Masturbating Can Help You Cope With Anxiety — Seriously

“Pleasure practices, including masturbation, are non-negotiable, especially during times like this."

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Rita M., a 20-year-old social work student living in Seattle, Washington, used to masturbate three to five times a week. But as with everything else, during a global pandemic, self-pleasure had been hard to come by. She's not alone in finding it more difficult to engage in this form of self-care. And yet, the benefits of masturbation may actually come in more handy than ever. Tending to ourselves is one step in navigating a new normal.

"It has been more difficult to be 'in the mood' because, in my head, I ask myself, 'Why is masturbation something I'm thinking about when there's a pandemic happening in my backyard?'' Rita tells InStyle. "Witnessing enormous struggles and injustices by vulnerable populations dominates my mind. Masturbation gets brushed aside and distress consumes me."

There's no doubt that coronavirus and its ripple-out effects — the obvious fear and worry, the restricted human interaction — have had negative impacts on people's mental health. Back in March of 2020, 45% of Americans reported the virus had taken a toll on their emotional well-being, and according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, the number of people who are experiencing anxiety and depression has spiked as a result of the pandemic.

More than ever, it's vital that we try to prioritize taking good care of ourselves as best we can — a call to action that, while necessary, can be difficult to heed. The irony, of course, is that pleasuring oneself is a form of self-care that could help.

"In the midst of a collective trauma response, all of our nervous systems are on high alert for danger," Megan Fleming, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and instructor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University specializing in sex and relationships, tells InStyle. "The good news is that masturbation can act as a reset button. It tells your brain that things are OK, that you can breathe and relax. And from a more relaxed state, energy can again be expansive and you can have access to the best parts of you to make decisions and be more creative."

"This is why pleasure practices, including masturbation, are non-negotiable, especially in times like this," Fleming continues. "It may seem counterintuitive to prioritize pleasure right now, but it's highly beneficial. However paradoxical it may seem, refueling your own tank and engaging in activities that prioritize your pleasure can make for meaningful differences for you and those you're quarantined with."

And for those who are living alone, masturbation can double as a way of combating feelings of loneliness and isolation. At a time when being intimate with someone who does not live with us is not an option, masturbation can be the only safe way to feel sexually connected to ourselves and others. As stated in the New York City Health Department's advisory for safe sex during the coronavirus, "you are your safest sex partner."

"An upside to physical isolation is that it has emboldened me to engage in virtual mutual masturbation, something I had not done in person or over video before," Jennifer A., a 23-year-old living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, tells InStyle. "Having connected with my partner only shortly before we all began socially isolating, the pandemic is pushing me to be vulnerable and cultivate trust by sharing my experience of pleasuring myself virtually."

Jennifer says that masturbating not only helps her stay connected with her partner during a time of physical separation, but grounds her in the moment and offers her a sense of routine and normalcy in the midst of so much upheaval and uncertainty. "It is also a time and space in which I am in control, which helps mitigate the stress associated with a loss of agency," she continues.

The stress-relieving benefits of masturbation have been well documented — studies have shown that the release of oxytocin, the "love hormone," through touch is health-promoting; that masturbation can improve one's overall self-esteem and body image; the release of endorphins through orgasm can fend off depression. So at a time when we cannot be as active as we'd like, are unable to benefit from a wide variety of interpersonal relationships, and are inundated by stress and anxiety, taking the time to masturbate is not only a purposeful acknowledgment that we deserve to feel good at a time of so much duress, but a way to mitigate the negative impact this pandemic is having on our mental health.

"Mindfulness incorporated with self-pleasure and exploration can help people become more in touch with their bodies in a non-judgmental way, and give them a space to experience physical and emotional pleasure in a time when fear is the predominant feeling," Madeline Cooper, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist who specializes in sexual health and relationship issues, tells InStyle.

"I encourage my clients to explore their bodies while first focusing on their breathing, and then focusing on the temperature, pressure, and texture of their touch," she explains. "This is based on a couples exercise called 'Sensate Focus' that sex therapists utilize to reduce intimacy anxiety, but has been shown to be beneficial when individuals use similar techniques on their own. It allows people to direct their attention to their own, dependable experience, especially during a time when there is a lack of control of external circumstances."

While the country has re-opened, so much remains unknown about what the future looks like. But in the face of so much uncertainty, it can be beneficial to look inward, focus on ourselves, and give ourselves the permission to and benefits of simply feeling good, even if only momentarily. Whether it be with a partner, virtually, or alone, masturbation can be a way for us to stay connected to those we love but cannot touch, and, more importantly, stay connected to ourselves.

Jessica Zucker, Ph.D., is a Los Angeles-based psychologist specializing in reproductive health and the author of I HAD A MISCARRIAGE: A Memoir, A Movement.

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