DEAR DR. JENN,
I just passed my one-year quarantine anniversary and I feel like I've hit a wall. I'm usually pretty steady, but suddenly, I find that my moods vary day to day and even from moment to moment. Sometimes I feel very grateful just to be alive and focused on what really matters — the health of my loved ones. Other times, I am short-tempered, sad, and just exhausted. My boyfriend is totally confused by my moods and also frustrated by the fact that we haven't been having sex — but my libido has been non-existent in recent weeks. What is going on with me and how do I deal? — Sad and Sex-less
DEAR SAD AND SEX-LESS,
Welcome to the "anniversary effect," a common experience where a person experiences symptoms of distress around a difficult or painful anniversary. Many of my private practice clients, as well as friends and family have been talking to me about feeling agitation, anxiety, sadness, hopelessness, trouble sleeping, mood shifts, appetite changes, irritation, and yes — loss of sex drive — as they hit the one-year anniversary of their own quarantine.
People are grieving weddings, birthdays, holiday celebrations, baby showers, christenings, bar mitzvahs, and other significant life celebrations and milestones that never happened. Kids are feeling the loss of graduation ceremonies, sports competitions, birthday parties and so much more. And, with over half a million people dead and over 30 million cases of the virus in the U.S., many people have experienced the loss of loved ones or of their own health and are coming up on anniversaries of these devastating events. Even if we don't remember the date, our body always remembers. It taps us on the should with symptoms.
We are grieving the loss of life as we once knew it, mask-free. We are mourning the world as we knew it, which now feels so much more dangerous thanks to this invisible, mutating virus. We are remembering the last time we were in a room with strangers, ate inside a restaurant, shared a glass with a friend, shook a colleague's hand, ate a cake after someone blew out the candles, traveled to a far off destination without wipes, attended a sports event or concert in a crowded stadium, or left our house without a mask.
It doesn't mean there's nothing you can do to manage these feelings – or get your relationship and sex life back on track – but first, you need to acknowledge the grief and loss.
The “Anniversary Effect” and the Five Stages of Grief
There is a grieving process that goes along with these anniversaries. It is the same process that we go through with death, and for many of us death has been woven into the tapestry of this pandemic. The psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote about a theory called the five stages of grief and loss as they pertain to death and dying. In my clinical experience, they also apply to COVID and our surrounding losses. Understanding them can help with your confusing response to the anniversary.
The five stages of grief and loss are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. They don't occur in a linear fashion and you don't complete one, never to return, and then move onto the next. Sometimes you vacillate between two. For example, you may go back and forth between the sadness of losing your freedom and anger about how you wish things had been handled differently in your own home or the world.
- Denial can be as blatant as not believing the virus is a real threat or thinking that it won't impact your life.
- Anger can come up about how your life has changed, the politics around the virus, anger about the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a loved job.
- Bargaining occurs when we start to accept the truth of what is going on but we have the illusion of control. We make trade-offs in our minds like "I can go to a friend's house for dinner and take off my mask since she was tested last week" or "I would know if someone had Covid by looking at them so I can go to that party." We bargain with fate, science, and truth to get the things we miss so much, putting ourselves at risk.
- Depression is perhaps the easiest to understand. The last year has been filled with losses of lives, freedoms, experiences, contact with others, and so much more. It is normal to feel sad.
- Acceptance does not mean that we are ok with the virus but it does mean that we accept the new steps we have to take to keep ourselves safe. It means we are willing to do our part to avoid spreading the virus. Acceptance helps you to take better care of yourself by connecting with friends via Zoom, planning virtual events, and taking good care of yourself. (If you're religious, it's the stuff of the Serenity Prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to accept the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.")
How Grief Affects Your Libido
You aren't alone in feeling like your desire to have sex has gone out the window. Grief and loss don't tend to make us feel hot and horny. Feeling sad, scared, or depressed throws water on the flames of desire.
In some way or another, we're all dealing with elevated stress hormones — brought on by the pandemic, health fears, job concerns, financial stress, and loss — which can dampen desire. This causes our body to turns its resources towards survival and coping with sadness, and there is typically not a lot of energy left for activity in the bedroom. Know that loss of libido is a normal part of the grieving process — but that it's a temporary one.
Tips for Dealing with the “Anniversary Effect”
Our unconscious mind and our bodies store trauma. It remembers dates and events. Knowing that can help your prepare. Here are other ways to cope and feel more like yourself again (which in turn, should help your sex drive return to normal, too.)
Know that experiencing an anniversary reaction is normal. The more you are aware and get support, the better it will be.
In Hump Day, award-winning psychotherapist and TV host Dr. Jenn Mann answers your sex and relationship questions — unjudged and unfiltered.
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