The question heard in gynecologists’ offices and typed into Google all over the world: what is libido, and how, oh how, can I improve it!? It seems like “libido” is the word on everyone’s mind, and many women are feeling like theirs just don’t measure up: according to a 2013 study, up to 43 percent of women claim to experience low libido. But what does libido really mean? (Hint: it’s not just about sex drive.)
If you feel like your sex drive has gone MIA, you might just be focusing on the wrong things. Take back your power, claim your right to experience pleasure, and tap into the libido that you already have within of you. Here’s how:
What really is libido?
We often use the word “libido” as synonymous for sex drive, or how often (and how strongly) we want to have sex. But the term was actually coined by Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, to define an energy driven from an individual’s sexual and survival instincts. In other words, libido is so much more than having regular sex. “Libido is part of an individual’s unconscious, primal energy that encompasses not only sexual energy but also psychic energy. Libido is the force behind all of our instincts, actions, and motivations,” explained Dainis Graveris, a certified sex educator and relationship expert at SexualAlpha.
Think of libido as an energy that helps you feel pleasurable, alive, and tapped into your body. It encompasses anything and everything that just genuinely feels good for your truest self. Yes, sex is a major part of that, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Instead of thinking of libido as a tool to have more sex, think of sex as a tool to have more libido. When we have full access to our libidos, we have access to more inspiration, creativity, connections, and, most importantly, understanding of our deepest desires (both in and out of the bedroom). “Libido is a life force,” agreed Dr. Caroline Madden MFT, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist. “It connects you with yourself and the parts of you that you are most proud of.”
We can also think of libido as a vital sign. Just like we feel hungry when we need to eat and thirsty when we need to drink water, libido is another way our bodies tell us that they need something. However, because it’s not “socially discussed” like hunger or thirst (and might have even been suppressed), many of us lose the ability to fully tap into it. But when we can tap into our libidos, we not only feel more pleasure in our sex lives, but have access to a powerful tool that will help keep our bodies as healthy and fulfilled as possible.
So how do you tap into your libido?
Reassess other areas your mental and physical health
News flash: libido is equally mental and physical. Knowing that the brain and body are intrinsically connected will help you tap into your libido. “To increase libido, you need to see the body and mind as a whole unit,” explained Tatyana Dyachenko, a sex and relationship therapist. “Improving one piece in your life or body will affect other pieces.” Since libido encompasses so much more than just our sex lives, improvements to any area (whether it’s a health change for the body or a change in routine for our mental health) can simultaneously help us tap into libido.
For example, Dyachenko suggests that even a minor change in diet (like eating more leafy greens or trying plant-based meals) will not only make your body feel better but will also increase energy levels and confidence. And when you feel good about yourself and feel energized? Hello, libido! Likewise, if you’re feeling rundown and exhausted from too much work, your libido will feel rundown and exhausted, too (more on that below). The libido affects every part of your life and vice versa. “People have a habit of compartmentalizing when, in reality, everything is connected. If you want to tap into your libido more, take a look at other factors of your lifestyle,” Dyachenko suggested.
I know, I know: not another reason to add regular exercise to your routine! “Engaging in regular exercise increases testosterone levels, thereby increasing libido levels. Plus, you get a good confidence boost when you sweat it out and attain your fitness goals,” Graveris explained. Exercise has many amazing benefits for the body, but exercise is also important for your libido because it allows you a chance to tap into your body.
Think about it: you’re probably in your head all day long, whether it’s writing proposals, taking calls, or leading meetings. Even after work, you’re making to-do lists or thinking about the next day, and in your free time, you’re reading or binging Netflix. All of your energy is constantly going to the mind. Exercise is a chance to bring energy and focus to the body when following the movements or noticing how your muscles feel. To make your workouts really work for your libido, find the type that feels most pleasurable: do you feel sensual after a hot yoga flow or powerful post-heavy lifting?
Indulge in your sweet tooth
It turns out your sweet tooth might actually be good for you. “Throughout history, chocolate has been a symbol of desire. Not just because of its delicious taste, but because of its power to improve sexual pleasure,” explained Dr. Mike Anderson, Ph.D., a sex and relationship expert. “According to one study, chocolate promotes the release of phenylethylamine and serotonin, which can both produce aphrodisiac and mood-lifting effects.” *Immediately orders dark chocolate in bulk.*
While chocolate may affect the physical body to help you feel more turned on, the important part is pleasure. Indulging in a couple of rich, decadent squares of dark chocolate after dinner might feel like an incredibly luxurious and pleasurable moment of your day, but if it’s not, find and indulge in other moments of pleasure, whether it’s a cup of coffee in the morning or a glass of wine at night. Start making everything you eat and smell more pleasurable by taking a moment to stop and enjoy it.
Have a stress management plan
Stress gets a bad rap for many reasons, but it’s also notorious for being a major party pooper when it comes to libido. “Stress disrupts normal hormone levels and blood flow, which affects your overall well-being, including your sexual desire,” Graveris explained. Since sex drive is often the first thing to take a hit when work is crazy busy or the kids are driving you nuts, have a plan to manage stress as much as possible in advance. Try deep breathing exercises when you feel your body start to move into fight-or-flight mode and practice regular meditation whenever you can fit it in to lower your overall stress threshold.
Also, when you know you’re going into an extra stressful time like an important board meeting or a hectic week, schedule extra self-care in advance, whether it’s a luxurious bath, a workout class you love, or just some alone time to read first thing in the morning. Prioritizing your wellbeing will not only improve the way you react during stressful situations but will help you use your libido as a powerful tool, rather than ignoring it when you’re at your busiest or most stressed.
“In today’s always-connected world, it is hard to stay focused on one task for very long–including sex,” explained Dr. Leah Millheiser, a board-certified OB-GYN and Senior Vice President of Medical Affairs at Hims & Hers. When you practice mindfulness more regularly, you can start tapping into more pleasure. For example, when you close your laptop and sit down for a long lunch, you’ll be able to taste and smell how delicious your lunch is instead of wolfing it down while working.
Pleasure is simply a state of being in the moment, so bringing yourself into the moment more often will translate into more pleasure in your life and greater access to your libido. When it comes to staying mindful during sex itself, “focus on what you’re feeling, how you’re breathing, or a spot on the wall: anything that keeps you from thinking about work, kids, grocery lists, the laundry, etc.,” Dr. Millheiser recommended. “Mindfulness during sex is important for sexual satisfaction and intimacy (whether it’s with a partner or by yourself).”
If you’re still viewing sex only as a part of a relationship or something you do with someone else, you’re missing out on a key piece of the puzzle. “If you have yet to embrace self-pleasure, reframe it as another tool for self-care (because it is),” suggested Mia Sabat, a sex therapist at Emjoy. “Taking care of yourself means attending to your needs and enjoying your body without feeling guilt or remorse. Respect and self-knowledge are the basics of self-care–is there anything more important than knowing what we want and how we want it?”
This crucial piece of the libido puzzle also expands way beyond your favorite vibrator or a regular ménage-à-moi. Practice radical confidence, self-love, and self-acceptance in everything you do: stop making decisions based on what you should or shouldn’t do and start making decisions based on what will feel best to you. Once you start using self-pleasure as a compass for your entire life (rather than a guilty pleasure we hide in a bedside table drawer), you’ll be able to step into your greatest power.
Stop thinking your libido needs to change
IDK who needs to hear this, but your libido is perfect, just as it is. While we often talk about “boosting” or “improving” libido, it’s a powerful life force we already have inside of ourselves. When talking about your libido, it’s not about changing it, but about finding it. How do you find it? Start trusting your body to know best. “A ‘lacking’ libido is considered a problem that needs to be fixed,” explained Katrina Marie, a sex educator and sexual empowerment coach. “If we have ‘low libido,’ we’re told to keep up, get with it, or to ‘fake it ’til you make it,’ but this messaging just teaches us to doubt our inner knowing.”
The truth is that there’s no “healthy” definition of libido, and your partner or a headline in a magazine doesn’t know what libido looks like to you. As life changes, desires, energy, and preferences change. If you find yourself craving bubble baths and quality talks over wine instead of spontaneous sex as you (or your relationship) get older, there’s nothing wrong with you. This just means that you’re experiencing pleasure in different ways. You are your own erotic self, so tap into the life force you already have access to, rather than thinking it needs to be changed. “What if there is nothing wrong with your libido?” Marie said. “Maybe you just haven’t found what this current version of yourself wants. Get creative, be willing to try new things, and trust your body.”