Does Watching Pornography Lead to Depression?

March 4, 2022

“The internet is 95 percent porn and spam.”

Margaret Atwood

Every second of every day, nearly 30,000 people are watching porn. Every day, 68 million people search for porn on the internet. There are also 2.5 billion porn-related emails sent each day. 

Pornography is available any time of day, anywhere in the world, all at the click of a button. It’s no wonder porn addiction is a rising concern among mental health workers.

True, porn addiction isn’t technically an official psychiatric diagnosis (yet). But that doesn’t mean people aren’t worried about it. While the bible of psychological diagnosis, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), has consistently rejected the idea that porn addiction is a certifiable mental health condition, porn addiction recovery centers are bursting at the seams.

It’s the age of the internet. People are increasingly having problems with the excessive consumption of pornography. This compulsion for porn is creating real problems, like social isolation and depression. Porn addiction is a condition impacting relationships, work-life, and more. 

Can we really ignore the connections between the problematic consumption of pornography and depression?

What is Porn Addiction?

“Porn is like sex without orgasm, compulsive without being satisfying.”

Clifford Thurlow, Cocaine Confidence

Everyone has an opinion on excessive porn consumption these days. Given that the DSM-5 and the American Psychiatric Association refuse to accept porn addiction as a mental health condition, it’s best to talk about this issue in general terms. It is still highly controversial among therapists, recovery centers, and addictions services. 

With those caveats out of the way, what is porn addiction?

Porn addiction is sometimes called a behavioral addiction or hypersexual disorder. Hypersexual disorder is a broad definition describing many types of excessive or problematic sexual behaviors. It is also often used as an umbrella term covering porn addiction.

Porn addiction is best understood as a behavioral disorder, also known as a compulsion. It’s likely not an addiction in the same way we understand alcohol or drug addictions. The research makes it abundantly clear that the brain of a sex addict and the brain of a cocaine addict operate much differently. So today, experts believe porn addiction may be closer to a gambling compulsion than substance use disorders. 

Why are porn addictions increasing in frequency? As a behavioral compulsion, the anonymity and convenience of the internet facilitate the action. Internet porn today is available in unlimited quantities, typically for free, in any category of pleasure you desire. 

What are the Signs of Porn Addiction?

Porn addicts exhibit compulsive behavior. With porn available through smartphones, work computers, and even through smart TVs, it’s remarkably easy to access and consume. 

If you already have a predisposition towards problematic consumption, how can you avoid sexual imagery when it’s everywhere online? Importantly, when does normal consumption slip into addictive territory?

What are some of the most indications of porn addiction? Here are a few common 

  • Strong feelings of guilt and shame following your consumption of porn
  • Lying about the amount of porn viewed to those around you
  • Watching porn in inappropriate places (public, at work, etc.)
  • Drive to watch increasingly violent or otherwise taboo content
  • Inability to reach orgasm without watching porn
  • Consistent ‘need’ to watch more and more sexual content
  • Social isolation and loneliness, possibly to hide increased consumption
  • Failure to stop watching pornographic material, even if there is a desire to do so.

The development of mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety

Are Pornography and Depression Connected?

Close Up of Web Browser - Red Porno Sign in Address Bar - Shallow Depth of Field

Did you notice in the list of common signs above that depression was listed? 

In a personal account, posted to a porn recovery organization, “J” detailed how intimately connected his porn consumption was to a long bout of depression. As he detailed, “The porn made me feel so disconnected and ashamed that I didn’t want to be around anyone, but instead dwell in the garbage that I just watched. Porn made me feel less human, but I kept coming back to it, it was my drug that gave me false pleasure.”

Problematic consumption of pornography and depression has a fascinating relationship, but one which is still poorly understood. 

Researchers are investigating why this relationship exists. Does one cause the other? Are they codependent mental health conditions? 

Several theories exist about how porn addiction can go hand in hand with depression. Some believe compulsive behaviors help people mask underlying depression, sort of like a coping mechanism. Others believe that people with behavioral compulsions may simply be more prone to other mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.

In “Depression, anxiety, and compulsive sexual behavior among men in residential treatment for substance use disorders: The role of experiential avoidance” published in 2018, researchers found evidence about the use of sex as a coping behavior. In the study, which examined the records of 150 men in addictions treatment, the authors discovered these men turned to compulsive sexual behaviors as an avoidance technique. They called it “experiential avoidance.” 

Another study, this time from 2012, worked with 157 college-aged male participants to assess their porn habits as well as mental health. Could porn impact their levels of depression, anxiety, or other mental health condition?

Among the wealth of exciting results, the authors “found viewing [of porn] to be significantly related to greater viewing problems, depression, anxiety, and stress as well as poorer social functioning.” Furthermore, the more porn watched, the higher depression, anxiety, and stress levels. 

What are the Psychological Risks of Porn?

Hand holding phone, touching porn application icon with thumb

Porn addiction does have intense psychological impacts, whether the DSM-5 acknowledges it or not. A quick google of “porn addiction recovery” and there are hundreds of testimonials, if not thousands, from people talking about the impacts the disorder had on their mental health.

Addiction or compulsion of any sort usually comes wrapped up in a complicated tangle of emotions. 

Need examples of the emotional toll it can take? Maybe you want to stop but can’t, which leads to feelings of shame, guilt, and anger. Or the more you try to stop, the more anxiety builds as you realize the extent of your problem.

As the behavior increases, it will likely begin impacting your life in all kinds of ways. Social relationships crumble as more and more of your time is eaten up by the consumption of porn. Social isolation and loneliness are serious concerns, which can quickly mutate into depression. 

Plus, porn can erode the foundations of your real-romantic relationships. As Virginie Despentes said, “Consuming pornography does not lead to more sex, it leads to more porn. Much like eating McDonald’s every day will accustom you to food that (although enjoyable) is essentially not food, pornography conditions the consumer to being satisfied with an impression of extreme sex rather than the real.” 

If the basis for real relationships doesn’t matter anymore, it becomes hard to have a meaningful connection with anyone. Romantic or not.

In a 2017 publication, titled “Pornography Use and Depressive Symptoms: Examining the Role of Moral Incongruence,” researchers talked about two situations connecting porn with depression.

First, the authors found that a person’s original moral objection to porn would predict the development of depression. For example, if someone thought porn was immoral but then viewed it, they would often experience depressive symptoms. This was typically only measured among men, not women.

In the second situation, if a person didn’t believe porn was immoral and consumed it in “the highest frequencies,” they also experienced the signs of depression. However, in this second situation, the researchers felt “depressed men likely view higher levels of pornography as a coping aid, especially when they do not view it as immoral.” 

What are the Signs of Depression?

Pornography and depression are completely intertwined with one another, it’s helpful also to understand the signs of depression. 

Depression is a mood disorder affecting more than 16 million Americans annually. Depression is often associated with other mental health conditions, like anxiety, bipolar disorder, substance use disorders, and behavioral disorders. Given more research and more acceptance of porn addiction, there may eventually be a proven relationship between pornography and depression.

According to the DSM-5, the diagnostic criteria for depression is the experience of five or more of the following symptoms within two weeks:

  • Depressed mood for more than 50 percent of the day.
  • Disinterest in activities, even formerly pleasurable ones.
  • Significant changes in appetite and weight
  • A slowness in thought and movement, which may be perceptible to others.
  • Feelings of guilt, emotional turmoil, and worthlessness.
  • Suicidal ideation
  • General fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating

What is a Healthy Amount of Porn?

As you dig through the resources on pornography and depression, you might notice two distinct opinions begin to take shape. The first postulates that there is no level of healthy porn consumption. The second opinion, which may not even believe in the concept of porn addiction, considers it a controllable compulsion.

What is true? Can you, or anyone else for that matter, keep porn consumption down to levels that can be considered healthy for mental health? 

From what we know right now, less is healthier than more. The more you engage in porn, the more distressed you can become. 

But it might not always be just about exposure. Truthfully, it may come down to the person viewing it and not the amount they are viewing. 

As with substance abuse, compulsive behaviors may be a genetic endowment. At the very least, it seems plausible that its a predisposition towards addictive behaviors combined with environmental influences.

The Journal of Sexual Medicine published “Profiles of Cyberpornography Use and Sexual Well-Being in Adults” in 2017. This study worked with over 800 adults to measure their “cyberpornography use” with their sexual well being. They used online reporting to ask questions about sexual satisfaction, compulsivity, and dysfunction.

Their assessment found three clear types of porn users, including recreational, distressed, and compulsive. Recreational users made up 75.5 percent, distressed or at-risk made up 12.8 percent, and compulsive made up the remaining 11.8 percent.

What does this tell us about healthy (or recreational) porn consumption? According to their analysis, the recreational group viewed roughly 30 minutes per week. The compulsive group watched 110 minutes per week – that’s almost a 200 percent difference.

What was very interesting about this study is the connection between compulsive consumption and increased sexual dissatisfaction and even avoidance. The researchers reported poor emotional regulation and distress among compulsive users.

Unfortunately, this study didn’t question why certain people watched more than others. It could be genetics. It could be environmental influences. It could be something else entirely. But this study does show a correlation between excessive pornography and depression-like symptoms. 

8 Tips for Overcoming a Porn Addiction

Young sad man sitting in the dark room.

1. Acknowledge The Problem

The first step to address any compulsion, whether it’s gambling or porn addiction, is to acknowledge your usage is too much. This stage can be extremely emotional as you come to terms with its impact on your life. Be gentle with yourself during this period. Remember that pornography and depression can get mixed up into a complicated picture of mental health. If this very initial phase of porn addiction recovery leads to moderate or severe depressive symptoms, reach out for professional support.

2. Use Technology to Your Advantage

Technology may have made your porn compulsion always within easy reach, but you can flip tech to your advantage. Install strict parental controls on your computers and mobile app. You have several options like Net NannyCold Turkey Activity Blocker, and accountability options like Lion App.

3. Identify Times of Weakness

When do you gravitate towards compulsive porn consumption? Maybe it’s late at night when you are alone with your phone, or perhaps when you are feeling stressed out at work. There are very reasonable times during the day when the drive to watch porn is stronger than others. Pay attention to when you experience these emotions and write them down. 

4. Build a Bank of Alternative Activities

With a better idea of when and why porn creeps into your life, you can make an action plan. If you find periods of stress lead you to use porn as a coping mechanism, can you alleviate the stress before you reach the breaking point? Or can you create other distractions late at night? Build a little bank of alternative activities, which you can pull out of your back pocket as needed to avoid a spiral into the black hole of compulsive activity.

5. Reach Out to an Accountability Partner

Whether you find someone in your circle of friends or through an online support group, get an accountability partner. Check out the big community at Porn Free subreddit as one helpful and supportive resource. Check-in with this accountability partner daily. Talk about what worked and what didn’t. They will support you through the ups and downs on your road to recovery.

6. Appreciate the Small Victories

Have a good day? Celebrate! Make a list of both big and little awards for yourself to help mark the good days, the good weeks, and eventually the good months. Yes, there may be some challenging times, but progress is worth celebrating, no matter how small.

7. Get Help for Underlying Mental Health Condition

Because pornography and depression are so interconnected, it may be worth speaking with a professional about any underlying mental health conditions. Perhaps by managing the depression or the anxiety, the compulsions will also get easier to manage. A therapist will also help you navigate the emotional turmoil of a compulsive disorder and provide new skills to cope.

8. Strengthen Your Willpower by Supporting Health and Wellness

Did you know that willpower requires careful regulation? If you’re health and wellness are depleted, chances are your willpower is as well. Feed and strengthen your will power by looking after your mind and body with good foods, relaxation, and physical activity. You’d be surprised what a full tank of willpower can do for you.

What Does Porn Addiction Recovery Look Like?

Porn addiction recovery is controversial. In one camp, people treat it like an addiction complete with rehab facilities, 12 step programs, and celebrities coming out with their struggles. In the other camp are the APA, the DSM-5. Plus, a growing scientific consensus that porn addiction isn’t like a substance addiction. 

As per some of the latest neurological research, porn consumption, even when compulsive, just doesn’t show up in the brain like our conventional understanding of drug or alcohol consumption. 

In the Journal Biological Psychology, scientists at UCLA scanned people’s brains while viewing images as a way to monitor their brain’s response. They found no correlation between sexual photos and the addiction centers of the mind. 

Dr. Nicole Prause, lead researcher on this recent paper detailed for the Huffington Post, “This means that their brain was not sensitized to sexual images, which is important because every other substance and behavioral addiction show sensitization in the [late positive potential],” 

Treating porn addiction through conventional channels meant for addiction might be ill-informed or even dangerous. 

So what does porn addiction recovery look like?

Experts suggest a talk therapy approach using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy as a foundation. This is a mindfulness-based therapeutic approach based on six key principles:

  1. Cognitive defusion
  2. Expansion and acceptance
  3. Contact and connect with the present moment
  4. The Observing Self
  5. Values clarification
  6. Committed action 

Instead of working through twelve steps, maybe Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can help people in porn addiction recovery work through painful experiences. Learning the nuances of each of these six steps and implementing them in your own life can help you move out of the dark spiral of porn and into a rich and vibrant life.

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