Love, Sex, and Your Brain

Love, Sex, and Your Brain

by Heather Kolb March 14, 2019


Today, the expectations for women are high. We continually push ourselves to be someone better. We are pulled in many different directions. We are stretched thin on a daily basis. So in the midst of all this, how do we stay healthy—physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and sexually?

Whether we struggle with sexually compulsive behaviors, relationship issues, or experienced betrayal, when we stand before the Cross, we stand on the same line. Regardless of our past or current behaviors, we all need grace—we all need a Savior.

God designed us for relationship with Him and others. It is only through raising awareness of our behaviors we recognize: do our behaviors move us toward relationship or away from relationship? This is a key element to managing love, sex, and relationships.

I’m excited to be a part of the Pure Desire Women conference next month. Here’s a snapshot of what we’ll discuss in my sessions.


LOVE, SEX, & THE BRAIN

Understanding how the brain works is one of the best places to start when learning about our behaviors—when trying to figure out why we do what we do. This is especially important when we want to learn more about love and sex.

Located in the center of the brain, the limbic system helps us regulate our emotional responses and links them to a specific event. Throughout our life, we will have thousands of experiences that evoke an emotional response. When something happens to us or around us, especially something threatening or fearful, our limbic system captures details about the event and how it made us feel and stores them together.

God created this part of our brain for survival, so when things hurt us, we remember the experience and try to avoid it in the future. This same system comes into play when we feel a crisis coming on. Our brain releases chemicals that produce a host of physical and emotional responses—we feel anxious, our heart races, our face turns red, and our palms get sweaty.

Interestingly, when we are falling in love, this same system is activated. Think about it: when we meet that special someone, we feel anxious and excited, our face turns red and we blush, our heart feels like it’s going to burst out of our chest, and our hands get all clammy. We become preoccupied and consumed by this new person in our life. Our new infatuation creates strong obsessive-compulsive behaviors.  

We could get more specific about this area of the brain (which will happen at the women’s conference...shameless plug ), but what’s fascinating is the way this system comes into play whenever we need to focus our attention, when we feel motivated to pursue rewards, and especially when we experience pleasure.

Practically speaking, any time we do something that creates pleasure—falling in love, eating food, using drugs, and even sex—it engages this same system in the brain. This is why it’s so easy to create compulsive and addictive behaviors; they make us feel good.

"Intense passionate love uses the same system in the brain that gets activated when a person is addicted to drugs."

Linda Thrasybule, What Falling in Love Does to the Brain

Our brain is amazing, miraculous, and complex at the same time. Understanding how our brain works gives insight to our behaviors in relationship.

ATTACHMENT

While falling in love and our sexual behaviors often bring pleasure, why do we continue to fail in relationship? Why do we have problems forming sustainable relationships, not just romantic relationships, but in all relationships?

If we want to have healthy relationships, we have to discover what our behaviors mean. In relationships:

  • - do we pull others close and then push them away when we feel they’ve lost interest?

  • - are we indifferent to relationship—only have relationships out of social obligation but don’t really need others in our life?

  • - do we fear relationship and avoid it at all costs?

  • - are we the “only one who gives” in the relationship?

  • - do we have safe relationships, built on a foundation of honesty, respect, and trust?

There is a reason we behave the same way in all our relationships. It stems from the way we learned to attach in early childhood: how we learned to be in relationship.

It is never too late to retrain our brain for health. Regardless of our attachment style, we can create new behaviors that will help us form strong connections. We need to understand our attachment style so we can learn to bond—become securely joined to another—in a healthy way.

BONDING

There are several aspects of bonding we could focus on in this session, but we’re going to talk about sexual bonding. Many women have bought into the lie that sex is just for men. When it comes to sex, they believe they’re simply fulfilling their “wifely duty.” This is not God’s design for sex. God designed sex to be a mutually satisfying experience for men AND women. Can I get an amen?

When we have great sex—where both spouses reach orgasm—it does amazing things for our brain and behaviors. While physical closeness and an intimate experience are important, the key element to sexual bonding is orgasm.

If we’re not experiencing orgasm during sex with our spouse, we’re missing out on the release of vital brain chemicals that help us stay emotionally connected (which we’ll discuss in more detail during this session). To make matters worse, as we continue to have unsatisfying sex—sex without orgasm—over time, we’ll feel discontent and even restless in our relationship. This will cause us to search out new mating prospects. Again, not God’s design for sex.

HEALTHY SEXUALITY

I remember the first time I read in Connected this statement: “I often tell women, ‘You are responsible for your orgasm.’” I just about fell out of my chair—not because this was shocking, but because it was so refreshing to hear this language in a Christian resource.

The meaning behind this statement is simple—as women, we need to be fully aware of our sexual needs so we can communicate our needs to our partners. This can be a little tricky and even feel scary if we were taught that sex is bad or dirty, had past negative sexual experiences, or never fully embraced our sexuality.

We often think of sexuality in the context of intercourse and reproduction, but it is so much more. It’s about understanding who God made us to be, both individually and within the context of a marriage—the place in our lives where another person knows us intimately and loves us unconditionally. This is God’s amazing design for sex.

THE ROAD TO HEALTH

Unpacking how we attach to others—how our brain creates and links our emotions and experience—and how this affects our sexuality is huge! The more we learn about our brain and behaviors, the more we understand how our brain was created for survival. 

For this reason, when we feel stress, our body responds by initiating our fight-or-flight system, enabling us to react quickly to life-threatening events. However, our body produces this same fight-or-flight response to non life-threatening situations. Whether we experience good stress (eustress), like getting married or having a baby, or bad stress (distress), like losing our job or filing for divorce, the same system in our brain comes into play. This is also true whether the stress is real or imagined.

Prolonged and chronic stress—conflict in our home environment, pressures at work, persistent worry about a chronic illness—causes brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addictive behaviors. (We’ll talk more about this at the conference.)

When we understand the impact stress has on our body we are better equipped to put healthy behaviors in place—behaviors that lead to lifelong health. We can begin to develop a mindset for healing.  

DEVELOPING HEALTHY BEHAVIORS

There are many healthy behaviors we could discuss, but focusing on behaviors that move us toward relationship with God and others is a great place to start.

Two of my favorite behaviors are communication and boundaries.

Weird, I know.

The way we communicate with others—our ability to speak effectively and gain understanding through listening—can be challenging. So much of our communication process runs through our filter: our wounded, traumatized, victimized, emotional filter. This directly influences how we hear and respond to others.

At the Pure Desire Women conference, we’ll learn what scripture says about how we use our words, the three basic forms of communication, and how to develop a communication style that is helpful in managing relationships.    

Setting healthy boundaries is often the result of developing our communication style. The more we recognize and verbalize our needs, the better equipped we are to put healthy boundaries in place that protect us and our relationships.  

As we pursue lifelong health, it becomes easier to identify the things that contributed to our previous unhealthy behaviors—this could include specific people, environments, activities, forms of entertainment, or a combination of these. For example, if we know going to a specific bar is unhealthy—a place we previously went looking for a hookup—we need to put a boundary in place that we’re not going there alone or at all.  

In the same way, if we have a relationship that becomes volatile when politics enters the conversation, we need to put a boundary in place that protects the relationship. This may include having a conversation with our friend and say, “You know, I would hate to see our conflicting view of politics ruin our friendship. Let’s agree to put our relationship before our political opinions and do our best to discuss other topics when we’re together.”

While having this type of conversation seems scary, it will show that we are working to stay in relationship. It shows that we are willing to put the relationship before our own interests.

Developing healthy behaviors often requires that we take a bold step toward change—a step toward relationship. It’s worth it. Be brave.

SELF-CARE

This is super important! It excites me you’ve read this far...here’s why:

For many women, we are last on the list when it comes to taking care of ourselves. We are either too busy meeting the needs of others or distracted by the next best thing, neglecting our needs, or both. Regardless, practicing self-care is important when taking a holistic approach to healing: physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and sexually.

Here are some things to consider. Are we:

  • - getting enough sleep each night?

  • - overeating or undereating?

  • - isolating or pursuing community and relationship?

  • - exercising too little or too much?

  • - acknowledging or trying to ignore our feelings?    

There are many self-care behaviors we could discuss, but as with all aspects of our behaviors, we need to tackle them one at a time. Choose one self-care behavior to focus on implementing and work on it consistently over the next month. This is a great way to create and sustain healthy behaviors.


While this provides a brief overview of my sessions, there is so much more happening at the women’s conference.

  • - Experience an intimate time of worship at the feet of our heavenly Father

  • - Ashley Jameson is empowering as she explains how our feelings drive our behaviors and impact our identity

  • - Gain professional insight from our clinical panel discussion

  • - Feel the depth of God’s restoration and grace through Patty Moreno’s personal testimony and application of God’s Word  

  • - Enjoy a refreshing time of connection and community with other women from all walks of life

This is going to be an exciting weekend of renewal, transformation, and healing. Join me at the Pure Desire Women conference, April 5-6, where we will discuss these topics and more.

I’m excited to meet you and talk about our brains!


REFERENCES

1. Edwards, S. (2019). Love and the Brain. On The Brain: The Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute Letter. Harvard Medical School. Retrieved from  http://neuro.hms.harvard.edu/harvard-mahoney-neuroscience-institute/brain-newsletter/and-brain-series/love-and-brain.
2. Thrasybule, L. (2012). What Falling in Love Does to the Brain. LiveScience. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/18430-falling-love-brain.html.
3. Chinchen, T., Flanagan, H., Roberts, D., & Roberts, T. (2017). Connected: Building a Bridge to Intimacy. Gresham, OR: Pure Desire Ministries International. 121.
4. Roberts, B. & Kolb, H. (2018). Digital Natives: Raising an Online Generation. Gresham, OR: Pure Desire Ministries International. 68.

             


HEATHER KOLB

Heather is the Content Editor and Neuroscience Professional on staff at Pure Desire. She has a Bachelor's in Psychology and a Master's Degree in Criminal Behavior. Heather worked several years as a college professor prior to joining Pure Desire. She is an integral part of our speaking team and is the co-author of Digital Natives: Raising an Online Generation.




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