Sexual excitement: how to apply the brakes

There is no shortage of advice for men struggling with premature ejaculation. Why is it so difficult to apply the techniques when it absolutely matters?

Turbo rollercoaster stopped upside down at funfair

So you’ve been researching how to last longer in bed. And you’ve been recommended deep breathing, edging, kegel exercises and helpful sex positions. With a bit of luck, you’ve avoided the quack herbal supplements and hypnosis downloads.

And do you know what? A lot of the advice out there is decent. Doing these things can help. So why does the problem persist? If you’ve followed the advice and tried the techniques, how was it for you?

I’ve spoken with many men who struggle with premature ejaculation, and their experiences of self-help tend to fall into one of three categories:

  1. Anticlimax: It didn’t work, no matter how much they tried.
  2. Overclimax: Their sexual performance seemed even worse. Perhaps there was a mistake in execution, such as holding breath or squeezing the PC muscle at the wrong time. Or simply due to reading a huge list of tips and overthinking the whole thing.
  3. WTF. They found that a technique seemed to make a difference, but the improvement didn’t last. Have you ever had the feeling that you lasted longer on occasion, but you couldn’t say exactly why? You tried the same thing next time, but you couldn’t repeat the improvement? This is a common experience, much to our frustration.

There are parallels here to world of muscle and fitness. I’m a sucker for those Do This One Move for Big Shoulders articles. I’ll read the advice and watch the video, and can’t wait to try the Reverse Hyper Arnold Press or whatever it is.

Now if I get this move really wrong, I’ll experience an injury and a setback.

But it’s most likely that I’ll just keep doing the exercise and my shoulders won’t feel any different. The Reverse Hyper Arnold Press might be a great lift, but there’s something lacking in my approach to it.

What we need is an understanding of mechanics; body mechanics for building massive shoulders, and sexual excitement mechanics for satisfying in the sack. With this foundation in place, the tips and techniques make more sense (well, some of them). There is real potential for gains.

So squeeze those kegels and join me on a roller-coaster tour of the body’s arousal mechanisms. You can’t control what you don’t understand, right?

How sexual excitement works

Consider the rise of sexual arousal, beginning with stirrings in your pants and culminating in glorious ejaculation. Let’s get biological here.

Chart showing rising curve of sexual excitment to orgasm

A myriad of physiological events occur along this curve. Increased heart rate, raised blood pressure, muscle contraction and the reflex pulsations of orgasm itself. All of this happens thanks to rising sexual excitement, and your body cannot reach orgasm in any other way.

And what controls the timings of all these events? Your autonomic nervous system, that’s what. It’s part of the peripheral nervous system, the mesh of nerve fibres that regulate the function of internal organs.

The autonomic nervous system has two divisions, and here’s the thing for those of us interested in going the distance: one acts as the accelerator (sympathetic nervous system), and the other is the brake (parasympathetic nervous system).

When we talk about the ‘fight or flight’ response, this is the realm of the sympathetic nervous system. It’s our accelerator response for self-protection and reproduction, prepping the body for immediate physical action. Super-handy for running away from a rottweiler. Not so great if it prompts an immediate ejaculation response whenever you get inside someone’s pants.

Cartoon of man speeding towards premature ejaculation

But this is the thing: our sexual excitement doesn’t need to rise in a continuous trajectory. It can roll in waves, surging and dipping and surging again. This is the key to enjoying sexual intercourse for longer. Let’s dig deeper into the workings of the accelerator and the all-important brake mechanism.

Arousal and flightcheck

Good news everyone: we are all endowed with a parasympathetic nervous system. We all have nature’s brakes, the low gears, the cruise control. We can’t get turned on without it.

Right at the beginning of the sexual excitement curve, the parasympathetic nervous system is running the show. Known as the ‘rest-and-digest’ state, our rational brain is engaged and our jumpy primal responses are in check. We can kick back, take in the sensual stimuli of our partner and embrace the thrills to come. An erection happens right here.

When a sexual opportunity presents itself, excitement commences in a part of our brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (or the catchier vmPFC). Reaching out to our limbic reward and emotional systems, the vmPFC grades the sexual appeal of the situation and has a little mental rehearsal of the potential sex act. A filthy flightcheck, if you like.

We experience this as a jolt of excitement and a narrowing of our focus, especially visual focus, on the object of our desires.

Anxiety risk #1: bad feeling about this

Note that even at this early stage of the arousal curve, it can be completely hijacked by feelings of anxiety. What happens if, within this imagined mini-rehearsal, the brain dredges up awkward memories of our past failings? The last time we came too soon, or went soft and floppy, or some other mental self-flagellation.

Remember that the cool, assured parasympathetic nervous system is essential for getting a reliable hard-on.

Performance anxiety can jolt us straight into fight-or-flight mode, resulting in loss of erection, apologies and running away. Or ejaculating right there and then, if foreplay has already commenced. Oh the horror.

But let’s assume that nature, and your erection, is able to take its course. Sexual excitement ramps up, so what next on this quest for the orgasmic win?

Acceleration and turbocharge

As the heat rises, consider the phase of the sexual excitement curve that you want to last for longer. This will typically be after you’ve entered her, and you’re both experiencing the intense pleasure of intercourse. Now for those of us inclined to go off early, it feels like the body has its own agenda. The tingles of impending ejaculation occur way too soon and panic begins.

What’s going on? In a nutshell, your sympathetic nervous system (the accelerator) is trying to grab the controls and do what nature demands.

Picture this as shifting up through the gears of sexual excitement: in order to reach full speed, the turbocharger has to activate. In physiological terms, this is the hormonal changes, increased blood pressure and muscular tension that is necessary for eventual orgasm and ejaculation. You don’t want to reach full speed just yet, natch. You want to cruise along in high gear for a good while, thank you very much.

Researchers using brain activity imaging have observed this activation of the ‘turbocharger’. Sexual excitement shoots up and specific areas of the brain appear to light up and others shut down. One area that shuts down is the amygdala. This is the brain part responsible for emotions and fear. A temporary, fleeting surge of fearlessness; no wonder orgasm feels so good.

This is the point where we’re most likely tell our partner something uncharacteristically filthy and never mention it again afterwards.

The interruption of the amygdala is doubly interesting. It also manages our attention and sensory input. When we’re having sex, it helps us to evaluate the emotional content of the encounter and the physical sensations of pleasure. It has a direct, neurological hotline to our genitalia. Shutting the amygdala down is essential for reaching orgasm but at the expense of our mind-body connection and critical awareness. Again, it signals us handing over timing and control to our body’s natural reflexes.

Now wouldn’t it be useful if we could learn how to control our sensory awareness to delay this process?

Anxiety risk #2: trying too hard

So what about those Men’s Health tips and tricks? We might try them every time we have sex, in an attempt to extend those sweet, precious minutes. A recent study from the University of British Columbia considered the effectiveness of ‘trying to make sex last longer’. Most of the men participating in the research hadn’t received specific training in managing their sexual excitement, just like the vast majority of men who struggle with premature ejaculation.

The main finding was that a significant proportion of the men became more sexually excited when they consciously tried to last longer. They accelerated towards ejaculation faster during trials in which they attempted to regulate their arousal, compared to trials where they simply observed their arousal levels and let themselves go.

According to the lead researcher, “We attributed this increased response to anxiety – in this case, demand anxiety. It’s sort of like when you tell someone not to think of a white elephant; those [who] are most anxious during the task have the most trouble not thinking about the white elephant.”

So attempting to delay the onset of orgasm can actually speed it up. When our understanding of sexual excitement is a bit skewed, and we try the same approach over and over again, we fall into the ‘meh’ or ‘doh’ categories above. We feel increasingly defective.

In a worst case scenario, our anxieties and negative feelings about sex will accumulate and lock our thoughts into a vicious circle.

Diagram of vicious thought circle of premature ejaculation

Remember: anxiety will prevent us getting hard (it disrupts the parasympathetic nervous system) or will speed up the body’s natural race to ejaculation (demand anxiety brings on the sympathetic nervous system response). In other words, anxiety either gets in the way of sexual excitement, or ramps up sexual excitement to an early finish.

The awesome Dr Robert Sapolsky describes this perfectly:

The takeaway: we need a strategy

So you ejaculate when your sexual excitement soars and your built-in turbocharger kicks in. All other factors relate to the intensification of sexual excitement. It’s as simple as that.

Lasting longer in bed requires managing sexual excitement: a fine balancing act of letting your physiology do its thing yet maintaining some control over its natural reflexes.

For some men, their turbocharger kicks in within seconds rather than minutes. We might try to exert control over this response, which increases anxiety. Unless we have a strategy for managing sexual excitement, our efforts will have the opposite effect. There is a lot of advice about overcoming premature ejaculation that can be applied the wrong way or simply won’t help in the long-term (thinking about your grandmother whilst giving your penis a Chinese burn).

By understanding the inner-workings of the sexual excitement mechanism, we can identify the elements that can be brought under our control and the reflex responses that we can monitor. There are techniques for mastering our physiological responses, including tactical breathing, stimulation awareness and tension-free movement.

I find that these techniques work best when we have developed our mindfulness and sensory awareness skills, enabling us to stay in gear and effectively delay the shift into overdrive. It also prevents anxiety from hijacking the whole ride.

This sounds very zen, I know. And it does require some self-training and practise. But without adopting a holistic approach, any deep-breathing or muscle-control moves are just moves. We don’t know how to recognise the body responses or mental states that they are supposed to address. We can’t tell whether a technique is working or not. Just a little bit more effort and insight can make all the difference.

Let us embrace sexual excitement, turbocharger and all. Without it, we wouldn’t get laid. Yes, it can sometimes feel like a fight against our reflexes, like we are trying to manage the unmanageable. We’re talking a body and a head game here, with skills and confidence that you can carry forward into all aspects of your life.

What’s not to like about that?

Photo credit: by Charlotte Coneybeer on Unsplash

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