Show Transcript for Episode 218: Sex and Stress

George Faller:
All right, Laurie. Nothing more sexy than talking about sex and stress.
Laurie Watson:
Welcome to Foreplay Radio couples and sex therapy. I’m Laurie Watson, your sex therapist.
George Faller:
And, I’m George Faller, a couples therapists.
Laurie Watson:
And, we are passionate about talking about sex and helping you develop a way to talk to each other.
George Faller:
Our mission is to help our audience develop a healthier relationship to sex that integrates the mind, the heart, and the body. So, where do we want to start with this one? I want to big talk it.
Laurie Watson:
I want to talk about sexy stress.
George Faller:
Sexy stress? That’s doing it for you?
Laurie Watson:
Stress is bad, right? Stress kills us.
George Faller:
That’s a great starting point. What is our common assumptions about sex?
Laurie Watson:
About stress.
George Faller:
Snout sex, stress, they’re all blurring together in my head. Trying to get serious here for a second, Laurie. I think the research has started to become abundantly clear that how you perceive stress in your life is how it physically lands.
George Faller:
So, most of us report being stressed out. We have way too much stress in our lives. The bad news about that is if that’s what you believe, guess what? Your body is feeling super stressed out.
Laurie Watson:
So, it’s kind of this bind, right? If we think we’re stressed out, then we become more stressed out.
George Faller:
Exactly. You’re literally getting cortisol, which a lot of people call the silent killer, pump it throughout your nervous system. If you think about a fight or flight response, the way we were made, if a cave bear comes out and chases a cave man, what actually happens? You’re supposed to fight or flight, get some adrenaline moved to your muscles. Rice, fight, move. It’s supposed to be a temporary state. The problem today is we are being chased by that cave bear, 24 hours, seven days a week. We are not getting a reset or a break.
George Faller:
Our Bodies are literally getting stuck in a fight or flight response. I talk a lot about this stress and our stress response in the book I wrote, Sacred Stress. Which is really, it’s really tried to change our relationship to stress. If we see it as something bad, it is bad. But, an interesting thing, if you look at the history of the studies of stress, we used to talk about stress and break it up into two categories. “You stress” which is called positive stress and “Distress,” which is called negative stress. We’re trying to eliminate or reduce distress while we’re trying to embrace and have more you stress in our lives. That’s a very healthy way of seeing stress. But, our culture is swung in a direction of seeing all stress is bad. Like, the best thing you can do for it is go on vacation. Just try to get away from it, run away from it. This theme throughout our podcast is the avoidance of things that’s starting to create so many more problems, that we really want to face and confront these issues.
Laurie Watson:
I also think about how sometimes the same event can create two different things for one person. Like, highly erotic moment for one person is you stress, right? It’s fantastic. And, then for the other person it’s distress because they feel so anxious about it.
George Faller:
Right. And, when we apply sex and stress together, when sex is going well, what a great way of reducing stress in your relationship. But, when sex, you’re having problems, that distress levels is really starting to go through the roof. So, there’s no way of separating sex and stress. It’s just really what are you going to do with it? Is it going to become something that is helpful? Or is it something that’s really going to start chipping away at you and your relationship?
Laurie Watson:
So. We’re not supposed to reduce stress.
George Faller:
We’re supposed to reduce distress.
Laurie Watson:
How do we manage it? But, we can’t reduce distress. I guess we can in part, right? I mean sometimes people create distress with unrealistic expectations.
George Faller:
Well, what do you think the, I mean what? What we’re told through our culture, the best way to handle distress is sleep. Get enough sleep, working out, eat right, all very healthy things. But, do you know what the most important thing is in dealing with stress?
Laurie Watson:
I have no idea.
George Faller:
All right. Connection. Relationships. By far is the best way of handling stress. What takes you 20 minutes to self-regulate, self sooth yourself when you get stressed out, can take a mere matter of seconds when somebody else, can kind of give you a hug or come alongside. We are designed to have another nervous system help us with our stress response. What most people don’t recognize is when you’re having a stress response, the love hormone, oxytocin, the same hormone that’s released during sex is released during that cave bear chasing you. And, that whole point of that is to let you know that you’re supposed to be running away or fighting with somebody. You’re not supposed to deal with stress on your own. And, yet most of us, that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re facing it alone.
Laurie Watson:
Do you think that there’s a difference in terms of our styles? I see speaking as a pursuer, one of my first outreaches when I feel stressed is, “I got to call my best friend or I got to tell somebody about it.” Whereas I would say my husband, who is more of the with drawer. He has a hard time just telling me what is going on for him? I mean he, I don’t think his go to is, “Let me talk to somebody about it.”
George Faller:
Absolutely. And, this is why with drawers struggle more in relationships because they been let down early on and they believe the best way of handling it is on their own. They have a lot of safety and control. They’re not going to be let down and they over rely on that independence. We want both. We want people to be able to kind of handle things on their own when they need to. But, the best way of handling is with somebody else. Why would we choose a loan if we would have an option of bringing somebody else in if that’s going to be much more effective?
Laurie Watson:
Our co fighter, right? Yeah, I like that. I didn’t know you were going to go there with this, George.
George Faller:
Well, and where we look at the negative cycle, it’s like the more your husband doesn’t let you in, the more it sets you up to be the one who carries it all. And, then you start to look too needy because you have more of the stress. So, then when you try to kind of ask for help, it sounds like criticism in their head, which reinforces why he don’t want to turn towards others because it just creates more work. It doesn’t make it less work.
Laurie Watson:
Wait, did you just say that I’m making him not want to turn to others?
George Faller:
I don’t know what I’m saying anymore.
Laurie Watson:
No, I knew.
George Faller:
In my relationship, so we’re all in this mess together, that’s for sure.
Laurie Watson:
Okay.
George Faller:
Because, of the lack of a positive view of stress, our society has really moved in a wrong direction and it’s no wonder why we’re trapped with so much substance abuse and anxiety and depression. I mean, we’re not handling stress in a natural way. We’re more stressed out than ever. Our to-do lists are getting bigger and bigger.
Laurie Watson:
That is so true.
George Faller:
And, our capacity to reach out to others for help is getting smaller and smaller. We’re turning towards things to help us, which what other nervous systems are supposed to be doing. So, no wonder why we’re more heavily medicated. We’re having more psychological issues. I mean, we’re going against our nature.
Laurie Watson:
Yeah. I think that this is saying that we just need more sex.
George Faller:
I like it. I mean, what is happening with sex? I mean, what is exactly the whole point?
Laurie Watson:
Right? Particularly the sexual with drawer is saying “I can’t have sex because I feel too stressed. I can’t relax.” The very thing that I need to regulate my body, which is skin on skin, I can’t have, because I can’t get relaxed myself to let that happen.
George Faller:
Which is so tragic because look at what they’re saying. They’re saying, “I don’t trust another nervous system. I trust going off on my own corner and self-soothing myself.” And, the science says that is way less effective than having somebody else help you with it. But, if people have let you down consistently over time, you learn to settle for that. So, what we’re trying to do is again, change our relationship. Stress distress can be negative. We want to find ways of limiting that or turning that down.
George Faller:
But, you stress so many other areas of our life. Without it, we couldn’t grow and thrive and change and move all of the vitality, energy, all the good stuff we’re looking for. Think about your first kiss, the first time you had sex or any of these episodes. That’s all stress. But, that’s stress that we’ve learned to embrace. So, how do we get even people sexually to see the opportunity in the stress that they’re feeling? That nervousness, that tension, that’s all signs from your body that something’s about to happen here, and we want to see that opportunity.
Laurie Watson:
I’m still back on my first kiss and my first time having sex as you stress.
George Faller:
I guess it depends on how that kiss went.
Laurie Watson:
Okay. So, how do we do that in a marriage? How do we do that around sex? How do we create this you stress? So, basically we’re experiencing the challenge instead of the burden. I think in my work, I’ve made a big shift. About two years ago,. I came in to work feeling burdened, there’s so much that I’m managing and it’s just so hard. It’s so complicated to manage all these people and not just my patients, but my clinicians and the business and I always kind of felt this burden and something happened in the last two years where I kind of let that go.
Laurie Watson:
First of all, I made a really good hire of Caroline Landon as my clinical manager, but I mean I also in turn-
George Faller:
Shout out to her! All right.
Laurie Watson:
Shout out, Caroline. But, also I kind of let go. I began to think about everything as a puzzle. This is coming up, it’s a problem. I’ve worked through problems before. I’ve had lots of issues. I’ll work through this one. How can I find a creative way? And, I really began to feel it that way instead of just telling myself it was a burden.
George Faller:
It’s a great example of what we’re going to talk about when we come back. The two ways of actually turning stress into your friend.
Laurie Watson:
Okay.
Laurie Watson:
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Laurie Watson:
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George Faller:
Hey, listen, men. Uber lube is a good thing. If it helps your partner, it helps you.
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Laurie Watson:
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George Faller:
Welcome back.
George Faller:
So, let’s Laurie, get into the two ways that we really can reframe our relationship to stress.
Laurie Watson:
Okay.
George Faller:
So, the first thing, if we think about going up into your head or going down into your heart, the two different moves that we can use.
Laurie Watson:
What does the going up into your head look like?
George Faller:
It looks like, I mean, the most important thing is to actually notice the stress. Can you notice? You’re coming into work and you’ve got too much going on and you’re frustrated at that pace. Just the noticing of something and naming it. The naming it is so powerful because it takes it from this kind of overwhelmed emotional feeling and it brings it up to your frontal cortex where your brain says, “Let’s put a label on this thing.” Just putting the name and the label on it already now starts to give you some control over this response.
Laurie Watson:
So, it’s just saying to myself, not even with change, but just saying “I’m stressed, I observe that I am stressed.”
George Faller:
Exactly. If you could say, “I am stressed,” now we have a chance. The next move is to be able to say, “All right, can I put a positive frame on this distress? Yes, I have a lot going on here.” But, like you were saying at work, it actually feels good to put the pieces of the puzzle together and when I do that, I could make really a big difference. It’s seeing the opportunity in this stress that starts to see your brain starts to feel less overwhelmed and a little bit more excited to face it. So, it’s the naming it. It’s the first part. “Yes, I am stressed and now that I named this stress, now I want to see what’s the opportunity in this stress for me.”
George Faller:
It’s like if you’re taking a test, if you’re sitting there saying, “Oh my God, I’m not prepared. I’m going to fail. I’m going to fail. I can’t.” That stress becomes overwhelming and you don’t do well.
Laurie Watson:
That’s sometimes what I say when we’re about to podcast. I say, “I’m never going to be able to keep up with this man.”
George Faller:
Maybe because I wrote about this, that sometimes what I’m feeling that I’ll say to myself, “Yes, I am stressed.” I don’t want to let people down. I don’t want to come across the wrong way. I know what that’s about, but you know what, I’m also getting a chance to talk to thousands of people to get out a message. I’m quite privileged to be in this place.
Laurie Watson:
That’s so true.
George Faller:
So, that stress that all of a sudden my body kind of shifts a little bit from feeling like just seeing the negative and the stress did this what could turn into distress. It starts to see the opportunity for you stress. It’s not minimizing or saying distress can’t happen. It’s making room for both. But, making room for both already starts to change physiologically how your body is going to respond to it, which is pretty powerful.
Laurie Watson:
How does that happen in our bodies?
George Faller:
That’s the power of the relationship between our brain and our body. When our brain can see, and if I could do a lot of liberal studies and exercises with this where you could actually experience the shift in how you perceive stress, changes how your body will respond to the stress. So, as a firefighter, for example, most people when there’s a fire are running away from the building, they are having a fight or flight response and they’re just trying to survive. Firefighters are trained to run towards the building. How are they able to do that? They’ve changed their mindset around the fire. They see the opportunity in that to make a difference, to help somebody, to be part of a team, to not let their peers down.
George Faller:
They see the stress, that’s what we call a challenge response. They’re responding to the same event, but physiologically it looks very different. They’re not just having the fight or flight response where cortisol was being pumped. They’re also having higher levels of DHEA hormones and oxytocin, because they’re seeing an opportunity in that. That’s a mindset thing. How we see things heavily influences how our body is going to respond to it.
Laurie Watson:
I love that. So, help me think for a minute about the couple who is having a lot of sexual distress. They’ve had a bunch of fights about it. They feel locked down that they can’t possibly resolve this. Maybe it’s he wants to do something that she doesn’t and she feels too pressured, not heard, not understanding and he feels, “I’m trying to bring excitement to the party and freedom and you’re not seeing me.”
Laurie Watson:
And, so they just lock in and it’s over and over and over. They don’t get it. And, there’s all this stress. How can we make them a team that says, “I want to go into this?”
George Faller:
Well, that first move, you’re going to really talk about that second move going into your heart. But, that first move would be for this couple to already start to see, to name the stress. There’s not something wrong with them, that sex has become difficult. When you’re stuck in a fight or flight response, it’s not the ideal environment to make love.
Laurie Watson:
Nope.
George Faller:
So, their body, I mean, their body is waiting for something bad to happen. So, we want to get them to name that, to kind of recognize that, they’re caught in this negative cycle. And, then two is can we start to get them to see that although they’re stuck in a negative cycle, that they’re beginning to talk about it, they’re finally confronting it, that they have a name for it. I encourage couples to name this negative cycle.
George Faller:
It starts to allow them to start getting on the same team versus just blaming each other. But, the second way of doing this is to really go into the heart. And, what that means is listen to what the emotions are saying. And, start to share those emotions and this is a little revolutionary in a way because most of us have been trained to want to hide the fears, the sexual dysfunctions. And, what we’re saying is there’s such opportunity and going towards them. So, in this case, if she feels all this pressure and that pressure is put it on the brakes to her desire. And, she can’t open herself up when she’s feeling all of that. So, we want her to be able to talk about the pressure. Where does she feel that in a body? What does it make her want to do? Does she want to turn away? And how does she share those fears? When she turns away, she feels like she’s letting him down. She feels like he’s not attracted to her. She feels like she’s broken and she’s defect. I mean, there’s a lot of bad stuff there.
Laurie Watson:
Yeah.
George Faller:
That she’s never able to really talk about because they’re feeling so far apart from each other. So, as they sought to see the opportunity of going into the emotions, he is the villain of the story or he’s the hero of this story.
Laurie Watson:
So, how is he each?
George Faller:
Well, when he can hear about her pressure and she starts to make sense of it, there’s something wrong with her and he’s not attracted to her, him coming closer and saying, “Hey, I didn’t know you felt this way. I’m so sorry that you go to this place. I had no idea. I can just get frustrated because it feels like you don’t want me. It’s amazing. We’re feeling very similar things.” Right now, they’re starting to meet in this place instead of being worlds apart from each other in that place. And, a funny thing happens when we start to experience connection. What do you think happens to the stress?
Laurie Watson:
Well, I think their bodies are going to regulate. It’s going to calm down.
George Faller:
The distress starts to go down and the opportunity for the you stress starts to come up.
Laurie Watson:
Okay. You still got to go a little further with me on the you stress. Tell me the challenge part. How does that look? How does that happen?
George Faller:
When you start to look for the opportunity to engage more because you want something better to happen, you still don’t know. There’s still fear there, but the wanting, the longing is embedded in you stress. So, this couple can access that because there are so afraid of what’s going to go wrong, that it’s just like they’ve lost their balance. They’re so focused on the distress that they don’t even see the opportunity for anything differently. And, the irony is it’s heading towards the darkness of that, that you start to realize, you start to see those opportunities. The redemptive nature of kind of our problems and negativity.
Laurie Watson:
This reminds me of, I’ve seen these pictures, but it’s a Chinese word. It’s like crisis is the same word as opportunity.
George Faller:
Yes. The symbol, the Chinese symbols.
Laurie Watson:
The symbol, that’s it. Is that what you’re talking about, essentially is the mind change?
George Faller:
It totally, and this is where one of the few times in life where religions of all different traditions and science and all different disciplines are all saying exactly the same.
Laurie Watson:
They’re all agreed.
George Faller:
They’re all agreed that there is something incredibly redemptive about going into these places of vulnerability, insecurity, hurt because it’s when we’re met in those places, there’s a strength of the connection that you can’t find when you’re getting it right all the time.
George Faller:
So, couples that have easy sex and they always get along. I mean that’s great. It’s kind of, we all want that at times, but it’s actually in the misses. Like, organisms, it’s called dynamic systems theory. When organisms don’t experience stress-
Laurie Watson:
You’re just showing off now. You’re just showing off.
George Faller:
Now, listen. Organisms that don’t experience stress, what happens to them?
Laurie Watson:
I don’t know.
George Faller:
They die.
Laurie Watson:
They die. Stress is what keeps us alive.
George Faller:
It can’t grow and keeps us changing, keeps growing. We need to keep being responsive to stress. It’s healthy. This isn’t something bad we want to get rid of. I don’t want you to imagine a world that’s stressless that would be horrific. We just want stress in a healthy amount that keeps us growing and moving and changing, including sexually. We don’t want the same old, same old. We want to keep moving it baby.
Laurie Watson:
That’s right. That’s right. I was thinking when I read your notes last night and I thought about a child who is born who isn’t breathing, what they do is they hang the child upside down and spank it and they rub their fist on its chest. I mean, they’re stressing the baby’s body to get it to come to life, to get it to respond. And, I think that, that’s what you’re saying. First of all, it’s a myth that anybody has a easy sex life. I it just, everybody has sexual problems, y’all at some point. And, so when we experience those problems, we have an opportunity to become more deeply intimate, to know each other, to be seen by our partner in ways that make us more alive.
George Faller:
And, to not be seen. To kind of let more mysterious parts of ourselves out. There’s more room if we allow stress to keep growing us. But, if we’ve got to play it safe and we got to be exactly the same person and you wonder why sex gets boring. That’s not truly engaged sex. That’s really more sealed off kind of playing it safe sex.
Laurie Watson:
I do appreciate that you expand a lot of what I say into other dimensions. I do appreciate that. Say a little bit more about how the not seeing the mystery is helpful as well.
George Faller:
We’re all not finished stories. We’re constantly evolving and writing new chapters. And, to write new chapters I can’t really know what’s going to happen. It’s the not knowing that kind of creates so much of that excitement and that energy. My wife doesn’t have me all figured out yet and I don’t have her all figured out. But, it’s that journey that is, it’s the whole point. So, it is about, you want safety and security and trust and you also want some space to continue growing. And, it’s that balance between the two that I think creates such rich dynamics.
Laurie Watson:
The sense that we haven’t got our partner all figured out creates you stress. Okay, there is a challenge here. There’s an excitement here. Whether it’s I haven’t got them figured out sexually or emotionally or any other way. A new relationship is interesting because there’s so much to know and an old relationship, we never know each other completely and fully. We always want to be curious.
George Faller:
Right on. And, it’s what a great way to end the conversation of sex and stress to realize stressed spelled backwards is what?
Laurie Watson:
I don’t know.
George Faller:
Desserts.
Laurie Watson:
Rest? Desserts?
George Faller:
Desserts. What can be better? Sex is like dessert.
Laurie Watson:
Wait, how is stress spelled backwards like dessert?
George Faller:
Stressed, spell it backwards.
Laurie Watson:
Oh, stressed. Oh, dessert, desserts. Okay that’s good.
George Faller:
There’s the opportunity in it. So, my listeners, our listeners, just think about that. Whenever you’re feeling stressed, you could also be feeling dessert.
Laurie Watson:
Thanks for listening. This is Foreplay radio. Keep it hot.
Laurie Watson:
So, George, we’re going to offer an intensive on May 14th in Raleigh to two couples. We have two, two hour slots and we would love to get a couple to come in who has sexual problems and you’ll be able to work with George and I. Right, George?
George Faller:
That’s right and what a great opportunity to just open up some space to hang out and see if we can make some progress in these areas we’re stuck at.
Laurie Watson:
You can just reach us on Foreplay radio by email and let us know if you’re interested. There is a cost for both George and I and we are videotaping this for our trainings that only are shown to students. Thanks so much.
George Faller:
We look forward to seeing you there.
Laurie Watson:
Hi, Foreplay fam. The biggest support you can give us as sharing our podcast with a friend, you can find us also on socials, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and we’d love your questions and feedback and really do use these to guide our show.
Laurie Watson:
We’d also love it if you’d rate and review us.
Laurie Watson:
If you’re interested in learning more about us and our mission. Look us up on our hot new website, foreplayradiosextherapy.com.
Announcer:
Call in your questions to the Foreplay question voicemail. Dial 8-3-3-MY4PLAY. That’s 8-3-3, the number four, play, and we’ll use the questions for our mailbag episodes.
Announcer:
All content is for entertainment purposes only and should not be considered as a substitute for therapy by a licensed clinician or as medical advice from a doctor.

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