The Inner Workings of Sexual Arousal: How our Nervous System Reacts

Have you ever wondered what happens in our bodies during sexual activity? A fascinating study conducted by Cindy M. Meston and published in The American Journal of Cardiology offers valuable insights into the role of our nervous system in sexual arousal. In this article, we’ll explore the complex dance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems during intimate moments and why it’s important to foster harmony between them for an optimal arousal experience.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System: Preparing for excitement

The initial stage of sexual arousal involves the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS is responsible for promoting relaxation, rest, and restoration in the body. When it comes to sexual response, the PNS plays a crucial role in creating the optimal conditions for pleasure and engagement.

  1. Relaxation and Body Readiness: As sexual stimulation begins, the PNS responds by promoting a sense of calm and relaxation throughout the body. This relaxation is essential for creating an environment where sexual pleasure can be fully experienced. It helps to decrease tension and anxiety, allowing individuals to fully focus on their sensations and desires.
  2. Vasodilation and Increased Blood Flow: One of the key functions of the PNS in sexual arousal is to stimulate vasodilation, which is the widening of blood vessels. When the PNS is activated, it signals the smooth muscles in the blood vessel walls to relax, leading to increased blood flow to the genital area. This enhanced blood flow is crucial for engorgement and erection in individuals with a penis and increased lubrication and engorgement in individuals with a clitoris and vagina.
  3. Lubrication and Erection: Under the influence of the PNS, the body produces natural lubrication in the vagina, making sexual activity more comfortable and pleasurable. In individuals with a penis, the PNS activation contributes to the relaxation of penile muscles, allowing for the increased blood flow needed for achieving and maintaining an erection.
  4. Sensitivity and Sensation: The activation of the PNS enhances sensitivity in erogenous zones, such as the clitoris, penis, nipples, and other areas that contribute to sexual pleasure. This heightened sensitivity allows individuals to experience more intense sensations and arousal during sexual activity.
  5. Emotional Connection and Intimacy: The PNS also plays a role in fostering emotional connection and intimacy during sexual encounters. By promoting relaxation and a sense of safety, it helps create an environment where individuals can feel comfortable and emotionally connected to their partners, enhancing the overall sexual experience.

Understanding and appreciating the role of the PNS in sexual arousal can help individuals cultivate an environment that supports relaxation, pleasure, and intimacy. By prioritizing self-care, stress management, and creating a comfortable and safe space, individuals can optimize their PNS activation, leading to enhanced sexual experiences and satisfaction.

The Sympathetic Nervous System: Ramping up for arousal

When we engage in sexual activity, our bodies enter a state of excitement. This initial phase is where the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) takes the spotlight. Think of the SNS as the body’s stress response system, designed to prepare us for action.

When we engage the SNS, it triggers a cascade of physiological changes that contribute to the sexual response.

  1. Release of stress hormones: The SNS releases adrenaline and noradrenaline which serve to increase heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate, creating a heightened state of alertness and readiness. This surge of energy and arousal prepares our bodies for action and intensifies sensations.
  2. Blood vessel dilation: SNS stimulates the dilation of blood vessels, particularly in the genital area. This increased blood flow to the pelvic region results in engorgement of the genitals, including the clitoris and vaginal tissues. As a result, sensitivity and pleasure in these areas are enhanced, facilitating sexual arousal and enjoyment.
  3. Release of neurotransmitters: The SNS then releases Neurotransmitters, such as dopamine into the system. When dopamine levels rise, it enhances feelings of desire, motivation, and pleasure, further fueling the sexual response. This neurochemical release contributes to a sense of anticipation, excitement, and overall well-being during sexual arousal.
  4. Release of endorphins: The SNS triggers the release of endorphins, commonly known as “feel-good” chemicals. Endorphins have pain-relieving properties and promote a sense of relaxation and euphoria. They help to counteract any discomfort or tension that may arise during sexual activity, enhancing the overall pleasure and enjoyment of the experience.

Engaging the SNS during arousal is essential for optimizing our sexual response. It helps us feel physically and mentally prepared, heightens sensitivity and pleasure, and promotes a state of relaxation and well-being. By understanding and harnessing the power of the sympathetic nervous system, we can cultivate a more fulfilling and satisfying sexual experience.

During this phase, the SNS activates key responses such as an increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and pupil dilation. These changes facilitate heightened arousal and create an environment conducive to pleasure. It’s like your body is revving its engine, ready for the journey ahead.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System: The pathway to relaxation

Following orgasm, the body undergoes a series of physiological changes, including a shift in the nervous system from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic mode. The activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) after orgasm is known as the refractory period. Let’s explore how the PNS plays a role during this phase:

  1. Relaxation and Replenishment: After orgasm, the PNS is responsible for promoting a state of deep relaxation and restoration. This phase is characterized by a decrease in sexual tension and an overall sense of calm and satisfaction. The PNS helps to induce a state of relaxation in the body, allowing individuals to experience a sense of tranquility and well-being.
  2. Vasodilation and Decreased Arousal: During the refractory period, the PNS causes the blood vessels to return to their normal state through vasoconstriction. This constriction reduces blood flow to the genital area, which contributes to a decrease in arousal and a loss of erection or engorgement. The PNS helps the body return to a non-aroused state, allowing individuals to rest and recover.
  3. Reversal of Sexual Response: The PNS activation following orgasm marks a transition from the heightened state of sexual arousal to a more relaxed state. It helps the body return to its baseline level of functioning, reversing the physiological changes that occurred during sexual stimulation. This includes a reduction in heart rate, respiration rate, and muscle tension.
  4. Emotional Bonding and Connection: The refractory period, facilitated by PNS activation, offers an opportunity for emotional bonding and connection between sexual partners. It is a time for emotional closeness, intimacy, and aftercare. The PNS promotes feelings of safety, trust, and contentment, which can enhance the emotional connection between partners and foster a deeper sense of intimacy.
  5. Restoration and Recovery: The PNS activation following orgasm allows the body to restore and recover from the physical exertion and heightened arousal experienced during sexual activity. It supports the replenishment of neurotransmitters, hormones, and energy levels, preparing the body for future sexual experiences.

Understanding the role of the PNS in the refractory period can help individuals appreciate the importance of rest, relaxation, and self-care after sexual activity. It is essential to honor and respect the body’s need for recovery, both physically and emotionally. By embracing the PNS activation during this phase, individuals can cultivate a healthy sexual relationship with themselves and their partners, promoting overall well-being and satisfaction.

The Delicate Balance: Synchronizing the systems

The interplay between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems is crucial for a satisfying sexual experience. Think of it as a dance where both partners have their roles to play. We can’t even begin the sexual experience if the PNS doesn’t have us relaxed enough to activate the sexual accelerator through the SNS. The SNS then initiates the arousal process, revving up our bodies, while the PNS takes over, creating a relaxed and pleasurable state.

This delicate balance ensures that our bodies are primed for arousal and able to transition smoothly through the stages of sexual response. When both systems work in harmony, we can experience a deep sense of pleasure and connection with our partners.

Understanding the inner workings of our nervous system during sexual activity can provide valuable insights into the complexities of arousal. By appreciating the role of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, we can cultivate a deeper understanding of our own bodies and enhance the pleasure and satisfaction we experience in intimate moments.

While this article only scratches the surface of this fascinating topic, it is a stepping stone for further exploration. So, next time you find yourself caught in the waves of pleasure, remember that it’s your nervous system orchestrating a beautiful symphony of sensations, bringing you closer to the ultimate experience of sexual pleasure and connection.


  1. Komisaruk, B. R., Beyer-Flores, C., & Whipple, B. (2006). The Science of Orgasm. The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  2. Meston, C. M. (2000). Sympathetic nervous system activity and female sexual arousal. The American Journal of Cardiology, 86(2), Supplement 1, 30-34. ISSN 0002-9149.

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