It’s Perfectly Healthy to Masturbate, But Is It Possible to Overdo It?
What do you call a completely normal behavior that a majority of adult men partake in regularly, but that society oftentimes likes to make you feel guilty about? You may have euphemistically referred to this activity as “choking the chicken” or “playing pocket pool” at an earlier age, believing the word itself too taboo to touch, but you know what we’re talking about here is masturbation.
If you’ve masturbated in the past month, the past week, even the past 24 hours, give yourself a congratulatory pat on the back. You, dear pal, are part of a super, non-exclusive group made up of the vast majority of adult men living in the U.S. According to one study, over 70 percent of boys have masturbated at least once by the time they reach age 17. By the time they reach adulthood? Well, by then it’s viewed as a universal behavior.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with masturbating on the regular (whatever that may mean on an individual level). In fact, it’s viewed as an integral part of normal sexual development, and can lead to a number of benefits.
“Many people find masturbation to orgasm to be a stress reliever and mood elevator due to both the chemical response it causes, as well as the tension and then relaxation of muscles after the fact,” says Dr. Vanessa Valentino, a New York City-based psychologist and sex therapist.
“[Masturbation] often helps people know their body and experience more pleasure in sexual encounters with others,” she adds.
You might be wondering what the catch is here. Is there a dark side to masturbation you should know about? In short, as with all good things, too much of it — at least too much reliance on it, in terms of both your physical and mental well-being — can become problematic.
Here’s what you need to know about the potentially negative side effects of masturbating too much.
The reason we masturbate is pretty straightforward: it makes us feel good, even if only temporarily. But there is a drawback when you return to the well too many times.
“When you masturbate, you experience a release of the neurotransmitter dopamine,” explains Michele Day, sex addiction therapist, coach, consultant and director of the Chicago Center for Sex & Wellbeing. “Dopamine hits the reward centers of the brain and is the same neurotransmitter that is released when people abuse drugs — cocaine, heroin, alcohol, etcetera. People who compulsively masturbate receive ‘dopamine hits,’ which leaves them sated temporarily, but when that doesn’t last, they return for more.”
That, as Day points out, is when compulsive behavior can come into play, which is where things can go south.
“Compulsive or addictive masturbation can leave you feeling depressed and shameful due to depletion of neurotransmitters and your inability to stop the behavior,” she says.
Also of concern, according to Valentino, is using masturbation as a coping mechanism.
“It should not be relied on to manage mood,” she says. “If you are becoming dependent on masturbation to function or feel happy, it is time to see a psychologist who specializes in sex therapy.”
Its Impact on Your Sex Life
Masturbation is an equally normal behavior whether you’re riding solo or boo’ed up (in which case mutual masturbation can come into play). That said, your method(s) of masturbation can sometimes lead to issues in the bedroom with your partner.
“The way you are masturbating, both physical technique, duration, and what porn you watch or your fantasies, can all potentially have negative side effects if they are not similar to what your experience is during real sex with your partner,” says Dr. Valentino. “Many of my patients have an issue due to a longstanding pattern of non-transferable fantasy with masturbation, resulting in sexual performance issues.”
In addition to being unable to perform the way you would like to, this can also lead your partner to think they are doing, or have done, something wrong — or worse. “The partner often feels that there is ‘something wrong with them’ when their lover isn’t aroused,” explains Day. “Compulsive masturbators will frequently let their partners believe this as a way to escape the shame that they feel.”
Its Impact on Other Aspects of Life
There is no over/under on the number of times it’s considered appropriate to masturbate within a given timeframe, whether we’re talking a day, a week, or a month. Everyone masturbates at a different frequency, and it only becomes problematic when it begins to interfere with other aspects of your life that deserve your attention.
These are the questions you need to confront, according to Day, if you feel the behavior has become compulsive: “Are you masturbating and/or looking at pornography at work? Are you isolating from others so you can stay at home and masturbate? Have you been in a car accident because you were looking at pornography and/or masturbating? Do you hide your masturbation from your partner? Are you tired in the morning because you were up late watching pornography and/or masturbating?”
If any of these situations sound familiar, seeking out professional help could be tremendously beneficial.
“If you are neglecting your partner, your work, your social life, etcetera, it may be time to rein it in and seek the help of a psychologist who specializes in sex therapy,” advises Valentino. “You probably will not be able to undo this on your own, but some brief therapy can be very helpful.”
Developing Feelings of Guilt or Shame
A final aspect of too much masturbation to consider is the guilt/shame factor. Meaning, you like to masturbate but can’t help feeling guilty after having done so, as if you’ve done something wrong or are a bad person for engaging in that kind of behavior.
As Day puts it: “A lot of people were raised that their bodies and sex are something to be ashamed about, especially in American culture, but they are not.”
Guilt and shame surrounding masturbation stem from different places, explains Valentino. The former signifies that you have a negative perception of masturbation, likely internalized by social influences, while the latter suggests you think society would judge you for engaging in the act.
“These are rooted in different causes, and are treated somewhat differently in therapy,” says Valentino. “Psychotherapy focused on sex issues that applies cognitive behavioral techniques would help resolve this issue, and the underlying confidence issues in your own decision making.”
Masturbation is a normal behavior that an overwhelming majority of men engage in. Whether you partake or you don’t, what’s most important is that your decision is coming from a positive place (as opposed to, for example, feeling so shameful about the activity that you are unable to engage in it).
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