'I can't take my own bra off': How Long Covid impacts your sex life

‘You just feel like you’ve lost all your independence, which makes you feel less sexy about yourself,’ says Sarah*.

When we first start chatting to her, Sarah pauses quickly to grab her headphones, explaining: ‘I forget and hold my phone so long that my arms hurt, and then I can’t use them the next day.’

With symptoms ranging from extreme fatigue to brain fog and depression, Long Covid can be detrimental to many aspects of people’s lives.

When even holding a phone can prove too much, having sex becomes very complicated.

Around 2.4% of the population are now reporting chronic symptoms of Long Covid – such as anxiety, dizziness and joint pain – with 63% of these self-reporting sufferers saying it was adversely affected their day-to-day activities.

‘It’s not where I expected to be in my 40s,’ says Sarah.

‘There was a whole period of adjustment when we didn’t have any sex or any real intimacy because I suddenly became someone who needed care,’ she adds.

‘I couldn’t take my own bra on and off and, although my husband joked it was sexy to begin with, it very soon loses its sexiness when you just want to take your bra off and go to bed.’

Sarah first got sick in April 2020 while seeing patients with Covid in her work as a GP. After very slowly getting better, she had a ‘big relapse’ and developed post-exertional fatigue and her heart rate will spike and cause chest pains for reasons as simple as being in a hot and noisy pub.

She has been off work for the last six months, and now uses a wheelchair to get around.

Vicky* first fell ill in March 2020. She and her husband have been left ‘too scared’ to have sex again after the last time resulted in a big step backwards for Vicky’s ongoing recovery.

‘Interestingly,’ she tells us, ‘as part of my recovery I’ve worked really hard to reduce my stress levels (our bodies can’t heal when we’re in fight or flight mode) and because of this, my sex drive has actually increased quite a bit.

‘Frustratingly though, the last time we had sex, it caused me to have a big relapse a couple of hours later which lasted a few days, so we’ve been too scared to try again.

‘And this was in a position which was minimal effort for me, so goodness knows what would happen if we tried something more adventurous.’

Sarah, who’s also married, has found that planning everything has become key.

‘We had a lovely romantic life, which was spontaneous,’ recalls Sarah. ‘But spontaneity goes out of the window because you need to pace everything.

‘To try and manage my energy I have to plan and work out what I’m going to do where it’s going to fit.’

She and her partner have been engaging in trial and error to see what works for them now, and what doesn’t.

She says: ‘My husband joked that it would be sexy to help me shave my legs. I said okay, but actually, it turns out it’s really not.’

She laughs, adding: ‘Seemed like a good idea at the time!’

Remembering his experience with what his doctor suspected was Long Covid, Tom* tells us: ‘Everything was a drag, and sex was just another thing on that list.’

Tom, who’s in his 30s, didn’t have any symptoms of coronavirus itself, but the fatigue and brain fog he felt was enough to give his GP pause.

When asked about his sex life at that time in particular, he explains: ‘If I’m honest, it was just another thing to worry about with what was already a very worrying thing overall.

‘Long Covid was just emerging at the time, and although that’s what my doctor felt it was, he wasn’t sure. So all this time I was somewhere between a mystery illness and wondering whether it was all in my head, whilst at the same time trying to keep life as normal as possible.’

While Vicky found her sex drive increased, Tom’s suffered. He describes his condition as ‘a huge drain – physically and emotionally’.

‘I certainly had a lower libido, but it would come and go (albeit mostly it would go),’ he adds. ‘Sex, like everything else, was something I wanted to do in principle, but rarely had the energy or drive for.’

Tom has since returned to full strength, but for many like Vicky and Sarah, the road to recovery still stretches ahead of them.

Over the two years she’s been ill, Sarah and her husband have learned new ways to be physical with each other, like making sure they share a hug every night.

She says they’ve made it through a period of adjustment and grieving for the life they had before and, even though they’ve had to sleep in separate beds due to her joint pain making her restless in the night, Sarah tells us: ‘In some ways it’s brought us closer.

‘By doing that we have our own space, but we make an effort. We can have a hug, and we made sure just to have a nuzzle and to cuddle and reminisce on things we did, looking back on them as positive rather than with worry about not being able to do them.’

We’ve spoken to people before who feel that sex is often an overlooked aspect of living with serious illnesses, and thus far, Long Covid has proven no different.

But the sexuality of sufferers and their partners doesn’t just disappear because they’re sick.

If anything, the challenges that conditions like Long Covid present make it even more important for us to focus on things like sex which can help people maintain a good quality of life rather than just survival.

‘You know, sex will have different importance to different people,’ Sarah says.

‘But it helps you feel alive, feel valued, and it’s fun – let’s be honest.

‘We’re allowed to enjoy ourselves, still. Just because we’re sick it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be having sex.’

What can you do to improve your sex life if you have Long Covid?

Dr. Laura Vowels, principal researcher and sex therapist at sex therapy app, Blueheart, has experience treating patients with Long Covid and says the symptoms have a similar impact on people’s sex lives to chronic fatigue.

She tells Metro.co.uk: ‘Clients with this condition were more likely to encounter extreme exhaustion, body confidence issues and lack of sexual desire; all of which can create barriers to intimacy and connection during sex.’

So what does Dr. Laura recommend to help her clients?

‘The main exercises I suggest to help couples overcome these issues include taking things slowly and moving away from making sex a goal-orientated experience,’ she explains, adding: ‘I would advise couples to pay attention to what feels good, such as taste, touch, and temperature, rather than purely focusing on penetration.

‘This way, partners can take their time during foreplay and enjoy the connection and intimacy without completely exhausting themselves.’ 

Dr. Laura also recommends something called Sensate Focus, which is a therapy technique that helps steer people away from the aforementioned ‘goal-oriented’ sexual encounters.

‘The Sensate Focus technique is particularly useful for those experiencing Long Covid and is a key part of Blueheart’s sex therapy plan,’ she explains.

Dr. Laura adds: ‘The technique has been used as a sex therapy tool for many years and is one of the few proven methods that can improve libido levels, whilst teaching both partners to be more mindful of intimate experiences.

‘By reducing anxiety associated with sexual situations, it can also help couples achieve more pleasurable sexual experiences.’

The technique in large part involves a combination of gentle exposure therapy, training you to associate sex, touch and your partner with relaxation, and mindfulness. 

Originally devised by sexual researchers Dr. Virginia Johnson and Dr. William Masters in the 70s, Sensate Focus incorporates mindful touching exercises designed to help you and your partner explore each other’s bodies and focus on what you feel rather than what’s going on in your head.

A sex therapist will often work with couples on this giving them specific exercises to do either alone or with each other over the course of a few months.

Sensate exercises to try at home

For anyone looking to give this mindful technique a try, Dr. Laura has put together exercises for beginners that you can do at home alone or with a partner.

Solo Sensate exercise:

‘You’re going to learn the basics of Sensate Focus which will allow you to really be aware of your own sensations and train yourself to manage your anxieties that can so often get in the way.

‘So let’s explore what you find comfortable and pleasurable as you start to feel those sensations. And remember, there’s no expectation – nothing scary, you’re in control here, if you feel uncomfortable or are in pain at any point during the activity, feel free to stop, and we can try again another time. Are you ready? Let’s start. 

‘Make sure you’re in a comfortable quiet place where you can lie down, feel cosy and safe. For most people, this is the bed, but other places like a sofa or even the floor can work too. You should be wearing little or no clothing, and you should not be disturbed for the next five minutes or so. You can pause the session while you find somewhere and get comfortable.

‘As you touch your body, I want you to only think about these three sensations:  

‘Temperature: does your hand or body feel cool or warm? 

‘Pressure: are you pressing hard or soft?

‘Texture: does the touch feel rough or smooth?

‘One finger at a time, excluding your breasts, chest and genitals, explore touching different areas of your body. Maybe your shoulders, your stomach, your neck… Go where you’d like, just stay away from your breasts, chest and genitals.’

Couples Sensate exercise:

‘During this session, you’re going to take turns touching each other and noticing the touch sensations you experience. One of you will be the Giver (doing the touching), and one will be the Receiver (receiving the touch). For this session, breasts, chest, and genitals are all off-limits. 

‘The Receiver’s job is simply to receive the sensations given to them, paying attention only to the available sensations of pressure – is it firm or soft; temperature – is it warm or cool, and texture – is it rough or smooth? That’s it. Nothing else. 

‘The Giver’s job is to touch the other person for their own self-interest, also paying attention only to the sensations of pressure, temperature, and texture. Both of you should try to do this without expectation or judgement, and practice bringing your attention back to sensation if you notice that your mind has wandered off. 

‘Receiver, lie down on your back or front, with your eyes closed. You can turn over at any point so that you and your partner experience the exercise on both sides. Giver – kneel or sit beside your partner in a position that easily frees up your hands for touching. Try to avoid sitting in a way where you have to stretch or strain too much. There are no magic positions – find what feels comfortable and sustainable for you. 

‘Giver, when you start, you’ll touch your partner’s body, avoiding their breasts, chest and genitals, using only your fingertips or the palm and back of your hand. There’s no right or wrong way to do this; let your curiosity guide you, keeping your focus on your own experience, not your partner’s.

‘Receiver, all you have to do is simply receive the sensations given to you, paying attention only to the available sensations of pressure, temperature, and texture. Remember that if the Giver is touching an area that is physically or emotionally uncomfortable, or ticklish, you can gently place your hand on top of or underneath your partner’s and guide them away from the area.

‘Note: These are both first exercises. From here, the exercises go from allowing breast, chest, genitals; then on to mutual touching; then genital-to-genital contact etc. For individuals, it can be a similar progression.

‘The first sets of exercises are done just focusing on sensations. Eventually, the focus can move more towards pleasure, but only after the couple is successfully having the kind of sex they would like to and are both OK with.’

*Names have been changed

Long Covid – what you need to know

Most infections with Covid resolve within the first four weeks. Long Covid is a term commonly used to describe symptoms that continue or develop after you’ve had the initial virus.

An estimated 1.5 million people in the UK (2.4% of the population) have reported experiencing Long Covid symptoms.

The recovery time is different for everyone. The length of your recovery is not necessarily related to the severity of your initial illness, or whether you were in hospital.

According to the latest reports, Long Covid is most common in people aged 35-69 years, women, people living in more deprived areas, those working in health care, social care, or teaching and education, and those with another activity-limiting health condition or disability.

Common Long Covid symptoms include:

  • Extreme tiredness (fatigue)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Problems with memory and concentration (“brain fog”)
  • Difficulty sleeping (insomnia)
  • Heart palpitations
  • Dizziness
  • Pins and needles
  • Joint pain
  • Depression and anxiety

If new or ongoing symptoms do occur and they are causing you concern, you should always seek medical advice and support.

For more information and support you can apply to join the Long Covid Support Group on Facebook, which currently has more than 50,000 members.

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