Masturbation for Stress Relief

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What Is Masturbation?


Masturbation refers to stimulating one’s own genitals for sexual arousal or pleasure, often to reach orgasm. It’s common among individuals of all age groups, and is considered a key player in healthy sexual development.

The term “masturbation” can mean different things to different people. Some may choose to engage in it alone, while others may masturbate in the presence of a partner.

Regardless of how it’s practiced, masturbation can be an effective tool for improving mental health and relieving stress.

However, it can come with unpleasant side effects like feelings of guilt, shame, and anxiety. Some may also develop compulsive masturbation habits that impair their quality of life. 

How Masturbation Impacts Self-Esteem

Masturbation can raise a person’s self-esteem and provide them with a sense of self-knowledge, control, and pleasure.

Masturbation Can Boost Self-Esteem

One study found that these feelings arose in a sample of 40 college-aged women who masturbated solo. The same study, however, also pointed out that masturbation led to guilt (when practiced solo) and awkwardness (both when practicing solo and with a partner). Several factors can impact how these individuals viewed masturbation, including race/ethnicity, current social norms, and underlying feelings about sex. 

Masturbation Can Help Women Achieve Orgasm

Another study found that women who masturbated had greater ease of reaching sexual arousal and orgasm. Masturbation can also help relieve menstrual cramps.

Men Recognize Its Benefits

One study noted that men understood that masturbation is a necessary and healthy part of sexual development.

Masturbation May Result in Feelings of Guilt or Shame

Though masturbation is practiced in societies around the world, many religions and cultures consider it an immoral act. Individuals in these prohibitive cultures can develop 'masturbatory guilt,' a phenomenon in which they become severely distressed, and can develop depression and anxiety. 

In the study mentioned earlier (where women found that masturbation could help them reach orgasm), a minority of participants in that study also reported feelings of guilt and shame when they masturbated. 

Masturbation Can Reduce Stress

Though masturbation can bring about mixed emotional feelings in some individuals, the scientific data suggests that it can be an effective tool for stress relief (when practiced in moderation) because the brain releases several hormones during masturbation that can help alleviate stress.

Hormones released during masturbation include:

  • Oxytocin: Oxytocin, the “love hormone,” is a neurotransmitter released during orgasm, which has stress-relieving properties. One of oxytocin’s functions is bringing about feelings of greater connectivity and increasing pro-social behavior. Research has also found that oxytocin can alleviate stress and anxiety, and also helps individuals better process negative emotional stimuli.
  • Serotonin: Another chemical released during masturbation is serotonin, a neurotransmitter that can help improve mood.
  • Endocannabinoids: Masturbation can increase levels of endocannabinoids. These are hormones that bind to cannabinoid receptors just like the chemicals in cannabis do, and are responsible for maintaining homeostasis within the body. Research on endocannabinoids is still emerging, but these compounds have been found to play a role in reducing anxiety, regulating emotional behavior, and supporting cognition.  

May Improve Sleep Quality

One study had 778 participants report their sleep quality, either after masturbation or after having sex with a partner.

Researchers found that, among both males and females, those who orgasmed via masturbation reported better sleep quality than when engaging in sexual activity with a partner. These individuals also reported that masturbation helped them fall asleep faster. 

Can Boost Cognition

Masturbation can be helpful in maintaining cognition, especially in older adults. One finding explored the relationship between sexual activity and cognitive function in over 6,800 adults between the ages of 50 and 89. Among both men and women, those who reported a higher frequency of sexual activity performed better on recall tasks.

However, this study does not examine masturbation specifically, so further research is required to determine masturbation’s effect on cognition. 

Side Effects of Masturbation

Aside from potentially bringing about guilt, shame, or emotional distress, masturbation may also become addictive.  

Though it’s not a diagnosable mental health condition listed in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders, masturbation addiction can occur. This is usually when masturbation becomes excessive and compulsive, negatively impacting other areas of an individual’s life.

A Word From Verywell 

Masturbation can be beneficial for stress relief when practiced in moderation. However, if it starts taking a negative toll on your mental health and prevents you from showing up in other areas of your life, know that you aren’t alone in your challenges. A qualified mental health professional can help you work through underlying emotional triggers and develop effective coping mechanisms. 

13 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Brina Patel
Brina Patel is a freelance writer from Sacramento, California. Prior to writing full-time, she worked as an applied behavior analysis therapist for children on the autism spectrum. She leverages her own experiences researching emotions, as well as her personal challenges with chronic illness and anxiety, in her storytelling, with the hope of inspiring others to take better charge of their overall wellness and understand themselves on a deeper level.