Masturbation is considered a healthy and pleasurable activity, but can it become an addiction?

Share on Pinterest
Cavan Images/Getty Images

Self-stimulation is an integral part of human sexuality that provides a natural way to experience pleasure, explore sexual techniques, and satisfy sexual urges.

How often one person masturbates can differ widely from another. And just because you may engage in self-pleasuring more frequently than others doesn’t mean it’s something to be concerned about.

Still, if you feel you masturbate too much, you may be wondering if it’s possible to become addicted. And if so, what can you do if you’re experiencing masturbation addiction?

The term “addicting” is commonly used to describe many things, from TV shows to food items like chocolate. For instance, you might hear someone refer to a new candy bar or the latest Netflix series as “addicting.”

However, addiction is not merely an intense feeling or urge to do something you enjoy. It’s a complex brain condition characterized by the inability to stop using a substance or engage in a behavior despite the negative consequences it causes.

Because masturbating releases “feel good” chemicals in the brain, like other addictive substances and behaviors, some believe compulsive masturbation could be considered an addiction.

For example, approximately 40 studies have found people with hypersexual behavior may share the same brain changes observed in people with clinical addictions.

However, masturbation addiction is not recognized as a mental health condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This is also the case for other sexual-related behavior categories, such as sex addiction and porn addiction.

Instead, these are commonly referred to as compulsive sexual behaviors and sometimes grouped with hypersexuality disorder or out of control sexual behavior (OCSB).

Although masturbation addiction isn’t recognized in the DSM-5, it can still cause distress, feelings of shame, and social or relationship issues. This can profoundly impact a person’s life, making it feel like a genuine condition for someone experiencing it.

Masturbation is a natural and healthy activity that has several health benefits. It can relieve stress, help you sleep, promote a positive mood, and help you learn more about your sexual responses and needs.

But when does the frequency of masturbation cross the line from healthy to problematic?

According to a survey reported by the International Society of Sexual Medicine, masturbation is more common than sexual activity with a partner.

In men 18 to 59 years old, the frequency of masturbation ranged from once a week to a few times a month. About 20% of men reported masturbating two to three times a week, and less than 20% masturbated more than four times a week. Women reported masturbating once a week or less.

If you masturbate more than this, it doesn’t necessarily mean there is a problem. The number of times a person engages in self-pleasuring varies among individuals.

However, if your frequency causes you concern, you might want to see if there’re any signs that you may be compulsively masturbating.

Commonly reported signs of masturbation addiction are:

  • masturbating so frequently that it interrupts other aspects of your personal or professional life
  • difficulty waiting to get home to masturbate, resulting in self-pleasuring in uncomfortable or inappropriate places
  • engaging in masturbation as a response to stressful situations or emotional discomfort
  • genital irritation or other symptoms of injury
  • difficulty reaching orgasm with a partner due to a loss in genital sensitivity
  • feeling overwhelming guilt or shame after masturbating
  • inability to reduce or stop masturbating even though you want to

In general, if masturbating becomes excessive or obsessive for you, that might be an indication it’s time to talk with a sexual health professional.

Excessive masturbation can sometimes occur in people with certain health conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Some drugs such as methamphetamine, cocaine, and certain prescription medications for Parkinson’s disease can also lead to an increase in self-stimulation.

Aside from health conditions, drugs, and prescription medications, other factors that might lead to compulsive masturbation include:

  • a history of sexual or physical abuse
  • a family history of behavioral addictions
  • living with cultural or religious expectations
  • ease of accessibility to pornography

One study found that the hormone oxytocin and altered DNA pathways in the brain might play a role in hypersexual disorder, a condition also characterized by compulsive sexual behavior. Further research is needed, but scientists suggest this discovery could lead to new treatment options.

Overwhelming evidence suggests masturbation has no real negative side effects for most people. Still, if it becomes excessive, it can cause:

  • emotional and psychological distress
  • irritated skin on or around the genitals
  • problems with performance when engaging in sex with a partner
  • intimate partner relationship difficulties

For some people who morally or religiously oppose masturbation, engaging in self-stimulation can cause shame and low self-esteem. These feelings can also make it seem as if any amount of masturbation is too much, leading to intense feelings of guilt even if masturbation occurs only occasionally.

If you feel you might be experiencing masturbation compulsion or addiction, the first step is to consider discussing it with a therapist or other mental health professional.

Keep in mind that all health professionals practice complete confidentiality, and nothing you talk about will go beyond you and your therapist.

Treatment options for masturbation compulsion or addiction include psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, to identify the root cause of the behavior. You and your therapist can then work together to create coping strategies and ways to reduce or eliminate compulsive masturbation.

Things you can do yourself to reduce your time spent masturbating include:

  • avoiding triggers such as pornography
  • engage in other activities like exercise or new hobbies
  • spend more time with others in social situations
  • examine how you deal with stress and emotional discomfort and adopt new coping strategies
  • break it down into a manageable goal by handling one urge at a time

You could also seek out a support group either in person or online to have a safe place to discuss your concerns and learn new ways to manage sexual behaviors.

Just because masturbation addiction isn’t a clinically diagnosable condition doesn’t mean it’s not real for those experiencing it. If you are concerned your masturbation frequency or urges are becoming problematic, know you are not alone, and there are options available that can help you overcome it.

You can find a counselor or therapist specializing in sex therapy through the American Association of Sexuality Educators and Therapists (AASECT) directory. You can also find a list of sexual health professionals through The American College of Sexologists International.

If you feel uncomfortable visiting a mental health professional, there are online therapy options that might work for you.

Online support is also available at Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous and Sex Addicts Anonymous.

For men who wish to reduce or stop masturbating, NoFap is a community-based sexual health platform that supports compulsive sexual behavior. However, there is some debate on its benefits.

Masturbation feels good and can be good for you. Ultimately, how much you do it is a personal decision based on your needs. If it’s not harming your personal or professional life or causing you distress, it’s a perfectly natural activity to enjoy at your discretion.

But if you feel it is causing problems in your life, there is help available to provide the support you need to manage it better.