Don’t hesitate, just regulate: Emotion regulation and women’s sexual well-being

By Justin Dube

This blog is a summary of our published article: Dubé, J. P., Dawson, S. J., & Rosen, N. O. (2020). Emotion Regulation and Sexual Well-being Among Women: Current Status and Future Directions. Current Sexual Health Reports, 1-10.

Emotion regulation refers to the abilities and strategies that people use to influence their experience and expression of emotion [1]. Despite widespread recognition that emotion regulation is related to almost all aspects of life (everything from how many chips you’ll eat when feeling sad [2], to the popularity of your twitter account [3], to how well you’ll cope with a serious disease [4]), the role of emotion regulation in sexual well-being has only recently received research attention. So, we thought it be helpful to give an overview of the current state of this literature.

The following three main questions guided our review:

  1. How are emotions and sexual well-being related to each other?
  2. Does emotion regulation explain the relationship between emotions and sexual well-being?
  3. What are the implications of our review for theory, future research, and clinical work?


Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash
Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

What did we do?

First, we searched the literature to find research and theory related to emotion, sex, and emotion regulation. Then, we decided which articles to include in our paper based on a few things, such as their recency (i.e., we prioritized articles published in the past 5 years), inclusion of women, and relevance to the three questions above. We then reviewed over 120 journal articles in the hope of shedding light on the links between emotion regulation and women’s sexual well-being (including sexual satisfaction, desire, frequency, function, and distress).

What did we find?

  • Strong evidence exists for the association between emotional states and sexual well-being. For instance, across various study designs, negative mood is linked with lower levels of sexual satisfaction, more sexual problems, and greater sexual distress for women and men; however, the relationship between negative mood and lower sexual well-being appears to be stronger for women relative to men. In contrast, positive mood is linked with greater sexual satisfaction for both women and men.
  • Some preliminary support exists for the emotion regulation–sexual well-being link. Specifically, we noticed the following:
    • There’s solid evidence that women’s lower emotion regulation abilities (e.g., problems with “getting things done” when feeling upset) are linked with their lower sexual well-being; however, associations between the strategies that people use to influence their emotions (e.g., distraction) and aspects of sexual well-being are less established.
    • It appears that the tendency to use active strategies to manage emotion (e.g., trying to solve the problem that’s prompting negative feelings) is related to women’s better sexual well-being. In contrast, greater use of strategies that involve emotional avoidance (e.g., distracting one’s self from negative emotion by watching Netflix all day) or fixation on negative thoughts and feelings (e.g., worry) are related to lower sexual well-being.
  • There’s a lot we don’t know! For example, we still need more research to answer the following questions (just to name a few):
    • How does a person’s emotion regulation in sexual situations influence both their own and their partners’ sexual well-being over-time?
    • What are the consequences of different strategies people use to regulate their partners’ emotions for couples’ sexual well-being?
    • What are the pros and cons of using sex to regulate emotion?


Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash
Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

What does this mean?

Aside from the typical take-away that “more research is needed”, our review suggests that this relatively new area of study has potential for improving the sexual well-being of women. We found, for example, that sex can be a source of both positive and negative emotion, and that this has consequences for women’s sexual well-being. It follows, then, that emotion regulation abilities and strategies are relevant to theories of women’s sexual well-being. From a clinical perspective, it is possible that incorporating emotion regulation into the assessment, understanding, and treatment of women’s sexual problems could improve the quality of existing treatments (or spur the development of new ones!). So, don’t hesitate; just regulate!



[1] Naragon-Gainey, K., McMahon, T. P., & Chacko, T. P. (2017). The structure of common emotion regulation strategies: A meta-analytic examination. Psychological Bulletin, 143(4), 384-427. doi:10.1037/bul0000093

[2] Evers, C., Marijn Stok, F., & de Ridder, D. T. (2010). Feeding your feelings: Emotion regulation strategies and emotional eating. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 36(6), 792-804.

[3] Niven, K., Garcia, D., Van der Löwe, I., Holman, D., & Mansell, W. (2015). Becoming popular: Interpersonal emotion regulation predicts relationship formation in real life social networks. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1452.

[4] Iwamitsu, Y., Shimoda, K., Abe, H., & Okawa, M. (2005). Anxiety, emotional suppression, and psychological distress before and after breast cancer diagnosis. Psychosomatics, 46(1), 19-24.