a stressed monkey

Aaaaaand, two weeks later…

It’s January.

Scratch that. It’s FUCKING JANUARY.

This same thing happened last year. I spend the month of January sitting in a dark hole. It’s not as bad this year because there’s much less snow and also there is the romantic euphemism to bring me news of the outside world (and chocolate and alcohol) without my actually having to go out into it.

Last year I suggested somatic mindfulness as a strategy for coping with seasonal mood stuff. This year I want to return to the idea of the monkey that lives inside each of us and motivates most of our behaviors.

What does the monkey need? What does the monkey want?

Well, sex is about the creation and survival of the next generation. The monkey doesn’t actually NEED anything from sex; as the brilliant Frank Beach once noted, no one ever died for lack of sex. (Insert predictable joke here.) There is no need, only want.

So what do they want?

Of course, boy monkeys and girl monkeys have different sex wants, due to different reproductive roles, so let’s take girl monkeys for now.

The Girl Monkey – let’s call her Alice – Alice the Girl Monkey wants, ultimately, to make babies (from an evolutionary perspective), but (1) she doesn’t want babies with any old genetic partner and (2) she doesn’t want babies at any old time. Fortunately, she’s hardly ever fertile – one day in every 28, roughly – and loses fertility when she’s already pregnant, when she’s breastfeeding regularly, when her body fat gets dangerously low, and when she’s generally very very stressed. The reproductive part of sex is moderately well in hand (from a biological point of view, anyway).

But then there’s the other aspect of sex, all of its social functions. It bonds Alice to her partner, she can use it as currency in exchange for social favors, she can diffuse conflict with it, she can, indeed, reduce her own stress level with it. And just as Alice the Monkey needs physical challenge and a variety of nourishment, she needs to keep her stress hormones balanced.

But at the same time, those stress hormones might keep her sexual interest flatlining.

Looks like we need to understand about stress.

As I’ve mentioned before stress is not just a response, it’s a cycle. Your body responds to a perceived threat with adrenaline and cortisol, which activates motivation to fight, flee, or freeze, and when you do what your body is pushing you to do and thus escape the threat, it rewards you with all the happy chemicals it can throw at you, activating the relaxation response.

The complicated part is when your stressor goes away but your stress is still there! Just because you’ve dealt with a stressor – say, a relationship conflict – doesn’t mean you’ve dealt with the stress. And it is the stress itself, not the presence of the stressor, that disrupts sexual interest. Alice the Human can resolve a conflict rationally. Alice the Monkey needs to run or fight to lie still and shake for a while, to move all the way through the stress response and into the relaxation response.

The ladies among us are likely (like, 90%) to recognize the experience of feeling desirous of sex under circumstances of relationship happiness: when you feel cared for, understood, supported, special, safe… ya know, loved. And you may recognize the experience of NOT wanting sex when you feel stressed, threatened, overwhelmed, exhausted, or under-appreciated; then sexual interest, like a shy ferret, hides behind the sofa and won’t come out until everyone goes away.

I’ve been playing with this simile lately: emotions are like tunnels. You have to move all the way through them or you’re stuck just sitting there in the dark.

Monkey are good at moving through their emotions to get to the calm and peace at the end of them. Humans in the industrialized west are TERRIBLE at it. It’s a skill well worth learning. Okay.