The short answer is neither. But there is a connection between depression and a healthy sex life.
Self-pleasuring is completely normal and healthy. It has many mental and physical benefits: because of the feel-good hormones released during orgasm, masturbation can boost one’s mood (temporarily), help one relax or sleep, improve one’s sex life, and most obviously, release sexual tension.
So why are guilt and depression associated with masturbation? Not because it causes depression, but because our culture frowns on the practice.
You may have been taught that masturbation is a sin, is immoral or bad. None of these are true. Solo sex is a normal way to express your sexuality and learn more about your body’s wants and needs.
When masturbation guilt is deeply ingrained, it can cause you to feel anxious about doing it. And anxiety causes the release of the stress hormone cortisol. But this is not depression. On the treatment side of the equation, self-pleasuring can take away stress temporarily, but it is not a treatment for depression.
Many patients ask about masturbation and depression in my practice. I help them explore why they feel badly about masturbating, and what they can do to get past these feelings.
Neither, but it can enhance your sex life
Masturbation can help women with sexual dysfunction experience more sexual desire and sensitivity. Two 2009 studies found that using a vibrator helped both women and men have more desire, quicker arousal and better sexual functioning. Women in the studies reported better lubrication; men achieved and kept erections more easily.
When a person finds what works through solo sex, they sometimes can orgasm easier with a partner. In a 2015 study, researchers found that married women who experienced orgasm from masturbation were more sexually satisfied with their partners. Other research has suggested masturbating improves married women’s sex drives. Part of the phenomena may be that masturbation is thought to improve a person’s self-esteem and body image.
The only time masturbating can have a negative effect on the sex life is when men masturbate with too tight a grip on the phallus. This can cause a reduction of sensation during intercourse.
And depression can reduce libido and sexual function
Masturbation doesn’t cause or treat depression, but depression can cause sexual problems. Myths about masturbation causing depression are common among people who suffer from depression. And a study done in 2018 found 62.5 percent of men with depression had some sexual dysfunction.
Depression can affect people’s sex drive and cause masturbation to lose its appeal. Ironically, masturbation can sometimes help them feel sexual again.
If you or your partner have a lower libido than usual because you are depressed, talking about it can help, as can non-sexual intimacies like cuddling and giving each other massages.
Some depression medications can also impact the libido. If this seems to be happening with you, talk to your doctor about it. Another medication may treat your depression just as well, without the side effect.
The only time self-pleasuring is harmful is if you become addicted to it and it interferes with your normal life. If you are spending so much time masturbating that you are missing work, school or social engagements, that can be a problem.
If taken to extremes, excess masturbating can harm relationships—if you become so busy you can’t pay attention to your spouse, friends and family.
Your doctor or counselor can help you manage the addiction by finding alternative activities like exercise, writing down your thoughts and feelings, or socializing.