How Negative Brain Connections Affect Libido

Warning ⸺ This article includes references to potentially upsetting topics, including sexual assault and sexual trauma. Reader discretion is advised. 

Our brain is a learning machine. It has evolved to keep us alive by doing so quickly and remembering intensely, especially if a situation had emotion tied to it.

Emotional learning is ingrained so deeply because our brain knows that if there was emotion, it was important. In other words, our bodies have physical responses to learned associations based on past experiences. This allows us to react appropriately if and when that experience ever happens again.

Ideally, an early sexual experience allows us to create positive associations with sex. For example, when we share a kiss with a crush, we get butterflies and our sexual tissues become excited. We like that feeling, so our brain tells us that we want more of it.

In this same way, our brain remembers negative experiences linked to sex and this can cause our body to shut down around sexual interactions, even if our conscious mind doesn’t want it to.

A few of the most common negative neural programming experiences:

  • Being raised in a household, culture, or religion that made sex wrong or shameful
  • Experiencing sexual assault or sexual trauma
  • Having a bad sexual experience, where performance, pain, embarrassment, shame, or fear were predominant

If any of these happen, especially early in our sexual development, our brain associates sexual behavior with those unpleasant feelings and it literally shuts down the part of our nervous system responsible for sexual desire and response.

It is extremely important to note— these negative experiences are not your fault. Full stop.

Being assaulted is never your fault. Being shamed for feeling something as natural as sexual desire is not your fault. And by the same token, not having a drive for sex because of these things you’ve experienced is not your fault, and it doesn’t make you any less of a person.

There’s nothing wrong with your brain or body. Your brain, simply put, is trying to protect you— based on your past experiences with sex.

If and when you’re ready, therapy can help unlearn the negative associations you’ve received, to teach the nervous and endocrine systems that wanting sex is okay, and that it can be safe and pleasurable.

Low libido is not uncommon, and nothing to be ashamed of. It also involves a myriad of factors. Read more about other causes for low sex drive.

This is an excerpt from a post written by Dr. Leah Gordon, ND, a naturopathic and functional medicine doctor based in San Diego, CA. Founder of Tribe Medicine and Womanhood Wellness. She loves teaching and empowering others to live healthier lives for themselves, their children, and their communities.
Abridged content curated and edited by Jean Lin. Expanded to include a trigger warning, as well as additional language and context to be gender-inclusive.

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