In a world where drug and alcohol addiction dominate the news, talk shows, reality television and self-help books, it’s easy to believe that the only way to become an addict is to take a mind-altering substance. But behavioral addiction – including shopping, gambling, masturbation, exercise and many others – can be just as addictive as chemical substances. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the bible of mental health conditions and diagnoses, recently added the category of behavioral addictions under the general heading of addictive disorders. These are addictions that don’t require the use of chemical substances, and this addiction marks the mental health communities acknowledgment that behaviors can be just as addictive as chemical substances.
Understanding Masturbation Addiction
Two brain chemicals play a powerful role in addiction. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that enables you to feel pleasurable emotions, and endorphins are chemicals released during stress and physical activity that allow you to recover and feel at ease. When you masturbate, the body releases dopamine to enable you to feel sexual pleasure, and frequently releases endorphins when you’re done masturbating. Over time, this frequent release of brain chemicals can become addictive. Because endorphins and dopamine can help you cope with stress, people experiencing extraordinary stress or mental health problems are especially likely to become addicted to the release of these chemicals that occurs with masturbation. Thus frequent masturbation can become an unhealthy coping mechanism that causes you to avoid – rather than address – your problems.
While masturbation is widely acknowledged to be an important part of healthy sexuality, any behavior in excess can prove problematic. After all, exercise can keep you alive, but too much exercise can kill you, and shopping helps you access food, but too much shopping will quickly drive you into debt. Masturbation is no different. If you masturbate several times a day, your brain can become addicted to the release of powerful, pleasure-inducing chemicals. Moreover, it can become more difficult for your brain to release these chemicals without increasing stimulation. Consequently, you may need to masturbate more frequently or to more dramatic stimuli in order to receive the same pleasure you previously had. Many people become addicted to porn at the same time they become addicted to masturbation because pornography allows people to seek out increasingly graphic stimuli.
This perpetual chase of the next brain rush is a hallmark of addiction. When your brain is fiending for dopamine, you’re experiencing similar feelings to those of a heroin addict, so it makes no difference that you’re not actually ingesting a chemical substance.
Am I Addicted?
The defining characteristic of any addiction is that it interferes with one major area in your life and that you are unable to stop despite strong efforts to do so. Some common symptoms that you may be addicted to masturbation include:
• Seeking out increasingly graphic, extreme or violent pornography
• Feeling ashamed of your masturbation habits
• Having trouble in a relationship because of masturbation
• Having trouble with sexual arousal or in-person sexual interactions because masturbation is easier or more pleasurable
• Masturbating in inappropriate locations such as at work, in the car or in public
• Legal trouble because of masturbation or other sexual behaviors
• Difficulty with time management
• Feelings of frustration, anger, sadness or depression when you can’t masturbate
• Trouble spending time with your children, enjoying your hobbies in other tasks you previously enjoyed
If you think you might be addicted to masturbation, don’t despair. Hope is available, so contact a qualified addiction specialist or therapist to begin a life free of addiction.
Audesirk, T., Audesirk, G., & Byers, B. E. (2008). Biology: Life on earth with physiology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.