Hundreds of millions of men experience erectile dysfunction (ED). In fact, recent studies show that it has never been more common, with ED impacting one in four men under 40 years old. By 2025, 322 million men will experience ED.
But too often, men live with the condition in silence — whether due to shame or simply not knowing where to turn.
Why men experience ED is a more complicated question. Causes can range from medical conditions of the body, like diabetes and high blood pressure, to harder-to-define things, like performance anxiety, trauma or depression.
If you’re currently experiencing ED, your first step should be to visit your physician. Your provider can rule out any medical causes and help you come up with a treatment plan. Chances are, if you’ve found yourself here, your ED hasn’t responded to purely body-focused medicine treatments. There are a number of non-physical things that can lead men to experience ED, including:
- High levels of stress
- Unprocessed trauma
- A negative sexual experience from a critical partner
- Negative views of sex stemming from upbringing or pornography
- Performance anxiety
The next step is to address the root cause. That’s where EMDR therapy can help. EMDR therapy does not require men to talk at length about painful memories or difficult aspects of the ED symptoms. It’s designed to treat the symptoms by addressing the root causes.
What is EMDR Therapy?
EMDR has been helping men since 1987. It was initially developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro to treat PTSD, and its use has expanded to treat many mental health symptoms, such as depression, anxiety and poor self-esteem. It can also help with pain management and addiction. EMDR is supported by decades of research and can be particularly effective in helping men get “unstuck.”
The key to EMDR therapy is its focus on memory. From the EMDR perspective, psychological symptoms are related to the failure to adequately process traumatic or negative memories. What we believe happens is that these overwhelming memories and experiences get frozen in the nervous system along with the emotional charge, thoughts, sensations and urges associated with that original experience.
When a present-day experience triggers a traumatic memory, it can reactivate our survival response, such as fight or flight (symptoms like a racing heart or intense fear) or shut down (symptoms like emotional numbness or fatigue). You can see here how the past quickly becomes the present as the body tries to process and find a resolution. The nervous system needs to adequately reprocess traumatic memories to relieve symptoms.
EMDR therapy encourages men to briefly focus on the memory or symptom while experiencing bilateral stimulation, such as eye movements. EMDR directly targets distressing memories, while bilateral stimulation helps those memories become unstuck. The brain is then free to reprocess the memory, with the nervous system following its cues of restored safety for the individual. EMDR can drastically decrease and often resolve psychological symptoms.
For a more in-depth introduction to EMDR, watch this video from the EMDR International Association (EMDRIA).
How EMDR Helps Men With Erectile Dysfunction
EMDR therapy is especially well suited for ED after any organic causes are ruled out. Talking about ED can feel uncomfortable, even with a mental health professional who regularly discusses sexual behaviors and functioning with clients. EMDR requires that you briefly focus on the symptom or memory and does not require you to disclose in-depth details about the issue. EMDR supports men in targeting the negative memories that are contributing to the ED.
You might be thinking, “I don’t remember a trauma happening to me.”
When we use the word trauma, it can mean anything that is too much and too fast for the nervous system to process. Dr. Peter Levine describes trauma as simply “experiencing fear in the face of helplessness.” For some men, this might be childhood sexual abuse, while for others, it may be growing up with a parent who put immense amounts of pressure on them to do things a certain way, only to disconnect when those expectations weren’t met. It can also include a critical sexual partner or negative sexual experience. We don’t get to decide what our past trauma is or isn’t — our nervous system does.
It may also be that the underlying cause of your ED isn’t trauma but another mental health challenge such as self-esteem, depression or stress from a major life transition. Stress, whether professional, relational or personal, can play a major role in many mental health conditions, including ED. In fact, the most common reason for ED in middle-aged men is stress.
Many men experience ED due to performance anxiety. This form of anxiety can manifest in many different ways. For example, if a boy is exposed to pornography too early, he may develop skewed perceptions about what sex should look like and how he should perform. This can lead to an unrealistic and unhealthy understanding of intimacy. Performance anxiety can also come from negative experiences with sex in the past, such as instances of premature ejaculation or criticism from a past lover. Men can get in their heads, not wanting to repeat past experiences, and the fear can affect performance. The very anticipation of a negative experience or actual or perceived negative feedback can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, perpetuating the cycle of ED.
EMDR therapy is specifically beneficial for men experiencing ED because it helps to uncover the root causes and treating symptoms making treatment and moving forward possible.
What to Expect in an EMDR Therapy Session
Over the course of EMDR therapy, a professional, EMDR-trained clinician will help you move through eight stages:
- Taking your history of symptoms and experiences and treatment planning
- Building trust and learning more about your future EMDR experience
- Assessing your memories
- Desensitizing distress around the memory
- Installing positive feelings or thoughts regarding the memory
- Doing a mindful body scan to assess for remaining tension stored in the body
- Closure of the EMDR experience
- Reevaluating to determine treatment progress or success
This video from EMDRIA talks more about how EMDR works.
Now Is the Time to Start
We know men face all kinds of stigma around reaching out and asking for help. That feeling can be exponentially greater when you’re dealing with something as sensitive as ED.
But your mental health can play a significant role in how your body reacts and responds, and vice versa. The link between depression and ED can go both ways, with men who have depression experiencing higher rates of ED and men with ED experiencing higher rates of depression.
Once underlying medical reasons have been ruled out by a doctor, it might be time to begin exploring if your ED is due to a psychological issue. EMDR has helped many men process underlying trauma that is expressing itself in unwanted physical ways — and it can help you, too.
Often, the biggest challenge in treating ED is reaching out for help. We encourage you to face these tough issues head-on. We’re always here to support you along the way.