3 Reasons You Feel Sad After Sex & What To Do About It
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
After having sex, most people usually experience a host of positive physical, mental, and emotional feelings—a sense of euphoric high, satisfaction, relaxation, and perhaps a warm intimacy with their partner.
But sometimes, a person may instead feel the opposite. Immediately following sex, they're hit with a wave of negative emotions: They feel suddenly sad, irritable, or isolated, and they may even start inexplicably crying. The phenomenon is known as postcoital dysphoria, and it's actually way more common than you'd think.
What is postcoital dysphoria?
"Postcoital dysphoria (PCD) is the experience of negative affect following otherwise satisfactory sexual intercourse," a team of researchers explained in a 2011 study published in the International Journal of Sexual Health. "Under normal circumstances the resolution phase of sexual activity elicits sensations of well-being along with psychological and physical relaxation. However, individuals who experience PCD may express their immediate feelings after sexual intercourse in terms of melancholy, tearfulness, anxiety, irritability, or psychomotor agitation."
Importantly, PCD refers to when there is no discernible reason for the person to feel negatively about the sexual experience that just happened—it was consensual, pleasurable, and perhaps even induced some orgasms, and yet the person still feels upset afterward without a clear understanding as to why they're feeling that way. It can happen to someone even when the person they slept with is someone they're in a serious, committed, and loving relationship with, just as easily as it could happen when it's with a first-time or casual partner.
There has yet to be much substantive research done on PCD, and so it's still not a well-understood phenomenon even among sexual health professionals.
"We unfortunately don't really understand postcoital dysphoria very well," Vanessa Marin, a psychotherapist specializing in sex therapy, tells mbg. "We really only know that it exists. It doesn't seem to have any relationship with the type or quality of sex that you have, or your relationship with your partner."
The few studies that have been done show that PCD is a fairly common experience: A 2015 study found 46 percent of straight women had experienced it at least once in their life, and 5 percent had experienced it a few times in the last four weeks. Another study released last month found 41 percent of men (most of whom were straight) experienced PCD at least once, and 20 percent had experienced it in the last four weeks. (Side by side, these two studies suggests PCD happens at fairly similar rates between men and women, but the latter study actually found women were about twice as likely to have experienced PCD in the last four weeks compared to men and nearly three times as likely to have experienced PCD in their lifetime.)
What causes these negative emotions after sex?
A lot more research is needed to fully understand what causes postcoital dysphoria, but scientists have posited three main theories for what could be behind the otherwise inexplicable emotional response:
1. Your brain chemistry.
According to the International Society for Sexual Medicine, it's possible that "bonding with a partner during sex is so intense that breaking the bond triggers sadness." Sex therapist Ian Kerner tells Health that having sex can trigger the release of oxytocin, the so-called love hormone that makes people feel attached and connected to another person. But after the sex is over, the sudden recognition that you're not actually as connected as the hormones made you feel (either because it's a casual sexual encounter or because there may be underlying issues in your relationship) can make you feel sad or frustrated. You go from feeling incredibly close, both emotionally and physically, to feeling alone, rejected, or yearning for what's not really there.
2. A history of unexplored trauma.
The few studies that've been conducted around PCD have found a history of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse is correlated with a higher incidence of PCD, both among men and women. Essentially, it's possible that having sex—even terrific, pleasurable, consensual sex—is simply a triggering experience for you because of your past traumas. It's well-known that having experienced sexual assault and/or abuse, especially as a child, can have lasting psychological consequences as a person grows older and tries to engage in a normal sex life.
3. Feeling vulnerable.
The truth is, sex is a pretty vulnerable thing in general. You're totally naked with another human being, sharing the most private parts of yourself that you generally don't show to most people. That act alone can afterward trigger emotions, too, that you normally keep to yourself.
"A vulnerability hangover is most often triggered by going too fast or doing too much for what the psyche or body can handle," sex coach Irene Fehr tells Bustle. "It is often exacerbated by a cocktail of consciousness-altering substances such as alcohol or drugs that relax and allow the drop of inhibitions, enable going faster than might be comfortable, and make crossing boundaries that would otherwise hold in a conscious state possible."
How to handle the post-sex blues.
1. Develop an aftercare ritual.
Among people who practice BDSM, a concept known as "aftercare" is commonplace following a sexual encounter. Aftercare refers to caretaking activities in which the dominant partner offers affection, gentleness, and support to the submissive partner (and sometimes vice versa) to make sure both people avoid any negative psychological effects from the intense power play they engaged in together during sex. In an interview with mbg, clinical sexologist and psychotherapist Kristie Overstreet, Ph.D., recommends a similarly soothing post-sex practice for people who suffer from PCD, even if it's something you do alone.
"Participate in some type of self-care ritual," she suggests. "Whether it's a bath, reading a book, taking a nap, or meeting your friends, do something to nurture yourself."
2. Track your experiences.
"You can always try tracking your own experience and see if you notice any patterns," Marin suggests. "It may be that you tend to feel PCD in certain types of avoidable situations. Or you may be able to find patterns in what helps you move past your reactions faster. For example, maybe taking a shower afterward or snuggling with your partner makes you feel better."
3. Talk to your partner about it.
Research shows a person's connection with their partner has nothing to do with whether they experience PCD. In other words, you're most likely not feeling sad because there's something wrong with your relationship. That said, having one person have a negative emotional reaction after sex can be stressful and confusing for both people, so it's a good idea to keep your partner in the loop about what's going on, especially if you know PCD is a common occurrence for you.
"If you're with a partner and feeling embarrassed, you can simply say something like, 'This is something that happens to me after I have sex. It's not tied to the sex that I've just had. It's just a thing that happens. I'll be over it soon,'" Marin says.
4. If needed, don't be afraid to seek help.
If you can't talk to your partner about what's going on for whatever reason, make sure you're talking to someone, whether a trusted friend or a therapist. Dr. Overstreet says it's important to make sure there's not another underlying issue (such as trauma, sexual dysfunction, or something else) that might be causing your emotional response, which a therapist or health professional might be able to help you treat.
5. Allow yourself to feel whatever you need to feel.
"The best thing you can do is give yourself permission to feel whatever you feel after sex," Marin says. "If you can be gentle with yourself and allow those feelings to exist, they'll go away on their own faster. It's when we try to fight against our feelings that they get much stronger."
If you need a real outlet, Dr. Overstreet suggests writing down what you're feeling to help you acknowledge and process those emotions in a healthy way.
Whatever you do, just know that you're not alone in your feelings, and you're not abnormal for having them. Many people struggle with postcoital dysphoria from time to time; what's important is developing an appropriate and healthy way to respond to your emotions and take care of yourself (and your partner) as you go through it.
Want your passion for wellness to change the world? Become A Functional Nutrition Coach! Enroll today to join our upcoming live office hours.