What was the aim?
I wanted to understand how and why low mood and stress are related to sexual problems. The most common sexual problems include: low or absent sexual desire, difficulty becoming aroused, difficulty achieving orgasm, achieving orgasm too quickly, or pain with sexual activity. Before I started my PhD, there was lots of research that showed these sexual problems are often associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety, but there wasn’t much research on how and why these symptoms are related. Understanding these relationships is really important, so we can get better at recognising and treating the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and sexual problems.
How did we do it?
You lovely people completed thousands of self-report surveys for me. The first wave of data collection was a single survey, and the big wave of data collection was over six time points – either over six weeks, or six months. We used advanced statistical modelling to look for patterns in the responses to these surveys to answer our questions about the relationships between mood and stress levels and sexual problems. For example: “Do people with low stress levels and positive moods experience less sexual problems?” or “Do people experiencing sexual problems tend to become depressed and/or anxious over time?”.
What did we find?
Over the course of five separate studies, we learned a lot about these relationships. The most important finding was that depression and anxiety share a common factor with sexual problems – they’re not categorically separate families of disorders. This was found for men and women of all ages in both studies, across studies that used different questions to measure symptoms, and across studies that used different types of statistical models -- so we’re pretty confident it's true. There were also no causal relationships between the disorders. Instead, the shared factor between the disorders explained the relationships over time. We also found that the most popular questionnaires to assess sexual problems don’t do their job very well, which was helpful to know when we were designing the big six-wave study.
What does this mean in practice?
Discovering a shared factor between depression, anxiety, and sexual problems was exciting. It tells us a lot about how and why these problems are related. It provides a direction for future research that will help us to diagnose and treat the disorders more effectively because we know they aren’t categorically separate groups of disorders, and there aren’t any clear causal relationships between them. More specifically, we now know that they share a common vulnerability. This tells us that if someone reports symptoms of depression and anxiety, we also need to ask about sexual problems, and vice versa, and also that these symptoms need to be treated together. The next steps will be to learn how we can target the underlying vulnerability through new programs that treat symptoms of depression, anxiety, and sexual problems at the same time.
I'm hoping to get funding to continue this research next year, but in the meantime I would like to thank you for your support and interest in my research. Please don't hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or comments, or if you'd like a more technical summary of my research.