a libido boost.
'Finding a potential link between how we regulate our emotions and sexual desire was both surprising and exciting,' says study co-author Kristian Westbye Sævik. It’s also hugely useful, given 'a lot of the research still circulating is old, and outdated,' he explains.
Libido itself is a complicated topic. In Katherine Angel’s book Tomorrow Sex Will be Good Again, she interrogates the popular assumption that men inherently desire sex more than women – one that’s steeped in misunderstanding and inaccurate media representations.
At its root is a cultural focus on spontaneous desire in straight relationships. Picture sex scenes from mainstream films and you’ll struggle to conjure up even one with any inkling of effective foreplay. In reality, many of us experience responsive desire which must be sparked by something rather than appearing out of the blue.
Whether you already know if you fall into one camp of desire more than the other – or it’s the first time you’ve heard of any nuance around the idea of turn ons – cognitive appraisal could help you out.
'By self-reflecting you can question why something does or doesn't feel good, and what has been present when it has,' explains Christophers.
How to re-think your sex life
It follows that paying attention to what does it for you encourages ‘awareness’ of the enigma that is sexual desire, says Christophers. Whether it’s lingering touches, or a particular scent, the key is finding out what ‘accelerates or activates your arousal’.
That knowledge alone might help you realise what you need to feel sexual and go on to have an all together better sex life by, say, prioritising the build-up and anticipation that’s an integral part of your desire or knowing that you’re just too tired to do anything in the bedroom but sleep post-9pm. But the appraisal might also be a way of challenging your negative beliefs that get in the way of arousal in the first place. There are many types of these thoughts, such as issues with confidence, self-esteem, relationship satisfaction and stress.
'An example may be disliking a part of your body,' she says. For many, the shame of being naked is enough to put sex off the menu, yet re-framing those thoughts is essential to boosting libido.
‘Try celebrating what you like and enjoy, and reminding yourself that you are critical of yourself in a way others are not,’ suggests Christophers. If positivity feels unachievable, reflect with a view to achieving a more neutral stance. 'You can use cognitive reappraisal to remind yourself that your body facilitates life and pleasure amongst other things. The one part of your body you dislike is just that - one part - and there are many, many more,' she adds.
Even if you don’t think you struggle with your libido, the practice of reflection could change the way you feel about desire, says Sævik. ‘People who more frequently use cognitive reappraisal experience more positive emotions, and in turn become more open to other positive emotions (which includes sexual desire and arousal),’ they say.
Sexual desire prompts
Of course, there are plenty of reasons that libido can change and fluctuate that self-appraisal can't help you with, including menopause and mental health conditions. If you're noticing a change in your sex drive, it's always worth talking to your GP.
But if you're just after an exploration of ways to increase your desire, looking inwards can help.
So where do you begin? Christophers suggests simply setting aside some time to reflect, which can be done by simply be mulling things over in your head or scribbling down some thoughts on your notes app. Reflecting on anything is a good place to start to reap those feel-good feelings.
For those wanting to get sex specific, your practice can take many forms, just as there are endless journal prompts for productivity or anxiety. Starting by thinking about your own desire, noting down the things that accelerate your sex drive or slam the brakes on to your libido and why to begin to understand what you need to cultivate a positive sex life.
Christophers cautions against brain dumping everything that's ever happened to you or things that are very in-the-moment. Instead, she suggests reflecting on one thing one day and re-reflecting the next to allow for our interpretation of events to shift. We all know what it’s like to feel overwhelmed with emotions that seem insurmountable in the moment, so wait until you have a clearer head before ruminating.
To give your practice a bit more of a structure, you could try imagining what you’d say to someone else. 'When looking at things from different perspectives you might ask yourself what you would think about or say to a friend if they were in your situation,' says Christopher.
And if you’re reflecting on a particular interaction then visualisation techniques might help too. 'Imagine looking at the scenario through a window and considering different perspectives,' says Christophers. What might an outsider see when looking at you and the other person? Are there other ways to see the situation if you looked at it through a neutral lens?
It all comes down to being aware of your thoughts and understanding your power to reshape them. It’s this that builds self-awareness and develops your ability to access your authentic self and preferences then, crucially, express that when with others.
Reflection might be a highly personal process but desire is subjective and complex, and there’s no one secret to channelling it.
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