Erections are complicated. They can arrive when we don’t need them — inexplicably on public transport — or they can fade away when we need them most — that first night with someone you’ve fancied since they added you on MySpace.
A common misconception about erectile dysfunction (ED) is that it’s purely a problem in getting hard. For many men with ED, staying erect can be just as much of an issue.
Whilst there are a number of complex causes for a softening erection, whether psychological or physical (and it’s often both), understanding the key biological processes which enable erections to happen can be a helpful first step towards more reliable, healthier erections.
An erection is all about relaxation
Although an erect penis might feel like a tensed muscle, within it is actually a specialised spongy tissue designed for the sole purpose of erection (the corpus cavernosum), which needs to be relaxed to get hard. Similar relaxation of the arteries supplying the penis allows blood to flow in, and stay in, until the task at hand is complete.
Sometimes you want an erection, sometimes you don’t. Either way, sometimes you get one — and that’s always due to what’s going on within your nervous system. Or, more specifically, on one of two sides of it:
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS)
Responsible for activating your fight-or-flight response when you’re under stress or in danger — and for your erection fading.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS)
Responsible for, in essence, chilling you out — and for every welcome (and unwelcome) erection you’ve ever had.
These two sympathetic subsystems act a bit like a seesaw — when one side goes up, the other must come down.
When the body is under stress and the SNS is activated, less blood is supplied to all the organs that aren’t necessary to your immediate survival. That includes your penis.
This used to be evolutionarily beneficial, when our day-to-day existence largely involved running from saber-toothed tigers. Nowadays, when you’re more likely to be caught running for the bus, these responses can be unwelcome and triggered at inopportune moments.
In the bedroom (or on the sofa, we don’t judge), performance anxiety and worries about your body image might trigger your SNS, causing your erection to ebb away.
Relax and your erection will follow
The PSNS is the hero of this story. In contrast to the SNS, it’s activated when the body feels relaxed. Whether this calm state is achieved through meditation or with the help of an R&B compilation you picked up at a Carboot in 2003, the effects are the same: your heart rate slows down and salivation and digestion are stimulated, as are the pathways that enable an erection to appear.
Of course, getting worked up about trying to get an erection is often the best way to ensure it doesn’t materialise. It’s a bit like trying to get hiccups to go away — they usually disappear when you aren’t paying them too much attention.
In essence, the more stress you exert trying to stay relaxed, the more counterproductive the effects can be on your ability to get, and maintain, an erection. That’s why thinking about the underlying causes, incorporating relaxation techniques into your everyday life and discussing ED with your partner or trained psychotherapist are powerful steps towards longer, stronger, healthier erections. For more details on all of these, and more, you can explore our Book of Erections.
The bottom line
The two sides of your nervous systems control erectile functioning. Anxiety can trigger your fight-or-flight response and your erection can fade. A relaxed state of mind is required for a harder and longer-lasting erection.