Groinal arousal in OCD and why the body's responses don't always match the brain

From ‘morning wood’ to ‘flutters’ down below, many of us have experienced unexpected arousal at some point.

A surprise erection or random tingle when you’re not ‘in the mood’ is typically laughed off as an odd anatomical quirk.

Yet for some people – specifically those with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – these responses can be extremely distressing.

Groinal responses are the physiological changes in your genitals when you’re turned on; part of ‘normal’ sexual functioning and as a result of the desire you feel.

In the context of OCD, however, desire doesn’t necessarily factor in.

Psychosexual and Relationship Psychotherapist Silva Neves tells ‘A groinal response (in relation to OCD) is an unwelcome physiological change in the genital area seemingly coming without sexual desire or appearing out of nowhere.

‘This makes people feel distressed because they are often wondering what it means for their sex life.’ 

One of the main symptoms of OCD is intrusive thoughts, which are uncontrollable and manifest differently depending on the person: they may believe they’ve harmed people (despite no evidence of having done so) or see violent images in their mind that lead them to believe they’re capable of such things.

Obsessions commonly focus on societal fears and taboos, including violence and sexual abuse, causing sufferers anxiety and upset. Someone going through this may feel these responses reflect who they are, then avoid talking about problems in case they’re judged.

‘We do not know what causes them,’ explains Silva.

‘One theory is that it is linked to OCD in a way that people will be hypervigilant of their groin area (due to anxiety or shame) and they might focus on it, which in turns can make any sensations in that area feel more intense.’

He continues: ‘It can be a vicious circle: worrying about genitals can trigger some physiological sensations, which in turn can be the hypervigilance worse, and then make the feelings in that area more intense.’

If you experience intrusive thoughts of a distressing nature regularly, you may become convinced they’re your own thoughts and that they represent who you are.

The Mind website states it’s important to remember: ‘Obsessions are not a reflection of your personality. People with OCD are very unlikely to act on their thoughts.’

‘In fact, many of us can be turned on by sexual fantasies that we never want to act out in real life,’ adds Silva. ‘Sometimes, we can have a groinal arousal that has no meaning about our turn-ons.’

To differentiate between the two, he highlights the difference between the brain and the body. What are the ‘images, stories, fantasies, sexual memories’ that turn you on? Even if your genitals suggest otherwise, that’s what sets real desire and groinal arousal apart.

He says: ‘Sexual desire is often accompanied by increased heart rate and it is generally a nice feeling that people enjoy. Groinal arousal usually comes with anxiety, upset and hypervigilance.’

Sufferers and non-sufferers alike find the thoughts and fears associated with OCD shocking – and they’re not exclusive to the condition.

Research has found that even people without any mental health problems report having ‘intrusive thoughts of an aggressive, religious, or sexual nature, including thoughts of inappropriate sexual interaction with someone they shouldn’t’. Those with OCD just experience them more frequently, intensely, and uncontrollably.

If you’re experiencing groinal responses associated with OCD or battling shame around sexual desire, acceptance is key.

Silva says: ‘The best way is to first remind yourself that sex and sexuality is very diverse and fluid, and as long as there are no sexual behaviours that are harmful, offensive and non-consensual, then most sexual sensations, feelings, and physiological responses are okay.

‘It is also important to remind ourselves that there aren’t always a meaning as to why we are turned-on by particular things and not others, or why our bodies react a certain way.’

Books on sex-positive education for adults are a good place to start, but if your worries begin to negatively impact your life, you should reach out for support – however scary that seems.

Mental health charity Mind says: ‘You might feel scared about telling anyone, even a doctor, about how graphic or distressing your obsessive thoughts can be. You may be ashamed of your obsessions or worry that the doctor might report you to the police or social services. Or you may find it hard to admit how much time your compulsions take up.’

‘But the type of treatment you are given depends on the intensity of your OCD and how much it affects your life, so the more honest you are, the more likely you are to get the best help for you.’

Intrusive thoughts thrive on self-doubt, and an anxious brain will use all the tools at its disposal – including physical tricks – to keep you on high alert and go to the worst case scenario.

But only you can choose who you are; remember that when your body doesn’t play ball with your brain.

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