We’re going to get a little medical in this blog post, so before we start let’s do the basics: we’re not doctors. We’re here to give you information that can help you navigate some sexual questions, and hopefully an insight into things that you may want to speak to your doctor about. It’s important to stress this, particularly when it comes to questions around SSRIs (sometimes known as anti-depressants, but used to treat other mental health problems such as anxiety too) because although we’re talking about common side effects, medication affects different people in different ways.
What are SSRIs?
Serotonin is a brain chemical that influences your mood. You might have heard it referred to in articles about love and happiness – it’s often said that serotonin has a positive effect on your happiness. Naturally it’s a bit more complicated than that, as the chemical balance in the brain and body is a delicate one.
SSRI stands for ‘selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor’ and effectively SSRIs work by blocking the ‘reuptake’ of serotonin, meaning that it isn’t reabsorbed by the nerve cells in your brain (as it usually would be), and instead it hangs around for longer.
“It would be too simplistic to say that depression and related mental health conditions are caused by low serotonin levels, but a rise in serotonin levels can improve symptoms and make people more responsive to other types of treatment, such as CBT.”
If you think you may be struggling with depression, it’s possible that your doctor will prescribe a combination of medication (SSRIs or similar drugs) as well as talking therapy such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy).
How can SSRIs affect my sex life?
It can be difficult to judge exactly how SSRIs affect your sex life, because if you are struggling with mental health problems like depression, it’s often hard to separate out the effects of depression from the effects of the treatment. However, many people taking SSRIs report sexual problems including low libido, erectile dysfunction, or anorgasmia (the inability to reach climax).
If you are experiencing the same thing, the first thing to note is that you’re not alone! Although it can be easy to discuss common, non-sexual side-effects with your doctor like dizziness or sickness (also common side effects of SSRIs), many people feel uncomfortable addressing issues such as erectile dysfunction or anorgasmia. On top of this, sadly it is the case that some healthcare practitioners will either forget or be too embarrassed to ask about your sex life during the process of diagnosis. Even when practitioners do ask, sometimes patients feel uncomfortable talking about their sex lives or discussing the effect of SSRIs in detail.
But it’s really important to have that conversation, because your sex life is as much a part of your life as your appetite, mood and other aspects of your well-being.
SSRIs, anti-depressants and erectile dysfunction
One of the potential side-effects of SSRIs is erectile dysfunction – people report that it can be harder to get, or maintain, an erection while they’re on the drugs. For some people this will be an intermittent issue, for others it is sustained while they’re taking the pills and often for a time after it.
Don’t panic, though: erectile dysfunction doesn’t mean the end of your sex life. In fact, there are a number of ways you can enjoy sex – on your own or with a partner – that don’t require a sustained erection.
Sex toys like the PULSE III SOLO (or DUO) are designed to be used both with and without an erection. The toy has silicone wings that wrap around the penis, gripping it securely so that the pleasurable oscillations from the PulsePlate stimulate you. This can make it easier to get an erection, or even make it possible to orgasm without an erection. It’s one of the reasons PULSE is so popular with men who struggle with erectile dysfunction – whether as a result of SSRIs, certain medical conditions such as diabetes, or simply as they get older and find their erections aren’t as strong or reliable as they used to be. In fact, PULSE was developed based on medical technology aimed at helping men with spinal cord injuries take part in IVF, and go on to have children. There are many reasons why people might struggle with erections, and as a result plenty of solutions – we’re quite innovative when it comes to keeping our sex lives going, after all, even in the face of seemingly difficult obstacles!
And it’s not just PULSE – other sex toys such as prostate massagers and other anal sex toys can also give you pleasure (and bring you to orgasm!) without an erection. When it comes to partnered sex, you may want to try out some non-penetrative sex positions. They don’t require an erection, just a little energy and a desire to try something fun. Equally pegging, oral sex, and mutual masturbation can all form a part of a full and happy sex life, whether you struggle to get hard or not.
SSRIs and anorgasmia
On top of erectile dysfunction, anorgasmia is also frequently mentioned as a side effect of SSRIs. The mental health charity Mind lists delayed orgasm or inability to reach orgasm as a potential side effect for both men and women. It’s easy to see how this can leave people frustrated and cause some people to effectively ‘give up’ on their sex life. Here, again, sex toys can help: not only are they a means of exploring new sensations which may work for you, toys also give you something with which to practice and explore your body on your own. You probably know that if you’re striving for orgasm, pressure is not a helpful addition to the mix. If you’re worried about anorgasmia, setting aside some time on your own to play with new sex toys, or just relax and get in tune with the different ways your body reacts, can be a real benefit to you.
SSRIs: alternatives and advice
Forgive us if we sound like a broken record here, but if you think that SSRIs are affecting your sex life, please talk to your doctor about it. There are other alternatives to SSRIs to treat things like depression and anxiety – alternative medications are available, as well as options such as talking therapy. Your doctor will be able to give you an overview of the options that are out there, as well as the pros and cons of each one. But if your SSRIs are working well in helping you manage your mental health, then sex toys like PULSE can help by giving you a boost – relieving the pressure of having to get or maintain an erection, and allowing you to have a bit more fun.
For more information on SSRIs, mental health and sex: