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Horm Behav. 2011 May;59(5):765-71. doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2010.12.011. Epub 2010 Dec 30.

The role of salivary cortisol and DHEA-S in response to sexual, humorous, and anxiety-inducing stimuli.

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Psychology Department, Mount Allison University, 49A York Street, Sackville, NB, Canada.


Stress and anxiety are commonly thought to be detrimental to sexual function. Several studies in both the human and animal literature, however, have found that inducing anxiety can enhance sexual function in women. The mechanisms that explain a negative relationship between physical and psychological stress and sexual functioning are well documented, but little is known about how stress or anxiety might have a facilitatory effect on sexual arousal. As an initial step in exploring the relationship between anxiety and sexual arousal, the present study examined the role of the autonomic nervous system, and the adrenal hormones cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone-sulfate (DHEA-S) in response to a sexual film, an anxiety-inducing film, and a humorous film. Nineteen premenopausal women (mean age 24.4 years) who were free from sexual difficulties came into the lab on three separate days. At each session they were shown an anxiety-inducing, sexually arousing, or humorous (control) film while their physiological arousal was measured. They also provided saliva samples before and after each film. Cortisol significantly decreased, while DHEA-S increased in the sexual and humorous conditions. Neither hormone changed significantly in the anxiety-inducing condition. Autonomic nervous system activity measured by heart rate and heart rate variability did not change in response to the sexual or anxiety-inducing films, but heart rate variability increased significantly in response to the humorous film. The cortisol/DHEA-S ratio at the post-sexual film time point was significantly negatively correlated with genital arousal (measured by vaginal pulse amplitude). Anxiety-inducing films did not result in a physiological stress response, which can explain why they do not impair sexual function.

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