Masturbation is a perfectly common and healthy activity, a way to explore your body, feel pleasure, and release some tension.

In fact, masturbation plays a role in our sexual development.

Despite masturbation being a healthy part of everyday life, it’s still a taboo topic that can bring shame and guilt. Because many cultures and religions condemn sexual activity outside of procreation, there is a lot of misinformation about the consequences of masturbation.

One of the most common myths about masturbation is that it can cause mental illness.

The short answer: no, it does not cause depression.

“This is an old wive’s tale and has been disproved by research,” explains Lori Beth Bisbey, a clinical psychologist who specializes in sex and relationship issues. “Masturbation does not cause depression.”

However, the relationship between depression, sadness, and masturbation is sometimes complicated by the role masturbation plays in society and its effect on our hormones.

While masturbation isn’t caused by depression, studies have shown that shame associated with masturbation can have an effect.

“People who believe that masturbation is wrong or taboo can experience guilt as a result [of doing it],” says Bisbey, “and that guilt may negatively affect them.”

For example, a 2018 study found that myths about masturbation were more prevalent in men who were living with depression. Of the men living with depression, 62.5% of them experienced sexual dysfunctions, such as decreased libido, trouble reaching orgasm, and general feelings of being dissatisfied with sex.

You might also feel bad after masturbation because you don’t have a partner with you at that moment.

It’s also perfectly normal to feel a whole range of emotions — including sadness — after any sexual activity because orgasm can be an intense experience.

Orgasms can sometimes cause you to feel a whole flood of emotions just because you’re in a vulnerable state at that moment.

“Humans tend to push emotions downward to prevent ourselves from feeling the ones we would rather avoid,” says David Helfand, a licensed psychologist and couples therapist who specializes in sex therapy. “However, emotions will always win, and they tend to reappear on the surface when you let your guard down and get in touch with your body. A good orgasm does exactly that.”

Some people also experience something called postcoital dysphoria, which can lead to feelings like sadness, anxiety, anger, agitation, or even the urge to cry.

A 2018 study found that 41% of men had felt sad after sexual activity, while an older study found that 46% of women had felt sad at least once post orgasm. A 2020 study found postcoital symptoms in 91.9% of the study’s participants over four weeks.

However, these feelings are often temporary — usually only lasting for five minutes to two hours — and they do not mean you are experiencing clinical depression or a mental illness.

Instead, they’re likely due to the hormones released during orgasm, your feelings about sex, and your general psychological state. For example, you are more likely to experience these feelings if you already live with an anxiety disorder or have clinical depression.

Depression can also affect your desire to have sex or masturbate.

“Depression can decrease the libido,” explains Bisbey, “[and] it can cause apathy about sex and sexual activity. Many depressed people find they do not even think about sex.”

There are several reasons why this could be the case.

The hormonal changes that cause depression can hamper your sex drive, but they can also make you neglect your personal hygiene, eating habits, and desire to exercise. This can sometimes impact how attractive you feel — making it more difficult to enjoy sexual activity, including masturbation.

Because depression can affect your libido, some people turn to pornography in the hopes it will boost their sex drive.

“Porn use as a tool for masturbation can be helpful to increase fantasy in one’s sex life,” explains Helfand. “However, it can also lead to unrealistic expectations in the bedroom.”

It can also make you feel like you’ll never be able to perform like the actors on the screen.

“If a person is masturbating to mainstream porn with actors, they may feel hopeless that they will not perform like that person they see in the film,” explains Jackie Golob, a sex therapist from Minneapolis, MN. “The imposter syndrome can set in and depression may potentially spiral.”

The truth is, masturbation can actually be very good for you.

“Masturbation causes the release of oxytocin, the bonding or love hormone, and dopamine, a pleasure neurotransmitter,” explains Bisbey. “This can provide a boost to someone, even if they’re depressed, [because] it can increase positive feelings and release stress for a while afterward.”

In addition, masturbation can help you become more in tune with your body and your erogenous zones. “It allows you to explore what you like and don’t like sexually and intimately,” says Golob. “And you can remember that for partnered sex later.”

However, it’s important to remember that while masturbation — and the orgasm you experience as a result — can cause you to relax and sometimes feel good for a while, it’s not going to “cure” your depression.

“It is really important to de-stigmatize masturbation,” says Bisbey. “Masturbation is [common] and most of the adult population masturbates whether they are in a relationship or not. Scientific evidence demonstrates masturbation as being a positive activity, not a negative one.”

Masturbation is also generally a safer way to get to know yourself, your body, and your desires because you are in total control and there is no risk of unwanted pregnancy or STIs.

If you’re feeling sad after an orgasm — or you’re feeling depressed more generally — it can be helpful to reach out to a therapist or mental health care professional. They can help you get to the bottom of what’s behind these feelings and get you treatment.

Sometimes, they might also refer you to your general practitioner doctor who can run bloodwork and ensure nothing physical is also going on, leading to decreased libido.