I’ve always been an anxious person. Even as a child, I remember nearly hyperventilating about tasks my friends didn’t seem to stress out about—standing up in class to go get a tissue, getting into a car or exploring new places.
That anxiety skyrocketed when I turned 20. I became dissociative and found myself slipping from my body on a regular basis. I felt entirely out of control—more out of touch with myself than ever—but something surprising helped me get back to myself: masturbation.
I’ve never been embarrassed or ashamed of masturbation, but I always felt a little strange masturbating when I wasn’t feeling super sexual. After all, that’s supposed to be the point, right? I quickly realized that wasn’t the case; there are tons of reasons people masturbate, and they don’t all have to do with feeling turned on.
For many people, masturbation can serve as a healthy and accessible way to “self-soothe,” Elizabeth Watt, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist and certified sex therapist, tells StyleCaster. “This can start early in life when a child or teen feels stress and uses masturbation as a way to calm their body and release tension.”
For me, it’s all about the latter, and the anxiety that comes with it.
“[Since] middle school, I’ve masturbated when I’ve felt anxious,” Marissa, 27, says. “Not every time, obviously. But if I’m home and alone, it’s definitely something I find myself turning to without even thinking about it.”
Marissa says masturbation helps relieve some of the physical symptoms of anxiety, like feeling tense or having a headache. “[It] helps me refocus mentally. Often when I’m anxious, it’s about what-if situations that I can’t control in the moment,” she says. “I feel like masturbation helps me center myself on the here and now and brings me back into my body—at least for the time being.”
Considering some research indicates that women are more likely to have anxiety disorders than men, it’s not surprising that we seek out new ways—and perhaps unexpected ones—to deal with anxiety that doesn’t necessarily warrant a doctor’s visit or a prescription. After all, accessibility is a huge issue when it comes to mental health, and stigma can deter many from seeking help.
Though masturbation isn’t an adequate substitute for professional care, people with anxiety should do what works best for them; it certainly doesn’t hurt to have additional coping mechanisms. (Speaking from personal experience, alleviating anxiety on top of having an orgasm—or a few—is a lovely side effect of a practice I already regularly engage in.)
“I guess I kind of stumbled on the stress-relieving aspect of masturbation by accident,” Crystal, who’s in her 30s, says. She explains she went to take a nap one day and ended up grabbing her vibrator, instead.
“It’s strange (and embarrassing), but I felt a lot better after,” she says. “It’s now one of my favorite forms of medicine-free stress relief.”
Whereas Crystal accidentally discovered the relieving effects of masturbation, others, like Sam*, have masturbated with the intention of calming their anxiety.
“Masturbation has always been something that I’ve been drawn to, mainly because it helps me to relax,” Sam, 23, explains. “A lot of my anxiety comes from the awareness of how others are perceiving me—how they are interpreting me and what their expectations of me are in various settings. Masturbation helps me to take the focus from outward to inward.”
This, she says, allows her to focus on her own thoughts and feelings. “If I can help it, masturbating before I know I’ll be in a situation that could be stressful or triggering helps me to refocus and calm down,” she adds.
Courtney, 38, says they’re not sure that it’s the act of masturbating itself, but the subsequent hormones it releases, that aids anxiety.
“I don’t know that it makes me feel more in control,” Courtney explains. “I think it’s whatever hormones it releases counteract whatever is making me feel like things are out of control.”
Kristin Zeising, PsyD, licensed psychologist and certified sex therapist, backs this up. “Orgasms can help decrease anxiety and stress through the act of releasing endorphins, which are generally the ‘feel-good chemicals,'” she tells StyleCaster. “Orgasm also releases the hormone oxytocin, which promotes feelings of love and well-being.” This, she says, can definitely cause someone to feel less anxious—at least during and directly after masturbation.
“It feels compulsive and not sexy at all,” Courtney adds. “But it relieves the tension.”
For K.T., 30, it’s all about finding a bodily distraction. “I find that being physical in general helps anxiety,” she explains. “Moving around, working out, getting into nature—masturbating is an extension of that.”
These things help her release tension—and focus on what’s important in life. “Sometimes I don’t realize how pent up I am,” she says. “And delighting (my term for masturbating) is like a magic reset button.”
Masturbation can be especially impactful for those whose anxiety is caused by trauma.
“My PTSD stems from being raped and sexually assaulted, so it’s difficult; I’m not always in the right mind-set to masturbate,” Alaina Leary, 24, says. “But that’s part of why I make it a regular practice, when I’m feeling sexually safe and comfortable.”
“Masturbation is a way to take control of my own body and sexuality, and envision whatever fantasies I’d like,” they add. “When I enjoy masturbation, it reminds me that my body is my own and I have consent with myself.”
Meghan, 30, says she uses masturbation as a means of disrupting anxiety attacks before they take over.
“I find jilling off to be a really helpful tool for centering myself and kind of interrupting anxiety attacks,” she says. “Masturbating is relaxing, distracting and a source of release.”
Meghan explains that masturbation helps her slow and control her breathing—and interrupts some of the repetitive thinking that accompanies her anxiety. “As a sexual assault survivor, the sense of control I get when I please myself is very grounding,” she adds.
Many find it empowering to be able to reach for a sex toy—or literally just their own body—to find an escape from anxiety, even if it’s only temporary.
“The best way for me to calm myself down is to masturbate,” Rae, 25, explains. “Even when my body is seemingly in revolt, my emotions on overdrive and all my tensions heightened, the simple fact is that I can soothe myself with my own touch.”
She adds that she can get her own sensations to override the ones she doesn’t want to feel—”to turn that heightened sensitivity from discomfort to pleasure”—and comfort herself, even when she’s feeling most overwhelmed.
I’m not at all under the impression that masturbating 24/7 will cure my anxiety. (Plus, who has time for that?) But masturbation has always been something that both centers and distracts me.
When I’m anxious and I feel most distant from my body, masturbation is a private, intimate moment I offer to myself to make seeking pleasure a part of my everyday experience—no matter how rough that day is going. It’s almost a peace offering, and a note of understanding I’m passing to myself: Yes, we feel really, really bad right now, but we’re going to be OK. Here’s a small, good-feeling thing until we’re through this.
I just honestly feel lucky to have stumbled upon something free, quick and guiltless that gives me a moment’s pause from the buzzing, overwhelming feeling of anxiety. And I feel even better knowing I’m not alone.
*Name has been changed