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The Official Publication of the Philadelphia Behavior Therapy Association

Using Mindfulness-Based Therapy to Address Low Sexual Desire in Women

12/21/2023 12:43 PM | Anonymous

Lori A Brotto, PhD - Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of British Columbia

A lack of interest in sexual activity that creates personal distress and strains relationship satisfaction is the most common reason that women seek sex therapy. Described frequently by patients as “I’ve lost my libido,” or “It takes a long time for me to get sexually excited,” or “I would be content if we never had sex again!”, the presence of little or no desire for sex has received widespread attention from clinicians, researchers, and the lay public because of its complexity and seeming resistance to treatment. Female sexual interest/arousal disorder (SIAD) appears in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013). SIAD is based on polythetic criteria whereby women must endorse at least three of six of the following criteria in order to receive a diagnosis, with symptoms lasting at least six months (APA, 2013).

  1. lack of interest (or no interest) in sexual activity;
  2. reduced or absent erotic thoughts or fantasies;
  3. reduced level of initiating sex and/or responding to a partner’s sexual advances;
  4. reduced pleasure during sexual activity;
  5. lack of responsive sexual desire (i.e., desire that emerges with or after sexual arousal); and
  6. reduced genital and nongenital sexual sensations (i.e., arousal).

The use of polythetic criteria means that a diagnosis of SIAD may involve different symptom expressions (Brotto et al., 2015). 

Since SIAD has been in existence only since 2013, epidemiological studies on its prevalence have yet to be published, except for one online Flemish study that evaluated both spontaneous and responsive sexual desire (Hendrickx, Gijs, & Enzlin, 2014); however, there have been many large and representative studies focusing on the symptom of low or absent sexual desire. The third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAL-3) assessed 6777 women (who had a sexual partner in the last year) and found that 34.2% of women across ages endorsed low desire (Mitchell et al., 2013). Across the age cohorts, the highest prevalence was among women in the 55-64 year old category, and age was negatively associated with sexual desire. Between 15%-35% of women across the age categories reported having a discrepant level of sexual interest compared to their partners (Mitchell et al., 2013). In a study of Canadian middle-aged women, these rates of low desire were similar (Quinn-Nilas, Milhausen, McKay, & Holzapfel, 2018), and those with medical health conditions and poor overall health were more likely to report low desire in both studies. Low sexual desire is common among women affected by serious or life-threatening illnesses (e.g., cancer, cardio-vascular diseases). This is true for acute illnesses, and chronic conditions (e.g., thyroid disease, multiple sclerosis, arthritis) (McCabe et al., 2016). Women who have experienced childhood sexual abuse experience lower levels of sexual desire compared to non-abused women (Loeb et al., 2002; Stephenson, Hughan, & Meston, 2012).

The Role of Attention in Women’s low Sexual Desire

The Incentive Motivation Modelprovides a robust theory of sexual response that accounts for the roles of attention, memory, thoughts, and emotional reactions to determine whether a sexual stimulus might elicit sexual arousal in women. This theory illustrates how biological, psychological, and contextual factors interact to elicit sexual desire and arousal. It holds that sexual desire results from an interaction between a sexual response system and potent stimuli that activate the system. The incentive motivation model captures the experience of how sexual desire and arousal unfold for many women (regardless of whether they have sexual difficulties or not) because it highlights the important role of adequate sexual stimuli (i.e., internal or external cues that are perceived as sexually exciting) that trigger sexual motivation. This model is useful for identifying where a woman might experience a difficulty in sexual desire and/or arousal; for example, there is ample evidence that cognitive distraction during sex can be a significant precipitant of sexual difficulty (Nobre & Pinto-Gouveia, 2006) .This distraction, in turn, can impede the individual’s ability to notice sexual sensations in the body, and prevent desire from emerging following arousal (otherwise known as responsive sexual desire; Basson, 2001). Distraction, inattention, and/or judging of one’s unfolding sexual response have all been implicated in sexual desire and arousal difficulties in women (Chivers & Brotto, 2017).

Evidence for the Benefits of Mindfulness in the Treatment of low Sexual Desire in Women

With this theoretical understanding of the processes that elicit sexual arousal and desire, and evidence for mindfulness in a host of other domains of health, there is a solid rationale for the application of mindfulness-based approaches to improving desire and arousal difficulties in women.  In the early 2000s, mindfulness began to be applied to sexual dysfunction in women. Hypothesized mechanisms are that mindfulness training may allow women with low desire to become more aware of emerging physical changes during or in anticipation of sexual activity (e.g., genital vasocongestion, tingling), which may boost and maintain their experience of sexual arousal and desire, and further synching their physiological and psychological experience. There is also the putative role of helping an individual to recognize negative sex-related beliefs as simply “mental events”.

One of the earliest documented empirical tests of mindfulness as an aid for sexual desire and arousal was in the context of gynecologic cancer survivors who experienced a profound sense of loss of sexual response following their treatment, and struggled with sexual desire, arousal, and satisfaction Over three monthly sessions in which a group of gynecologic cancer survivors with sexual dysfunction practiced mindfulness in and between sessions, there were significant increases in perceptions of physical as well as self-reported arousal, desire, satisfaction, and decreases in distress. In particular, some of the participants remarked that despite a change in arousal and responsivity following their cancer treatment, mindfulness allowed them to detect some residual arousal that they believed was gone, and that by using a combination of arousal enhancing techniques and mindfulness, they were now able to tune into their response and amplify it.

Following this initial small study, several other studies of mindfulness as a treatment for low desire and associated sexual problems in women have been carried out. In one of the few large randomized clinical trials of mindfulness versus supportive sex education to women meeting diagnostic criteria for sexual interest/arousal disorder(Brotto et al., 2021) women attended 8 weekly groups where the facilitator guided mindfulness practice in session, followed by daily practice of mindfulness at home. Participants practiced mindfulness exercises formally in the first few sessions, and then progressively integrated mindfulness practice in progressively more sexual contexts such as while looking at oneself in a mirror, engaging in self-touch, non-sexual touching with a partner (e.g., sensate focus), and eventually during sex with a partner. Immediately after treatment, the mindfulness group led to significant improvements in sexual desire, sexual distress, relationship satisfaction, and rumination, and these improvements were retained at both the 6-month and 12-month follow-up time points.Moreover, participants self-reported a significant improvement to their quality of life and a general satisfaction with the treatment and the improvements they saw. By comparison, a psychoeducational comparison group that integrated elements of supportive-expressive therapy did not exhibit the magnitude of improvements in sexual distress, relationship satisfaction, or rumination that was seen in the mindfulness group; however, this group did show comparable improvements in sexual desire, suggesting that psychoeducational information, when delivered in a supportive-expressive environment, can be a very effective approach to improving sexual desire in women.

What are the Mechanisms by Which Mindfulness Improves Sexual Desire in Women?

Different underlying mechanisms have been proposed to account for the means by which mindfulness-based interventions improve suffering. For example, in his book Full Catastrophe Living, Kabat-Zinn postulated that there were seven specific attitudinal foundations by which mindfulness worked, and these included but were not limited to: Non-judging (reducing the tendency to categorize experiences as good or bad); Beginner’s Mind (attempting to experience repeated sensations as if for the first time); and Non-Striving (having no goal other than noticing one’s current experience). More contemporary interpretations of the mechanisms of mindfulness have been proposed (Brown et al., 2015), and include: that mindfulness cultivates the ability to notice that the primary aspects of one’s present experience are distinct; that mindfulness increases one’s ability to notice the automatic processes thus allowing one to make intentional decisions; and that mindfulness can foster meta-cognitive awareness.In contrast to the broader literature exploring mediators of mindfulness, very few studies have empirically evaluated the mediators of mindfulness-based therapy in the treatment of sexual dysfunction. Our team analyzed the mechanisms underlying the beneficial effects of mindfulness-based group sex therapy on desire and arousal symptoms in women, and we found thatimprovements in interoceptive awareness, self-compassion, self-criticism, depressive symptoms, and changes in mindfulness mediated the improvements in desire and distress (Brotto et al., 2023). Knowing that these were mediators of improvement after treatment of desire and arousal concerns means that a health care provider might recommend mindfulness for patients who have low desire and simultaneously have low levels of interoceptive awareness, self-compassion, and mindfulness, and higher levels of self-criticism and depressive symptoms. In addition to these identified mediators from quantitative analyses, another study analyzed qualitative feedback from patients to understand the mechanisms by which a mindfulness-based approach was effective for treating low desire in women. The authors found that shifts in patients’ locus or quality of attention during sex, their reduced avoidance behavior, their ability to disengage from negative thoughts, and their overall feelings of normalization when in a group with other women experiencing sexual difficulties were the mechanisms by which mindfulness improved low sexual desire (Meyers et al., 2023).

If you want to read more about the science of mindfulness as it has been applied to sexual health, and women’s sexual desire in particular, you may find my 2018 book, Better Sex Through Mindfulness, to be of interest. And for those of you who may be interested in sharing the mindful sex treatment guide with your own clients, my 2022 workbook may also be of interest!

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.

Basson, R. (2001). Using a different model for female sexual response to address women’s problematic low sexual desire. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 27(5), 395-403.

Brotto, L. A. (2022). The Better Sex Through Mindfulness Workbook: A Guide to Cultivating Desire. Vancouver, Canada: Greystone Publishing.

Brotto, L. A. (2018). Better Sex Through Mindfulness: How women can cultivate desire. Vancouver, Canada: Greystone Publishing.

Brotto, L. A., Graham, C. A., Paterson, L. Q., Yule, M. A., & Zucker, K. J. (2015). Women’s endorsement of different models of sexual functioning supports polythetic criteria of Female Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder in DSM-5. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 12, 1978–1981.

Brotto, L. A., Zdaniuk, B., Chivers, M. L., et al. (2021). A randomized trial comparing group mindfulness-based cognitive therapy with group supportive sex education and therapy for the treatment of female sexual interest/arousal disorder. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 89(7), 626-639.

Brotto, L. A., Zdaniuk, B., Chivers, M. L., et al. (2021). A randomized trial comparing group mindfulness-based cognitive therapy with group supportive sex education and therapy for the treatment of female sexual interest/arousal disorder. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 89(7), 626-639.

Brotto, L. A., Zdaniuk, B., Chivers, M. L., Jabs, F., Grabovac, A. D., & Lalumière, M. L. (2023). Mindfulness and sex education for sexual interest/arousal disorder: mediators and moderators of treatment outcome. The Journal of Sex Research60(4), 508-521.

Brown, K. W., Creswell, J. D., & Ryan, R. M. (Eds.). (2015). Handbook of mindfulness: Theory, research, and practice. The Guilford Press.

Chivers, M. L., & Brotto, L. A. (2017). Controversies of women’s sexual arousal and desire. European Psychologist, 22(1), 5-26.

Hendrickx, L., Gijs, L., & Enzlin, P. (2014). Prevalence rates of sexual difficulties and associated distress in heterosexual men and women: Results from an Internet survey in Flanders. Journal of Sex Research, 51, 1–12.

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Meyers, M., Margraf, J., & Velten, J. (2023). Subjective effects and perceived mechanisms of change of cognitive behavioral and mindfulness-based online interventions for low sexual desire in women. Advance online publication.

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Quinn-Nilas, C., Milhausen, R. R., McKay, A., & Holzapfel, S. (2018). Prevalence and predictors of sexual problems among midlife Canadian adults: Results from a national survey. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 15, 873–879.

Stephenson, K. R., Hughan, C. P., & Meston, C. M. (2012). Child Abuse & Neglect Childhood sexual abuse moderates the association between sexual functioning and sexual distress in women. Child Abuse & Neglect, 36, 180–189.

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