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Sexuality and Illness – Breaking the Silence

(This is a Companion piece to yesterday’s posting. You’ll find yesterday’s posting HERE!)

By: Anne Katz PhD

Sexuality is much more than having sex even though many people think only about sexual intercourse when they hear the word. Sexuality is sometimes equated with intimacy, but in reality, sexuality is just one way that we connect with a spouse or partner we love (the true meaning of intimacy). Our sexuality encompasses how we see ourselves as men and women, who we are attracted to emotionally and physically, what turns us on (eroticism), our thoughts and fantasies, and yes, also what we do when we are sexually active, either alone or with a partner. Our sexuality is connected to our image of ourselves and it changes over the years as we age and face threats from illness and disability and, eventually, the end of life.seniors_men

Am I still a sexual being?

Illness can affect our sexuality in many different ways. The side effects of treatments for many diseases, including cancer, can cause fatigue. This is often identified as the number one obstacle to sexual activity. Other symptoms of illness such as pain can also affect our interest in being sexually active. But there are other perhaps more subtle issues that impact how we feel about ourselves and, in turn, our desire to be sexual with a partner or alone, or if we even see ourselves as sexual beings. Think about surgery that removes a part of the body that identifies us as female or male. Many women state that after breast cancer and removal of a breast (mastectomy), they no longer feel like a woman; this affects their willingness to appear naked in front of a partner. Medications taken to control advanced prostate cancer can decrease a man’s sexual desire. Men in this situation often forget to express their love for their partner in a physical way, no longer touching them, kissing them, or even holding hands. This loss of physical contact often results in two lonely people.  Humans have a basic need for touch; without that connection, we can end up feeling very lonely.

Just talk about it!

seniors_in_bedCommunication lies at the heart of sexuality. Talk to your partner about what you are feeling, how you feel about your body, and what you want in terms of touch. Ask how you can meet your partner’s needs for touch and affection. The most important thing you can do is to express yourself in words. Non-verbal communication and not talking are open to misinterpretation and can lead to hurt feelings. Our sexuality changes with age and time and illness; we may not feel the same way about our bodies or our partner’s body that we did 20, 30 or more years ago. That does not mean we feel worse – with age comes acceptance for many of us – but we do need to let go of what was, and look at what is and what is possible.

The role of health care providers

Health care providers should be asking about changes to sexuality because of illness or treatment, but they often don’t. They may be reluctant to bring up what they see as a sensitive topic and think that if it’s important to the patient, then he or she will ask about it. This is not good. Patients often wait to see if their health care provider asks about something and if they don’t, they think that it’s not important. This results in a silence and leaves the impression that sexuality is a taboo topic.senior intimacy02

Some health care providers are afraid that they won’t know the answer to a question about sexuality because nursing and medical schools don’t provide much in the way of education on this topic. And some health care providers appear to be too busy to talk about the more emotional aspects of living with illness. This is a great pity as sexuality is important to all of us – patients, partners, health care providers. It’s an important aspect of quality of life from adolescence to old age, in health and at the end of life when touch and love are so important.

Ask for a referral

If you want to talk about this, just do it! Tell your health care provider that you want to talk about changes in your body or your relationship or your sex life! Ask for a referral to a counselor or sexuality counselor or therapist or social worker. It may take a bit of work to get the help you need, but there is help.

Complete Article HERE!

Sexuality at the End of Life

By Anne Katz RN, PhD

In the terminal stages of the cancer trajectory, sexuality is often regarded as not important by health care providers. The need or ability to participate in sexual activity may wane in the terminal stages of illness, but the need for touch, intimacy, and how one views oneself don’t necessarily wane in tandem. Individuals may in fact suffer from the absence of loving and intimate touch in the final months, weeks, or days of life.head:heart

It is often assumed that when life nears its end, individuals and couples are not concerned about sexual issues and so this is not talked about. This attitude is borne out by the paucity of information about this topic.

Communicating About Sexuality with the Terminally Ill

Attitudes of health care professionals may act as a barrier to the discussion and assessment of sexuality at the end of life.

  • We bring to our practice a set of attitudes, beliefs and knowledge that we assume applies equally to our patients.
  • We may also be uncomfortable with talking about sexuality with patients or with the idea that very ill patients and/or their partners may have sexual needs at this time.
  • Our experience during our training and practice may lead us to believe that patients at the end of life are not interested in what we commonly perceive as sexual. How often do we see a patient and their partner in bed together or in an intimate embrace?
  • We may never have seen this because the circumstances of hospitals and even hospice may be such that privacy for the couple can never be assured and so couples do not attempt to lie together.

intimacy-320x320For the patient who remains at home during the final stages of illness the scenario is not that different. Often the patient is moved to a central location, such as a family or living room in the house and no longer has privacy.

  • While this may be more convenient for providing care, it precludes the expression of sexuality, as the patient is always in view.
  • Professional and volunteer helpers are frequently in the house and there may never be a time when the patient is alone or alone with his/her partner, and so is not afforded an opportunity for sexual expression.

Health care providers may not ever talk about sexual functioning at the end of life, assuming that this does not matter at this stage of the illness trajectory.

  • This sends a very clear message to the patient and his/her partner that this is something that is either taboo or of no importance. This in turn makes it more difficult for the patient and/or partner to ask questions or bring up the topic if they think that the subject is not to be talked about.

Sexual Functioning At The End Of Life

Factors affecting sexual functioning at the end of life are essentially the same as those affecting the individual with cancer at any stage of the disease trajectory. These include:go deeper

  • Psychosocial issues such as change in roles, changes in body- and self-image, depression, anxiety, and poor communication.
  • Side effects of treatment may also alter sexual functioning; fatigue, nausea, pain, edema and scarring all play a role in how the patient feels and sees him/herself and how the partner views the patient.
  • Fear of pain may be a major factor in the cessation of sexual activity; the partner may be equally fearful of hurting the patient.

The needs of the couple

Couples may find that in the final stages of illness, emotional connection to the loved one becomes an important part of sexual expression. Verbal communication and physical touching that is non-genital may take the place of previous sexual activity.

  • Many people note that the cessation of sexual activity is one of the many losses that result from the illness, and this has a negative impact on quality of life.
  • Some partners may find it difficult to be sexual when they have taken on much of the day-to-day care of the patient and see their role as caregiver rather than lover.
  • The physical and emotional toll of providing care may be exhausting and may impact on the desire for sexual contact.
  • In addition, some partners find that as the end nears for the ill partner, they need to begin to distance themselves. Part of this may be to avoid intimate touch. This is not wrong but can make the partner feel guilty and more liable to avoid physical interactions.

Addressing sexual needs

senior intimacyCouples may need to be given permission to touch each other at this stage of the illness and health care providers may need to consciously address the physical and attitudinal barriers that prevent this from happening.

  • Privacy issues need to be dealt with. This includes encouraging patients to close their door when private time is desired and having all levels of staff respect this. A sign on the door indicating that the patient is not to be disturbed should be enough to prevent staff from walking in and all staff and visitors should abide by this.
  • Partners should be given explicit permission to lie with the patient in the bed. In an ideal world, double beds could be provided but there are obvious challenges to this in terms of moving beds into and out of rooms, and challenges also for staff who may need to move or turn patients. Kissing, stroking, massaging, and holding the patient is unlikely to cause physical harm and may actually facilitate relaxation and decrease pain.
  • The partner may also be encouraged to participate in the routine care of the patient. Assisting in bathing and applying body lotion may be a non-threatening way of encouraging touch when there is fear of hurting the patient.

Specific strategies for couples who want to continue their usual sexual activities can be suggested depending on what physical or emotional barriers exist. Giving a patient permission to think about their self as sexual in the face of terminal illness is the first step. Offering the patient/couple the opportunity to discuss sexual concerns or needs validates their feelings and may normalize their experience, which in itself may bring comfort.

More specific strategies for symptoms include the following suggestions. senior lesbians

  • Timing of analgesia may need to altered to maximize pain relief and avoid sedation when the couple wants to be sexual. Narcotics, however, can interfere with arousal which may be counterproductive.
  • Fatigue is a common experience in the end stages of cancer and couples/individuals can be encouraged to set realistic goals for what is possible, and to try to use the time of day when they are most rested to be sexual either alone or with their partner.
  • Using a bronchodilator or inhaler before sexual activity may be helpful for patients who are short of breath. Using additional pillows or wedges will allow the patient to be more upright and make breathing easier.
  • Couples may find information about alternative positions for sexual activity very useful.
  • Incontinence or the presence of an indwelling catheter may represent a loss of control and dignity and may be seen as an insurmountable barrier to genital touching.

footprints-leftIt is important to emphasize that there is no right or wrong way of being sexual in the face of terminal illness; whatever the couple or individual chooses to do is appropriate and right for them. It is also not uncommon for couples to find that impending death draws them much closer and they are able to express themselves in ways that they had not for many years.

Complete Article HERE!

When did sex become shameful?

By Hanna G Ruby

Once upon a time sex was enjoyed without shame, as a gift of God, Goddess, the Great Spirit – an act of joy, of devotion, something perfectly natural and wholly divine – all at the same time.  Once upon a time the goddesses were venerated as the embodiment of love, passion, and sex, which were considered holy when performed in reverence for and in service of the female divinity.

But the mindset of patriarchy killed off the Goddess more than five thousand years ago. She was constrained to submission at worst, or virginal purity and celibacy at best; her divinity denied. With that, the idea of sexuality as spirituality, as something inherently divine, was eradicated for all women – young and old. Indeed, for all men as well!  Sexuality was severed from spirituality and became its extreme opposite; sex was dirty, primitive, and instinctual (and feminine in nature), while spirituality was pure and clean and transcendent (and masculine in nature).

In the West, however, it was only from our Bible onward that sexuality became a sin, the means by which the devil could tempt mankind into damnation, a shameful necessity of physical gratification that was obscene and dirty. Only from our Bible onward, were women considered inherently sinful and destined for eternal punishment.

Even before Eve bit that apple, there was poor, feisty Lilith (born initially as one with Adam – “male and female created He them” says the first Biblical reference), who, according to legend, preferred to have sex on top. Lilith represents lunar consciousness (waxing and waning, death and rebirth), sexuality, body, and intuitive wisdom – all of which patriarchy degraded and denied. She got a terribly bad press.

Previously, the Goddess had ruled the mysteries of sexuality, birth, life, and death. Now the patriarchal God took control of life and death, and split procreation and motherhood from sexuality and “magic and mystery”. Lilith refused to submit and flew off in a rage. Until recent decades, she has been universally demonized as seductive, witch, outcast – the enraged, avenging goddess, wife of Satan.

Solar was split from lunar; psyche from soma or physical, corresponding to a general disassociation from the body. Mind and body, spirit and body, soul and body were split entities, and unequal. The body was inferior, an unfortunate necessity – together with its most basic of functions, sex; and it was associated with the feminine. (I once read an old text that described women as “bags of filth”. The males’ organs of excretion were not referred to.)

Male and female were unequal; spirit and nature were unequal. Man headed the chain of command – after God. As women, and as a culture, we have paid dearly for this division. The misogyny of the patriarchy affected all cultures in the last 2000 years, one way or another.

The fierce, sexual, independent-spirited wise dark goddess aspect of Lilith was replaced by submissive Eve, who was yet blamed for the whole messy business anyway. She was the sinful one, secondary to Adam, and cursed forever to give birth in pain. (Medieval midwives were sinning when they alleviated the pain of childbirth.)

As long as Eve is sinful and physical matter corrupt in any way whatsoever, our sexuality is compromised – and our liberation incomplete. This split must be healed.

I am proposing that sexuality and spirituality are aspects of the same thing; that the split between psyche and soma (the physical) is resolved in the energetic unity of a higher order. “We have lost contact with what unites them,” says Alexander Lowen in The Spirituality of the Body.  Sexuality is psychosomatic – and by that I mean, not that it’s some kind of illness, in the more common meaning of the word, but that it overtly operates on both the physical and the psychic level.

Where science and religion are finding rapprochement in the infinite wave world of quantum physics, we find fresh metaphors for the lost unifying element. Waves of sexual sensations that emanate from the body can be visualized as cosmic, psychic energy, high-frequency vibrations that bridge us to higher consciousness.

These metaphors indicate possibilities that have profound implications generally, and more so for aging women today.

Complete Article HERE!

The Yin and Yang of Desire

Today I’d like to talk about: The Yin and Yang of Desire — Dopamine, Prolactin and Testosterone.

Let’s talk about love, lust and desire. But instead of looking at these things as social phenomena, let’s look at the chemical reactions going on inside our bodies that make us feel and behave the way we do.

sex-on-the-brainThere are clear links between certain chemicals and our most basic drives, which explains, for example, why we feel horny one moment and utterly disinterested the next. Or why our sex drive peaks after exercise. At the core of our sexual and affectional interests and behaviors lie the two chemicals — dopamine and prolactin. In many ways they are complimentary to one another; dopamine turns on desire and prolactin turns it off.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter. This is basically your body’s pleasure and reward system. Our brains releases dopamine, to one degree or another, when we see, read or think about something sexy, taste something sweet, puff a cigarette, or come into skin-to-skin contact with another person. When dopamine levels are high, our libido goes into overdrive. Sometimes levels can be so dramatic that a person will neglect other essential bodily functions like eating and sleeping. Some “street” drugs —meth and coke among them — can mimic the body into thinking it’s dealing with dopamine.

Dopamine is critical to the way the brain controls our movements. If there’s not enough dopamine, we can’t move, or control our movements. If there’s too much dopamine, we are plagued with repetitive moments like jerking, tapping and twitching.

Get this; novel situations can increase dopamine releases. For example, hooking up with someone for the first time triggers especially high levels of dopamine. Curiously enough, these same high levels will not occur again during subsequent hookups with that same person. This is called the one-night-stand phenomenon; it’s why you can be attracted to someone at first encounter but not afterward.hormones and the brain

However, falling in love with someone can sustain high dopamine levels for a longer period of time. This explains why physical infatuation is at its peak in the beginning months of a relationship. Also dopamine floods the brain when we get drunk or take certain drugs, which is why drinking alcohol can make a potential partner look more attractive.

Prolactin is dopamine’s foil. It causes dopamine levels to plummet. Prolactin is a hormone, as opposed to a neurotransmitter, like dopamine. It floods the body during orgasm, virtually shutting down the sex drive, which is nature’s way of allowing us to attend to other essential bodily functions like eating and sleeping. Prolactin release in men will temporarily disable our ability to have an erection. This is called the refractory or recovery phase of our sexual response cycle. And prolactin is at least partially responsible for that happy, relaxed state after we cum. This is precisely the release women get while breastfeeding; in fact, the word “pro-lactin” directly indicates its role in milk production.

growing larger and largerProlactin primes the mind for long-term attachment — a role that helps the mother bond with her suckling child as well as lovers to each other. This means that if you stick around cuddling with your partner right after sex, you may actually start to like him/her more and more. This is called the pair-bonding effect. But prolactin’s dopamine-reducing action has a darker side. It cancels the tolerance you may have for your partner’s flaws.

While dopamine and prolactin are good indicators of the immediate workings of sexual pursuit, it is testosterone that best explains long-term changes in courtship. Testosterone is responsible for the masculinization of the adolescent male body during puberty. And it increases the dopamine levels that regulate our sex drive. But testosterone leaves its fingerprint on the body as much as the brain. It’s the catalyst for changes in skin tone, fat distribution, musculature and demeanor, which are signals to others that this individual male is sexually mature and in good health.

However, if you get a fever or become depressed, your testosterone levels can drop significantly. Malnutrition or high levels of anxiety or stress will also interfere with testosterone levels. The most immediate effect of this is a decrease in libido, and a noticeable drop-off in energy levels as well as confidence. There’s no doubt about it; testosterone levels will signal to potential mates that you are in the throws of depression, stress, anxiety or malnutrition. You will appear a little less attractive to people subconsciously. That’s why a confident, dominant male with high-testosterone levels generally enjoy more mating success.tits

Testosterone levels are highest in the morning, then wanes throughout the day. It’s also much higher in men in autumn and lowest in the spring.

However, sexual desire is still more complicated than is known to science, and there may be multiple archetypes of partners we’re drawn to — there is evidence that aggressive high-testosterone men appear sexier to women and gay men for a one-night stand. But softer, more sensitive balanced men are more likely to tug at our heartstrings in a relationship. Scientists reason that the bulkier mate is more likely to be physically powerful and carry good genes to create strong children. While the slimmer guy is a more loving, reliable partner likely to help raise the kids so they survive to adulthood. The effect of this strange contradiction seems to be a biological predisposition against monogamy and sexual exclusivity.

But none of this is carved in stone. A man’s hormone’s levels increase when he is in a competitive environment or carries out acts of aggression, which can explain how guys seem to bulk up quickly when they go to prison or join sports teams. These levels decrease when he feels intimidated or humiliated, which might explain why those who get picked on at school stay skinny and mild-mannered compared to their peers. This in turn made them easier targets and only increased the likelihood of them being bullied.

butt shakeThis is not uncommon behavior among primate colonies that have huge alpha males looming over a population of smaller, submissive males and females. While this is not a perfect parallel to human social groups, it does go a long way in explaining how a social environment can be a precursor to physical body changes. And just so you know, our testosterone levels also drop during long-term relationships, giving the male brain a sense of stability and mellowness, easing off the drive to forage for new sexual partners.

Science alone lacks a moral element, and fails to explain, in a modern context, why we should desire to be masculine, aggressive, potent or dominant in the first place. In nature, the alpha-male is the most likely to enjoy reproductive success, but that isn’t what gives our lives value today. We might have more success being an average male that falls in love and becomes a good provider. And in the modern world it’s probably the more stable and sensitive man who is most likely to sire children.

Still, science gives important clues to what’s going on in our minds and bodies and that of our potential partners. A lot of our basic inclinations are out of our control, but when we know what causes them or what to expect, we can work with them for the best outcome.

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