When he was in his early 20s, Los Angeles-based writer Brandon G. Alexander often felt an inexplicable sadness after sex, even when it was “good” sex with people he liked.
“The best way to describe the feeling is empty or sometimes shame, depending on my relationship and intention with the person,” the 30-year-old founder of the men’s lifestyle site New Age Gents told HuffPost. “Our culture teaches men how to be physically connected to someone, but we ignore the truth that sex is highly emotional and spiritual. The idea that a man wouldn’t feel something before, during or after sex is unrealistic, but most have become so conditioned to think otherwise.”
What Alexander experienced years ago is what researchers call “post-coital dysphoria.” PCD, as they refer to it, is a condition marked by feelings of agitation, melancholy, anxiety or sadness after intercourse, even when it’s good, consensual sex. The condition can last between five minutes and two hours.
It’s also called “post-coital tristesse,” which literally means “sadness” in French. In the 17th century, philosopher Baruch Spinoza summed it up this way: Once the “enjoyment of sensual pleasure is past, the greatest sadness follows.”
Many studies have examined the first three phases of the human sexual response cycle (excitement, plateau, orgasm), but the resolution phase has often been overlooked.
That’s starting to change, though. In a 2015 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, almost half of the women surveyed reported experiencing PCD at some point in their lives, and around 5 percent said they’d felt it regularly within the past month.
A new study from the same researchers published in June suggests that PCD is almost just as prevalent in men: In an online survey of 1,208 male participants, around 40 percent of men said they’d experienced PCD in their lifetime, and 4 percent said it was a regular occurrence.
In excerpts from the survey, men admit to feeling a “strong sense of self-loathing” about themselves post-sex and “a lot of shame.” Others say they’d experienced “crying fits and full on depressive episodes” after sex that sometimes left their significant others worried.
“Men who may suffer from PCD think that they are the only person in the world with this experience, but they should recognize that there’s a diversity of experiences in the resolution phase of sex.”
Despite the number of men who reported experiencing PCD, it’s challenging for researchers to study it because most men are reluctant to talk about it, said Robert Schweitzer, the lead author on both studies and a psychology professor at Queensland University of Technology in Australia.
“Men who may suffer from PCD think that they are the only person in the world with this experience, but they should recognize that there’s a diversity of experiences in the resolution phase of sex,” he told HuffPost. “As with many diagnoses, it provides some relief to be able to name the phenomenon.” (Schweitzer is still collecting accounts of people with PCD for his ongoing research.)
As to why it’s so common in both men and women, a study of twins suggested that genetics may play some sort of role. PCD is also often linked with sexual abuse, trauma and sexual dysfunction, but that’s certainly not always the case; in this latest study, the majority of the men who reported PCD hadn’t experienced those issues and were in otherwise healthy, satisfying relationships.
More often than not, Schweitzer thinks PCD is a culmination of both physical and psychological factors. Physically, orgasms activate a flood of endorphins and other feel-good hormones, but the neurochemical prolactin follows, resulting in a sometimes intense comedown. Psychologically, the paper establishes a correlation between the frequency of PCD and “high psychological distress” in other aspects of a person’s life.
Sometimes, the psychological factors are compounded by the knowledge that no emotional connection exists with a sexual partner, said Kimberly Resnick Anderson, a Los Angeles-based sex therapist unaffiliated with the study.
“Some of my clients, especially males with sex addictions, report post-coital dysphoria because deep down, they know there is no bond between them and the person they are sleeping with,” she told HuffPost.
Other times, patients worry that their partners just weren’t that into the sex.
“If you believe your partner was just ‘taking one for the team’ and not genuinely interested in sex, it can lead to a sense of shame and guilt,” Resnick Anderson added.
What’s important to remember, she said, is that sex can mean different things at different stages of your life. And as these recent studies show, nuanced, complicated post-coital feelings are completely natural.
“We need to have more conversations about men and intimacy. The more we tell guys it’s OK to feel ― or protect your heart by waiting to sleep with someone sometimes ― the more we’ll change the old ideas around men and sex.”
There may be ways to curtail the negative feelings, too: For starters, stick around rather than high-tailing it out the door after a hookup session ― or if you’re in a relationship, cuddle instead of heading to the living room to watch Netflix. A 2012 study on the resolution phase of sex showed that couples who engage in pillow talk, kissing and cuddling after intercourse report greater sexual and relationship satisfaction.
And be honest about your emotions after sex, without assigning blame to yourself or your partner. As the growing research shows, men and women feel a full spectrum of emotions after sex, and that’s perfectly normal.
That’s something that Alexander, the writer who experienced PCD often in his 20s, had to learn on his own as he approached his 30s.
“As a guy, you shouldn’t numb out or try to deal with PCD in silence,” he said. “We need to have more conversations about men and intimacy. The more we tell guys it’s OK to feel ― or protect your heart by waiting to sleep with someone sometimes ― the more we’ll change the old ideas around men and sex.”