Gentle, loving intercourse without the goal of orgasm produces a comforting neuroendocrine “cocktail”. It differs profoundly from the fiery neurochemicals of passion-driven sexual arousal. For example, a gentler, heart-centred approach to sex appears to release soothing levels of the “bonding hormone” oxytocin. And relatively less of the fiery surges of dopamine, the neurochemical associated with intense arousal.

As a matter of physiology, orgasm is the most intense high that humans can engineer without artificial means. The event of orgasm occurs in the brain, wherever we may feel it happening. During intense sexual arousal a release of potent neurochemicals activates portions of our brain known as “the reward circuitry”. This experience shares much in common with the neurochemical release of drugs of abuse. In fact, addictive activities and substances only “work” because they hijack this circuitry in our brain.

This “rewarding” brain mechanism impels all mammals, including us, toward activities that further survival and the passing on of genes. However, biological sex has hidden costs. A better understanding of them can increase the motivation to employ desire more consciously.

The high of orgasm is not an isolated event

Unlike blowing our noses, climax initiates a neuroendocrine cycle. “What goes up must come down”. As the cycle plays out, this has implications for fluctuating mood, clarity, energy levels, perceptions and priorities.

Just as alcohol can lead to a hangover after the initial buzz, orgasm produces its own aftermath. The neurochemical blast of climax sets in motion a complex series of neuroendocrine dominoes. These continue to fall until the brain returns to homeostasis. Some people notice their effects immediately. They may roll over and snore, feel unusually needy, or request “space”. In others the effects are delayed, self-medicated, or even preceded by an afterglow, such that the person affected doesn’t make the connection between cause and effect.

Regardless, the fluctuations in the cycle can go on for days. Already researchers know that testosterone spikes briefly 7 days after ejaculation. In women, prolactin surges are common at orgasm and on the following day. Scientists will need years to map the neuroendocrine cycles after climax in humans. To date, most of the relevant work has been done on rats, often by experts in search of lucrative sexual enhancement drugs.

More to the story

Meanwhile, a few psychology researchers have begun to ask lovers about postcoital distress. It turns out that it’s surprisingly frequent. “The most common symptoms in women were mood swings and sadness, whereas in men, it was unhappiness and low energy”.

Perhaps the worst aspect of these unpleasant biologically-induced emotions is that we tend to project them outward. Let’s say a perfectly natural neuroendocrine drop-off after climax leaves us feeling irritable, impulsive or weepy. We may assume that something outside ourselves caused the unpleasant feelings and our reactions. In fact, our own neuroendocrine fluctuations are at work.

This is how otherwise meaningless, perfectly natural neuroendocrine events after orgasm sow feelings of defensiveness, lack, irritability, desire for emotional separation. And lead to choices we later regret. Feeling a subconscious sense of uneasiness or lack, perhaps we snap at someone. Or pursue a reckless urge. Or assign motives that don’t exist and cultivate destructive resentments. Similarly, feelings of sexual frustration, stagnation and isolation produce their own discomfort and projections.

These feelings and the responses they naturally evoke in others can easily erode feelings of trust, safety or desire for closer union. It becomes all but impossible to generate and sustain deep feelings of oneness, wholeness and contentment.

Caught in a ratchet

For better or worse, humanity’s current pursuit of intense sexual arousal may be augmenting these uncomfortable post-orgasm cycles as lovers’ brains struggle to return to homeostasis after the fireworks of intense climax. If so, humanity is caught in a ratchet-like predicament.

Attempts to scratch our itch with more intense arousal risk driving us farther apart from our partners – especially after the temporary thrills of the initial “honeymoon” neurochemicals die down. Will relationship disharmony eventually motivate some partners to protect their intimate relationships even if they have to master an unfamiliar approach to sex?

Not a solo endeavour

Science offers some good news too. Affectionate contact between committed couples increases levels of soothing, bonding oxytocin. It no doubt produces other shifts too, such as those associated with meditative bliss.

We then project these deeply satisfying and mind-expanding feelings of wholeness outward (just as we did the uncomfortable feelings discussed above). In this way the union between lovers has the power to shift our perception toward oneness and unity.

While a period of celibacy can be helpful in allowing our reward circuitry to return to balance, ultimately celibacy is no more a solution than conventional sex. While solo we often feel “unwhole”, if not positively discontented. We cannot tap the synergy of careful union.

It’s our choice

Once we understand orgasm’s hidden costs, do we use our “urge to merge” for short-term gratification anyway? Do we avoid those costs by withdrawing into defensive, isolating celibacy? Or do we master ourselves and then steer for Synergy, making deep feelings of oneness and wholeness our goal?

Our choice may have implications for everyone touched by the ripples of our lives. Metaphysics teaches that our thoughts, feelings and expectations help to shape our collective experience.

Are we subtly increasing defensiveness, fear and discouragement with the avoidable neuroendocrine swings that naturally follow orgasm? Or are we helping to increase feelings of contentment, trust and optimism via Synergy?

The latter course may have more potential for good than we’ve yet realised. It’s why sex matters so much.