Sex can bring up a lot of emotions. Some of them are good feelings, like the postcoital bliss of peace, connection, and satisfaction. But some of them are not-so-good feelings, like anxiety, irritability, and sadness. Even if the sex was amazing, you might still feel a drop in your mood. If you've ever experienced the after-sex blues, you're not alone. In fact, you're more likely experiencing what is known as postcoital dysphoria (PCD).
Of course, it can be pretty confusing to feel sad after sex — it's not exactly the desired outcome. Understanding PCD can give you clarity about why it happens and what you can do the next time it happens to you. To help, Scary Mommy spoke with sex therapist Aliyah Moore. Here's what you need to know.
What is postcoital dysphoria?
"Postcoital dysphoria is when someone feels intense sadness or distress after having consensual sex, even if the experience was wholesome and enjoyable," Moore tells Scary Mommy. "The sudden stream of emotions can be overpowering and lead to crying, detachment, irritability, or a number of other emotional responses. Research on PCD is sparse, but available studies show that it's a common occurrence regardless of sex or gender — though women are much more likely than men to express it by crying."
Moore emphasizes PCD does not mean that the sex was terrible, that one partner did something wrong, "or even that the one experiencing it has underlying psychological issues."
"It's theorized that PCD can be related to past sexual trauma, current relationship problems or anxiety, general anxiety, hormonal shifts, or low self-esteem," she says. "However, just because you've experienced PCD doesn't necessarily mean that you're dealing with these issues. In my own practice, I've had some patients who simply seem to get their wires crossed; the intense bonding sensation of sex will sometimes trigger sadness rather than euphoria."
Why does PCD happen?
While there's still no concrete explanation for PCD, Moore says you are at higher risk for it if you've experienced sexual trauma in the past or have negative feelings toward sexual activity.
"Feelings of low self-esteem or fear of abandonment can resurface after sex and cause an influx of negative emotions," she explains. "I'm not sure that it actually does happen to some people and not others. In my opinion, I think most of us will experience some degree of PCD at least once in our lives if we're consistently sexually active. Studies on PCD often focus on young people with limited sexual experience but still show high prevalence rates. It's possible that that rate increases as people get older and have more sexual experiences."
That said, Moore points out not everyone processes their emotions the same way. "You don't have to burst into tears or snap at your partner to experience PCD," she says. "I think people with underlying psychological issues or a history of trauma are more prone to express PCD intensely and experience it more often. I believe it's a common phenomenon that's made worse when it's combined with other problems."
What are the signs?
Curious if your emotions are a sign of postcoital dysphoria? "Most people don't know about PCD, so it can be difficult to differentiate between it and general sadness," she says. "The best way to distinguish between PCD and sadness is to try and identify the cause. If it makes sense for you to be upset, then it's likely a normal feeling. If there's no clear reason for your emotions, then it's likely PCD."
According to Moore, here are some things to take note of after sex to determine whether you have PCD or not:
- You have strong, near-uncontrollable feelings of sadness or irritability after sex but weren't feeling that way during or before sex.
- There's no clear cause for the emotions. Your partner didn't upset you, you weren't in pain, and nothing happened after sex to trigger these feelings.
- The feelings hit you almost immediately following sexual activity or near the end of it. They don't build up steadily; they pile on all at once.
What can you do if you experience PCD?
With PCD, Moore says it's important to let yourself feel what you're feeling. While it might be uncomfortable with a new partner, she notes that hiding it will only hurt you both.
"What you're feeling is a chemical response that you have no control over," Moore says. "It's completely valid, not your fault, and a very common experience. You're responsible for your actions, so do your best to maintain self-control, but don't try to fight the feeling."
If you find yourself in the feels, Moore recommends breathing exercises to help restore calm, like breathing in for five seconds and out for five seconds for a few minutes to see if it helps. She also suggests paying attention to your body and mind to identify what you're feeling and what might soothe you.
"Think about if there's anything you need, like a glass of water or a blanket, and meet those needs or ask your partner to help," she says. "This may sound odd, but I usually advise my patients to treat it like a buzz or a high — you're going to feel this way until you don't, but it won't last forever." Some of Moore's patients have said that pre or post-sex rituals also help them, such as breathing, stretching, getting a massage from your partner, or other calming activities before sex might relax your mind and help prevent PCD.
"Everyone is different, so it might take some trial and error to find what works for you," Moore says. "You know yourself better than anyone else." She adds that it's common for PCD to happen once or twice throughout a person's life, so there's no need to worry after a single episode. But if it's becoming a frequent occurrence — even just twice in the same month — you should contact a doctor or sex therapist.