When your teenage self mindlessly peeled labels off cola bottles, chances are your friends mercilessly mocked you about being sexually frustrated. But while pop psychology interpretations such as these may seem harmless, they only serve in cementing falsehoods around what this dissatisfaction really entails.

Although the concept of sexual frustration is ingrained in culture, you might be surprised to hear there is no official definition or medical diagnosis. Plus, while it can certainly be physical — as you’d expect — a key element is actually based around emotional connection.

So, we’re here to put to rest any unfounded assumptions and reveal what being sexually frustrated actually means, how to tell if you are, the effects it can have, and what to do about it.

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There’s no medical definition of sexual frustration and it feels a little different for everyone. The most general way to put it is a sense of yearning or not being able to obtain something you want.

“I would describe sexual frustration as either the psychological disappointment of not having contact with a particular partner, and the physiological discomfort of creating arousal in the body and not having an outlet,” says Jenni Skyler, PhD, certified sex therapist and resident sexologist for Adam and Eve.

Sexual frustration covers a huge spectrum. For instance, it could result from being unable to orgasm as well as the trauma-based loss of libido. It can also affect both singletons and couples alike — no matter how much nookie you’re enjoying.

So, how do these grievances show themselves? According to Skyler, common signs are:

  • irritability
  • differing levels of depression
  • snacking habits go up a notch
  • trouble sleeping

Annoyingly, pretty much anything can lead to or influence sexual frustration: It can be caused by external factors or something from within yourself — or both.

“Many assume frustration occurs solely due to not getting enough sex, but this is far from the case,” says Marin. Here are some other reasons why sexual frustration happens.

Mismatched needs

You might be having plenty of sex and still feel frustrated. Often, this has to do with a difference between how you and your partner(s) prefer to be intimate. “You might be frustrated by the way your partner initiates, the specific ways they touch or stimulate you, their lack of creativity, their unwillingness to experiment in the bedroom, their selfishness in the bedroom, or their inability to talk about sex,” says Marin.

Trauma or internalized stigma

Meanwhile, if you’ve grown up hearing that sex is bad or taboo, you might find it a challenge to let go and make connections — which can be exasperating and upsetting.

If you’ve experienced sexual violence or trauma, having sex might be triggering and cause you to revisit painful memories. A natural response to this is to avoid sexual situations altogether. But you might find that creates a void and that you long for a kind of intimacy that you can’t achieve.

Stress

Maybe you’ve experienced some life changes recently that have put a dampener on things. Started a new job? Had a bit of a health scare? Found yourself embroiled in a global pandemic? Worries of all sizes can have an impact, and if you’re unsure where to start unpicking things, there’s no shame in seeking guidance from a mental health professional.

A lack of physical touch

Because culture insists upon the idea that sex is THE most important aspect of human existence, many of us naturally assume that this longing must be from a lack of sex. But it’s totally possible that the feelings you’re feeling actually stem from a need for a platonic cuddle sesh, rather than a smash sesh. Truth is, people benefit immensely from human touch.

Nope! There are no known health effects that come from not having sex. So, banish fears of exploding balls or vaginas.

That being said, physical connection definitely has a positive impact on your well-being: Research suggests that skin-on-skin action decreases cortisol (your body’s stress hormone) and heart rate, increases serotonin (the “happy” chemical), and potentially even acts as pain relief. And a lack of human touch may be associated with loneliness, which can have a significant impact on long-term physical and emotional health.

Good news! Sexual frustration doesn’t have to be a mainstay, and there are several approaches you can take to tackle it.

Seek emotional intimacy

Yup, you can fulfill those intimacy yearnings without getting between the sheets. Platonic relationships can be a beautiful space for emotional intimacy and, yes, physical touch. Everything from supportive hugs to knowing you’ve got an unconditional shoulder to cry on can provide the affection you crave — without the added complications and pressures sex can bring to the picture.

Have a party of one

Settle in for a solo sex session. “I really encourage [people] to embrace it as a practice for themselves as self-care,” Skyler says. “[You’re] just filling in the gaps where there is a desire discrepancy.” While this doesn’t solve the need for connection, it does offer an outlet for pent-up energy — plus, it can help lead to better, more emotionally healthy sex in the future.

Talk is cheap, but oh-so-effective

It’s normal for couples to find themselves in a rut, and see their sexual appetites change — so sit down and communicate feelings and concerns. It may be harder to successfully connect if you’re on different pages. “The longer it goes on without being addressed, the harder it feels to get back to a good place,” adds Marin.

Sweat it out

It seems like exercise is often the answer, and it’s no different in this instance: Going for a long run or beating your push-up PB is a great way to expel some of the built-up energy that can fuel frustration.

Speak with a pro

If you think your frustrations stem from a mental health condition, or they’re having a noticeable impact on other areas of your life, a therapist or counselor can offer guidance to help you manage them better.

Sexual frustration isn’t as simple as not getting off as much as you’d like: It’s a much broader picture of intimacy and connection both physically and mentally. With a myriad of causes, it can vary between individuals. But there are steps you can take both personally and with a partner to help overcome these feelings of disconnect and encourage a sense of fulfillment.