Sex & Dating | November 2, 2020 5:15 am

How to Maximize the Mental Health Benefits of Masturbation

Experts weigh in on the art of mindful masturbation at a time when we can all use it

masturbation mental health
You've gotta stay relaxed.
Paramount Pictures

You’ve gotta hand it to masturbation’s PR team. Since 1894, when one William Kellogg intentionally engineered a cereal so bland as to quell sexual excitement and curb masturbatory habits then deemed not only shameful, but harmful, cultural attitudes toward masturbation have done a near 180, with the ultimate physical expression of self-love transformed from an act of self-abuse to one of self-care.

While god-fearing sexual mores and myths of yore linked masturbation to myriad health consequences including blindness, mental illness, hairy palms and even death (followed, of course, by eternal damnation), masturbation’s post-corn-flakes rebrand has seen the act of getting oneself off absolved and proclaimed not only harmless, but downright good for you. Unlike sexphobic cereal makers of centuries past who aimed to save masturbators from certain mental, physical and spiritual demise, experts today tout the various health benefits of what Kellogg and his late-Victorian ilk once called “the solitary vice.” Today, after centuries of bad PR courtesy of — among other entities — the Roman Catholic Church, masturbation is finally recognized as a fun, pleasurable activity that can actually improve your physical, sexual and yes, mental health.

“Masturbation, when devoid of guilt and shame, can have loads of positive benefits on both our mental and physical health,” says Amy Weissfeld, Certified Sex Coach & Somatic Sex Educator. “During masturbation, feel-good chemicals including dopamine and oxytocin are released into the body. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, makes you feel good and puts you in a better mood. Oxytocin, also known as the love hormone, contributes to feelings of well-being and attachment,” she explains, adding that both dopamine and oxytocin help block the release of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress and anxiety.

In addition to stress relief, this “cocktail of chemicals” — as Bruce P. Grether, masturbation coach and founder of Erotic Engineering puts it — can also improve self-esteem and confidence, “enhanc[ing] happiness and even social harmony with others,” Grether explains.

Suffice to say, stress relief, happiness and social harmony are all things we could use a little more of these days, and masturbating your way there seems like a win-win. That said, there’s a difference between mindlessly rubbing one out and actually masturbating with improved mental health as the goal.

“Masturbating more mindfully is the secret to gaining these mental health benefits,” says Weissfeld. “Don’t just pound it out or try to get it over with,” she adds. “This kind of masturbation is very different from ‘having a wank’ or ‘getting it out of the system.’”

Fortunately, there are ways to hack your masturbatory practice for a more mentally rewarding experience. While — as sex hacker, international sex expert and sex educator Kenneth Play points out — masturbation is no substitute for professional treatment, there are still plenty of mental health benefits to be reaped from your favorite solo pastime if you know how to do it right.

Here, experts offer tips on how to masturbate your way to better mental health, or at least a better state of mind.

Slow Down


“Way the fuck down,” says Weissfeld. “Remind yourself that it’s not about the orgasm or how quickly or slowly you get there. It’s actually about the pleasure — about allowing and inviting pleasure to spread throughout the whole body.”

In a society that tends to prioritize orgasms — especially male ones — as the goal of any sexual encounter, partnered or solo, it can be difficult not to treat masturbation as a race to get yourself off. Reframing this orgasm-centric view is key to more mindful masturbating. Rather than thinking of every stroke as a step toward orgasm, instead focus on paying attention to how each physical sensation actually feels in the moment.

“Too much focus on ejaculation can limit enjoyment,” says Grether, whose approach to mindful masturbation emphasizes the importance of “retraining yourself to focus on your own body in the here and now.”

“Mindfulness really just means alertness, paying full attention to what you are actually doing and feeling, and not getting lost in distraction or fantasy,” he adds.

According to Kenneth Play, this involves “releasing expectations and being open to your body’s messages moment to moment.” By “consciously training yourself to learn to pay more attention to the body’s signals,” he explains, you become more attuned to both mental and physical feelings and the ways they interact. “This may be a feeling of pleasure, or it could be some emotional discomfort that you haven’t really tuned into during your busy day and are only now noticing when you slow down enough.”

After years of jack-hammering yourself to a rapid-release orgasm, however, slowing down may be easier said than done. To remind yourself to stay slow and steady, Weissfeld recommends focusing on your breathing, “which can be used to both increase desire and arousal and to slow things down to a more relaxed sort of savoring.”

And remember, she says, it’s not about how fast you make it to the finish line. “Treating masturbation as the self-love and care it actually is means taking some time.”

Relax


“So many of us are in a chronically stressed-out state, especially during this pandemic. If you’re too stressed out, you may not even feel super sexual in the first place, or you may be used to using sex as a way of relieving stress rather than a way to get in touch with your body,” says Kenneth.

While replacing a midday snack or smoke break with masturbation has become increasingly common in the age of perpetually working from home, (and masturbation is definitely a healthy way to relieve stress during the work day, as long as you keep it off Zoom), it’s important to find time to enjoy masturbation as its own pleasurable act, independent from work or other stressors. In order to set the mood, even if it’s just a party of one, Kenneth suggests lighting candles, taking a bath, working out first or masturbating when you’re feeling sleepy or less energized.

“The body operates differently in states of relaxation, and your sexual responses will be completely different,” he explains. “As men, we often think of sex as a performance or a time to be in a very alert state. But there is another kind of arousal — that which comes from a relaxed body.”

According to Kenneth, many men have never even tapped into this more relaxed state of arousal, but doing so can have huge benefits for both your partnered and solo sex life.

“It’s really worth experimenting to see if you can find this new doorway into pleasure,” he says. “It’s great to try to develop this skill solo so you can bring this more relaxed form of arousal to your partners, but also just so you can experience it for yourself.”

Try something new


Even if you were raised on a steady diet of unhorny corn flakes, there’s a good chance you began masturbating at a young age. This is great and healthy and we should obviously encourage young people to begin expressing and exploring their sexuality in safe and consensual ways as early as they display an interest. That said, many adults are still holding firm to rigid masturbatory habits they formed years if not decades ago, which may be keeping them from a more physically and mentally satisfying experience.

“Men often get stuck in one position using a standard one-handed piston-stroke, and race to the finish-line, focused on ejaculation,” says Grether. “These are learned habits.”

Indeed, while not the addictive societal ill it was once thought, “masturbation does reinforce habits,” says Kenneth. “If you continually masturbate the same way, you are training yourself to be in that state of consciousness while having sex and for your body to perform [a certain] way.”

Fortunately, habits can be broken, and introducing a little novelty into your masturbation routine is probably a lot more fun (and easier) than trying to kick whatever other habits you’ve been reinforcing since childhood.

Mixing things up can be as simple as “touching yourself in a different way,” says Weissfeld. “If you always use your right hand, try your left. If you always use a massage stroke, try squeezing and releasing, or feather-light touch.”

Of course, you could also try introducing toys, adding, changing or removing porn from the equation, or masturbating with a partner.

Get Loud


Again, many of us have been masturbating from a young age, at which point we probably internalized some residual corn flakes-era masturbation shame. These lingering mentalities may have contributed to certain habits designed to keep our self-pleasure sessions quiet and secret, like “silencing ourselves or trying to be very small, quick and doing it in the dark,” says Weissfeld.

“At first this might be because we don’t want our caregivers or siblings to hear or discover us,” she explains. “Then perhaps because we don’t want our roommates or partners to hear us, and eventually we might be grown up and have kids of our own we silence ourselves for.”

While it’s obviously important to be respectful of the fact that the people you share your home or the other side of the wall in your apartment with may not want to be privy to your self-pleasure sessions, this continually reinforced inhibition can keep us from fully enjoying the experience.

“This is kind of like going to eat fast food in your car every day while trying not to make a mess,” says Kenneth. “Once you are at a nine-course Michelin-star meal, you might forget how to relax and actively enjoy your food. It’s important to practice enjoying your body some of the time so you don’t get stuck in a certain mode, unable to really enjoy yourself.”

Part of this comes from allowing yourself to be loud, or generally take up space you normally wouldn’t when you’ve been hardwired to approach masturbation like a dirty secret.

“Learn to be louder, take up more space,” says Weissfeld, who adds that the act of producing sound can actually have a physical effect on the erotic experience. “Allow yourself to make sound on the exhalation of breath and to moan deeply in the back of the throat,” she advises. “This activates the vagus nerve, which helps move those feel-good chemicals throughout the body.”

If being more vocal isn’t an option, there are other ways to make masturbation feel more like an experience than a secret.

“Perhaps you’d like to dim the lights, or lie on a blanket that’s especially cozy and soft, or listen to some incredibly sexy music, or wear something that turns you on, or use oil that makes your skin feel slippery and soft, or add sex toys to your play, or take a bath, or simply pause in the shower to feel how incredible the warm water feels cascading down your back,” she suggests. “Give yourself permission to spend some time on you, and to notice and savor every little sensation that brings you pleasure while you masturbate.”

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