Can Your Vagina Really Be Depressed?
Is it possible for your vagina to be depressed? We explore the connection between mental health and vaginal health, dispelling common myths and providing expert insights from gynecologists and mental health professionals.
If you’re a Sex and the City fan, you might remember one episode where a usually boisterous and bubbly Charlotte becomes down and out over the fear that her vagina is depressed. It sounds a bit ridiculous, but it certainly got vagina-owning individuals everywhere wondering if it is actually possible for the star of your reproductive system to have an actual mood disorder.
The short of it is no, it is not possible for your vagina as a physical organ to have emotions or mental health conditions. In fact, in a medical or clinical sense, the term “depressed” is never used to describe the vagina in any way, shape or form, notes Natalie Stentz, M.D., a double board certified OB/GYN and fertility specialist. That said, she does point out that it is possible to experience diminished sexual activity and arousal when a person experiences persistent sadness, loss of interest in activities, changes in sleep patterns, and other emotional or physical symptoms related to depression.
If you’re feeling that there’s something wrong with your vagina, or that it’s just not acting like its usual self, something may be at play. Albeit not clinical depression, you may be suffering from a condition known as vulvodynia.
What is vulvoduynia?
Vulvodynia is a condition that causes a chronic pain sensation of the vulva, an area that encompasses the extrernal female genitals including the vaginal opening, the labia majora (outer lips), the labia minora (inner lips) as well as the clitoris. If you’re suffering from vulvodynia, you might feel burning, stinging, throbbing or even intense pain that’s triggered by touch, either by yourself or a sexual partner. This pain is not temporary, but rather long-lasting—for a minimum of three months with no actual cause. It might come and go and can range from more mild to severe, which may make it difficult to do many of your usual activities from simply sitting for long periods of time to having intercourse.
What causes vulvodynia?
Unfortunately, there’s no known cause of vulovdynia, which can be incredibly frustrating to the 16 percent of American vagina-owning individuals who might suffer from it at a certain point in their life. What researchers do know, however, is that there are several factors that could influence whether or not a person has vulvodynia, and these include coming into contact with an infection such as candida, herpes or bacterial vaginitis, explains Rebecca Levy-Gantt, M.D., an OB-GYN based in Napa, California. “Vulvodynia can be initiated from a skin condition like allergic dermatitis, lichen sclerosus or an erosive dermatitis and can also come from irritation or nerve sensitivity—or seemingly with no initiating cause at all, which is the most common type of vulvodynia,” she says.
There are some schools of thought that believe that there may be genetic factors at play that influence whether or not a person experiences vulvodynia—and some research, including one study published in the peer-reviewed journal, the American Journal of Epidemiology, reports that it is more likely if a person experienced violence in their childhood.
Who is more likely to get vulvodynia?
Despite the fact that this condition is hardly spoken about, it’s actually quite common. In fact, Allison Rodgers, M.D., OB/GYN, reproductive endocrinologist at Fertility Centers of Illinois, sees it in as many as 10 percent of her patients. “Because of stigmas associated with vulvodynia, people aren’t sharing this with others besides their doctor, so it isn’t as well known,” she says.
While she notes that anyone with a vagina can get vulvodynia, some people are at increased risk. “People with other pain disorders may have an increased risk as their nerves may be more sensitive,” she says. “While some people may feel pressure, or stetching, others may feel this as pain and these sensitive nerves in other areas of the body may also increase the risk of having vulvodynia.”
How to prevent and treat vulvodynia
If you think you might be suffering from vulvodynia or if you’re experiencing any unusual sensations in or around your vaginal area, it’s always best that you contact your healthcare provider for an evaluation. Once you’ve received the actual diagnosis that vulvodynia may be to blame for your individual symptoms, here are some doctor-recommended tips for how to treat the condition.
Read up on the condition
The most important focus of treating vulvodynia, according to Dr. Rodgers, should be sex education early in school where students are properly taught about their vulvar and vaginal anatomy. “They should be taught that pain is not normal and to seek appropriate treatment from someone experienced in treating vulvar pain, as the longer someone has a chronic pain condition, the more difficult it is to treat,” she says. “Vaginal infections must be first recognized for them to be appropriately treated.” If you feel that you didn’t learn enough about your vagina in school, it’s never too late. There’s no shortage of information available online that can put more power in your hands to be your own health advocate—a valuable skill that will take you far in your life and assist you with a myriad of future medical experiences.
Schedule a visit to your doc ASAP
The most important advice Dr. Levy-Gantt can give in regards to vulvodynia or any other condition affecting the vagina would be to not wait when experiencing these symptoms. “I see many women with this condition who have been suffering for years and either did not seek help or sought help, did not find it and stopped looking,” she says. “As soon as these symptoms seem to be developing, please seek out a knowledgeable gynecologist, urogynecologist or pelvic pain specialist and if not receiving adequate treatment, keep looking.”
Seek out pelvic floor therapy
Most people are familiar with physical therapy, or physiotherapy, which focuses on treating affected muscles in the body and improving their range of movement and function. There’s also something called pelvic floor therapy, a type of physical therapy that focuses specifically on the muscles in the pelvic floor—the ones that support the bladder, bowel and uterus. Sometimes patients with vulvodynia carry significant tension in their pelvic muscles, particularly after childbirth, which can lead to vulvodynia-related discomfort, notes Dr. Rodgers.
Consider outside help for mental health
While vulvodynia in and of itself is not considered a mental health condition, it’s possible that being depressed could have an affect on your sex life. “Increased stress or anxiety levels may contribute to muscle tension or spasms in the pelvic floor muscles, which can result in conditions such as vaginismus, characterized by pain or discomfort during intercourse,” explains Dr. Stentz. W
Proper diagnosis and treatment of overall health, including mental health factors, is important to maintaining vaginal health as well. Unmanaged mental health issues may contribute to conditions such as vaginismus, vulvodynia, or poor hygiene. By addressing mental health issues, individuals may experience improved emotional well-being, coping mechanisms, and overall quality of life, positively impacting vaginal and sexual health.