Pornography and Depression: What's the Connection?

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Pornography is visual or printed material containing explicit displays of naked body parts conducting erotic actions such as sexual gestures or intercourse. Depression is a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects your mental state, and in most cases, brings your mood to a complete low, making you feel sad and hopeless.

While pornography and depression may not seem related, research suggests the two subjects may share more in common than you think.

In fact, a recent study indicates a significant relationship between mental health and pornography use, which included addictions, highlighting the potential contribution of internet pornography to negative mental health amongst several university students.

What Causes the Connection?

"Individuals do not turn to porn because they are depressed," says Eddie Capparucci, PhD, LPC, CSAS of Abundant Life Counseling. "They turn to porn to escape the negative emotions that come from being depressed. The correlation is that most individuals who wind up addicted to pornography have been dealing with a low-grade depression most of their lives."

A lack of learned practices to deal with pain and discomfort is something that Capparucci believes is a major issue for people that struggle with porn addiction: porn, in a sense, is a means of escaping their distress. Inevitably, the constant increase level for pleasure and chemicals in the brain creates a monster of desire.

Porn's Impact on Depression

Is porn, however, a good escape when depressed? According to Gabrielle Usatynski, LPC, at Power Couples Education, yes and no:

"Low serotonin levels are one of the key chemical imbalances linked to depression. Depression can lead to compulsive porn watching because orgasm balances serotonin, making you feel peaceful and relaxed. Orgasm also gives you a surge of dopamine, another key neurotransmitter that is in short supply with depression."

The issue with resorting to porn as a crutch while battling depression is its effect on your mental health. Porn can alter your brain chemistry permanently, equivalent to severe addiction. This addiction can be comparable to hardcore drugs, which will be hard to quit. Something that seems so harmless and minute as watching a 5- or 10-minute x-rated video regularly may have consequences.

"People get addicted to porn, but they also then develop a tolerance for it, just like they do for drugs, which leads to a consequent reduction in pleasure every time they use it," Usatynski explains. "In other words, you need more and more dopamine, more and more stimulation, in order to produce that pleasurable result. This is why over time, watching porn can make your depression worse."

When Is Too Far Too Much?

Here are Capparucci's defining actions that will help a person recognize when porn has negatively impacted their lives:

  • They rather isolate and watch porn instead of socializing.
  • They become dissatisfied with their partner's appearance.
  • They are preoccupied with sexual thoughts throughout the day, and they cannot wait to see what new visuals have been updated on their favorite porn site.
  • They see sex as nothing more than a physical act that involves no emotional intimacy.
  • They take more risks and may start searching for porn at work or when their partner may be able to catch them.
  • They find themselves objectifying people more.
  • They start desiring to seek out different sexual activities or may escalate to acting out what they see in porn with people.

Getting Help

Soumya Choudhary, clinical neuropsychologist and head of research of Behavidence, believes acknowledging that there is a problem is always the first step—and then finding a therapist to suit this specific issue.

Using apps that track your digital behavior can also be a good way to take control of your porn addiction and self-manage your mental health:

  • Track when depression levels or impulse levels are high and then implement healthy interventions like exercise, calling a friend, therapy, joining a support group, meditating, etc., to prevent negative outcomes like binge-watching porn to feel better.
  • Be alert to the possibility of undiagnosed depression or ADHD, and get evaluated to prevent the negative consequences of not being treated,  
  • Measure if the steps you are taking to reduce porn addiction are actually working by tracking your daily habits (or Mental Health Similarity Scores in the Behavidence app) and seeing the improvement daily and over time.

What Does Treatment Look Like?

Someone with severe symptoms of a porn addiction may need a period of inpatient or residential treatment where they live at the care center for the duration of their treatment. This option allows people to remove stressors from the outside world to focus on rehabilitation exclusively. Programs like these normally last between 28 and 90 days, with some longer treatments available.

Choudhary also adds that the treatment for porn addiction and depression or any other mental illness will always be customized, i.e., it will be client-centered and based on the evidence presented by the client. Here are available options:

  • Individual therapy: It is recommended because becoming aware of behaviors and triggers through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can prove very useful. This is very readily available. 
  • Group therapy: Clients can meet with people struggling with similar issues and learn coping mechanisms that’ll help them overcome the day-to-day challenges of porn addiction. Such groups are often readily available but may become a more challenging effort on the clients' part if they may have social anxiety or are struggling with severe depression.
  • Medication along with therapy: This is a more optional intervention as treatment for behavioral addictions requires behavioral modification treatments like CBT. If the client has depression, they probably may already be on medications, which can benefit them when coupled with guided therapy. The doctor may change the medications based on presenting problems. 

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction and/or depression, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

If you've fallen into a porn addiction or sunken deeper into a depression, it's important not to feel ashamed, embarrassed, or discouraged. The first milestone is recognizing you have a problem and are willing to seek help. Reach out to your support system, and get help from licensed health professionals who can walk with you each step of the way.

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  1. Camilleri C, Perry JT, Sammut S. Compulsive Internet Pornography Use and Mental Health: A Cross-Sectional Study in a Sample of University Students in the United StatesFront Psychol. 2021;11:613244. Published 2021 Jan 12. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.613244

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