The Scoop: Many people’s day-to-day lives are filled with constant stimulation of all kinds. What would happen if we took some time to slow down? Dr. Shannon Chavez Qureshi is a Sex Therapist who helps clients take the time to cultivate a deep connection between their physical and mental selves. Dr. Shannon talked to us about the importance of the mind-body connection in the realm of sexuality and how important this connection is to overall health. She discussed the mythical standard of “normalcy” in sex and beyond, along with her approach to handling sexual shame.
“Healthy” is a word that’s thrown around a lot. We call foods, drinks, activities, people, and relationships healthy – or unhealthy – all the time. Often, the word means something entirely different in each context. Health is an umbrella term that can refer to many aspects of wellness, whether they are physical or mental.
But what does it really mean to be healthy? Health, like anything, is understood and experienced differently by each person. However, we can point to different facets of overall health that nearly all humans experience. Many people understand health in terms of physical health alone. But more people and institutions are becoming aware of and sensitive to the crucial role mental and emotional health play in our lives.
People talk about health all the time but bring up sexual health, and the conversation may get a little quieter. Sexual health is just as central to overall well-being as physical and mental health, yet it is often neglected in formal and informal settings. Experiencing sexuality is markedly human, yet so many people don’t fully attend to the needs of their sexual health.
Dr. Shannon Chavez Qureshi is a sex therapist based in California who considers the mind and body in her holistic practice. Dr. Shannon talked to us about the importance of sexual health to personal health, how she understands and approaches the issue of sexual shame, and gave tips for people who want to nurture their sexual health.
“The mind-body connection helps people understand the relationship between our mental and physical lives,” Dr. Shannon said. “Our thoughts can impact how we’re feeling physically in our body, and how we’re feeling physically in our body can impact our thoughts. Understanding this helps people learn to regulate what’s happening within them– both mentally and physically.”
Dr. Shannon Helps Clients Connect Their Mental and Physical Lives
Dr. Shannon is a nationally recognized expert, therapist, and educator specializing in sexuality for men, women, couples, and LGBTQIA+ individuals. She also has a background in sex education for conservative religious and cultural groups. Dr. Shannon has a Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology and a Master’s in Psychology with an emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy, and is a Certified Clinical Sexologist.
Dr. Shannon serves a diverse client base and sees people from all walks of life. “I always like to bring awareness first to that, no matter who you are or where you live or what your culture is, we all live busy lifestyles full of stimulation,” she said. “The first step is always slowing down and becoming aware of your internal life.”
When a person takes time to be still, they can observe themselves. They can reflect on their thoughts and experiences of physical sensations in the body and use this information to understand their emotions and actions. “I want people to ask themselves questions, like ‘What are my thoughts?’ and ‘What’s going on in my body?” Dr. Shannon explained. “We want to get people to slow down and get out of the cycle of always anticipating something.”
When a person takes the time to observe their bodies and minds, the mind-body connection is strengthened. The physical self and mental self become more connected and begin to consider each other more. Dr. Shannon said that once a person can take the time to be still, they can begin to explore their personal beliefs and values with authenticity.
“Once a client can slow down, we want to examine what individual values and beliefs they hold, specifically towards sexuality,” Dr. Shannon said. “There’s a lot of shame we can carry, and we receive tons of sexual messaging every day, whether we realize it or not. I help people take inventory of their actions to care for themselves.”
Dr. Shannon said that attending to matters of physical health has a positive effect on sexual health. All the different parts of overall health are deeply connected to and regularly influence each other. “Drinking enough water, eating enough, moving enough, all of these things we think of in terms of our physical health, while they aren’t directly related to sex, affect our libido and ability to feel good in our bodies,” she said.
Understanding & Addressing Sexual Shame
Shame makes it difficult to take care of sexual health. Sexual shame can come from many places and take many forms. “Addressing sexual shame is a three-step process,” Dr. Shannon said. “The first step is being aware that shame exists and being able to notice that you have shame in whatever ways that manifests. The next step is to validate shame. We need to realize that we all have shame.”
Dr. Shannon continued, “Validating shame can help us recognize that sometimes it can be healthy. Shame can be healthy in the sense that it attunes us to our values and what’s important to us. The third step is moving through the shame. We use shame to gain awareness of the values and desires we’re attuned to, and refuse to get stuck in it.”
Shame, whether experienced in regard to sexuality or beyond, can be a tool for growth rather than a source of suffering. Sex therapists like Dr. Shannon help clients understand their shame and then move past it to a self-actualized and fulfilling experience of sexuality. It’s difficult for many people to process the feeling of shame and move past it.
“I always tell people that most of our distress comes from our feelings about our feelings, and not always the feeling itself,” Dr. Shannon said. “So, you feel embarrassed that you have shame, or you feel angry that you have shame, and those secondary emotions are more influential than the shame itself.”
Many kinds of cognitive therapeutic approaches aim to help people become neutral observers of their emotions rather than experience them with a sense of powerlessness. Feeling emotions is the very essence of the human experience. “Shame is just part of our emotional spectrum. It’s neither bad nor good, it is just part of our experience,” Dr. Shannon said. “Acknowledging and giving yourself permission to feel shame is so important. To know it’s okay to feel shame.”
Sex Education Enables Healthy Sex Lives
Standards for health are often framed against what is considered “normal.” But there is no normal when it comes to personal health, and that extends to sexual health. “Everyone is finding their normal or accepting their normal,” Dr. Shannon said. “And that’s what a lot of sex therapy is. It’s coming in and getting permission and validating your normal and learning what that is completely within your own experience.”
The mythical standard of “normal” is something we encounter every day and everywhere. “I think ‘the norm’ is an issue everywhere in our society, we see it with everything: sexuality, relationships, having children, not having children, careers– everything,” Dr. Shannon said. “But I think with sexuality, there’s so much diversity and variety that we learn not to just accept our normal, but other people’s normal too.”
Dr. Shannon said understanding and accepting the diversity of human sexual experience helps people explore their own sexualities. “Pleasure is such a unique experience,” Dr. Shannon said. “And when we decide there’s something wrong or bad about an expression of sexuality that maybe doesn’t appeal to us, I think it kind of implies that there is an issue with diversity.”
Sex therapy helps individuals find what is normal or feels right for them. Sex education can be a big part of sex therapy, as some people may need help gaining the language needed to adequately express their sexualities or sexual experiences.
Outside of sex therapy, sex education holds great importance for public health. Comprehensive sexual education can also help dismantle some of the societal shame around sex by providing people with the knowledge they need to self-actualize in regard to their sexual health.
“Sexual concerns are common at any age and stage,” Dr. Shannon said. “The hardest part of getting help is taking that first step. If you feel like you need help, take your time and figure out what you need individually. And that starts with taking charge of your pleasure first.”