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Sexual desire, alexithymia, interoception, and heart rate variability

Costa, RM1; Pestana, J2; Costa, D1; Pinto Coelho, M2; Correia, C2; Gomes, S2

1: WJCR - William James Center for Research, ISPA - Instituto Universitário, Lisbon, Portugal; 2: ISPA - Instituto Universitário, Lisbon, Portugal

Objectives: Previous research suggests that emotional awareness, bodily awareness, and capacity to be flexible in emotional expression, are related to better sexual function across various dimensions. However, sexual desire has been a rather neglected dimension in this field of research. Hence, we examined, in both sexes, the associations of sexual desire with alexithymia (difficulty identifying emotions), interoception (conscious awareness of internal bodily sensations), and high frequency heart rate variability at rest (an index of cardiac vagal tone thought to reflect the ability to flexibly adapt the emotional expression in response to environmental changes).

Material and Methods: Two hundred sixty three Portuguese of the Lisbon area (175 women and 88 men; mean age = 23.35 years, SD = 5.91) were recruited from an university participant pool. They completed the Toronto Alexithymia Scale (TAS-20), and the desire dimension of the Female Sexual Function Index (FSFI) or the desire dimension of the International Index of Erectile Function (IIEF). Interoception was determined by a heartbeat detection task. The MP150 BIOPAC system was used to record the ECG from which the high-frequency heart rate variability during a five-minute resting period was calculated by autoregressive modelling with the HRV Analysis software.

Results: For women, Pearson correlations reveled that greater sexual desire correlated with lesser alexithymia (r = -.19, p = .012), greater interoception (r = .16, p = .036), and greater resting high-frequency heart rate variability (r = .18, p = .018). For men, sexual desire was uncorrelated with all of these variables (all p > .19). A backward multiple regression revealed that female sexual desire was independently predicted by lesser alexithymia (β = -.17, p = .019), greater interoception (β = .15, p = .042), and greater resting heart rate variability (β = .16, p = .032), R = .29.

Conclusions: The results confirm the notion that, at least for women, sexual desire is facilitated by greater awareness of emotions and internal bodily sensations, as well as by better emotional regulation. Research is warranted on the effects of therapies for low desire aiming at changing these aspects of self-awareness and psychophysiological functioning.


Work supported by industry: no.

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