Pornography and Depression
For many people, experiences of depression seem to be linked to the usage of pornography. That is to say that for many people depression and porn seem to go hand in hand, and this can lead to the question of whether one causes the other, or perhaps if one contributes to the other.
Several psychological studies have been published seeking to answer this question, and there has been no conclusive evidence that porn use causes depression, or the opposite, that depression causes porn use.
Nonetheless, it is certainly true that for many people, the experience of depression is linked with porn use. If causality is not established, what are we to make of this high level of correlation for many people?
The Correlation of Pornography and Depression
To understand how porn use may be linked to depression, we must first understand what the person who experiences depression might be needing at that moment. All of us, when suffering with depression, need to rely on powerful coping methods to help manage, contain, or reduce the suffering we are feeling.
Coping methods for depression typically involves some of the following outcomes:
● Distraction — we can lessen the feeling of pain by focusing on something else
● Chemical Release — various naturally occurring chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin all help with the physical state of depression.
● Relaxation — Depression is often associated with feelings of pressure, stress, anxiety and guilt which can make it difficult to feel relaxed and calm. Activities which bring this sensation to us are helpful.
● Entertainment — The demotivating effects of depression can leave us feeling very bored and lonely. Connecting with something as simple as a source of entertainment can relieve this aspect of the suffering.
● Activating Feelings — Depression is often associating with feelings of numbness, mentally and physically. Activation and arousal feels good in these times.
Is Pornography Use Helpful or Distressing?
Perhaps the reason that pornography use and depression are so highly correlated in many peoples experience is because porn use is BOTH helpful and harmful. In this way, porn use partially relieves and aids in our relief from the feelings of depression, but in other ways may contribute to the underlying causes of our depression.
How can this be?
Porn can quite clearly be helpful in coping with depression when we consider it in relationship to the above list:
● Porn, sexual arousal, and masturbation temporarily alleviate the feelings of numbness.
● Porn is among the biggest sources of media and entertainment available online. It is a major, consistent source of novelty, entertainment, and distraction.
● Masturbation and orgasm create beneficial naturally occuring chemicals.
● Consuming familiar, predictable forms of media is calming.
● Porn and masturbation are relaxing.
Clearly, as a coping tool for depression it can be quite helpful! However, does porn use also contribute to depression in some way?
For many people, porn use can be distressing:
● For some individuals and cultures, the use of porn is shameful and leads to guilty feelings.
● Porn use is often something we keep very private, and if our use grows we can find that we are keeping yourself increasing isolated from other people.
● Porn can obstruct ordinary sex and intimacy making us feel increasingly disconnected and alone.
● Compulsive use of porn can make us feel out of control, undisciplined, pathetic or many other self-critical perceptions about yourself.
Because pornography is sometimes associated with these negative perceptions of self, it can also contribute to depression feelings. When we feel inadequate, isolated from the world, ashamed or guilty, or perhaps helpless and hopeless against our compulsive behaviours, these are all emotional triggers for depression feelings.
Pornography as a Compulsive or Addictive Behaviour
For many people, depression leads to compulsive and addictive behaviours. This is for good reason: when we are suffering more than we can handle, we look for anything that will help relieve those bad feelings. And sometimes we can get “hooked” on whatever we find that seems to work best.
We can become dependent or addicted to both healthy and unhealthy things. Dependence is not inherently wrong or bad. Many people, for example, are “addicted” to healthy exercise and they feel out of sorts if they don’t get their normal workouts in.
Compulsive and addictive behaviour becomes particularly distressing when we feel out of control with it, or when we feel ashamed by our chosen strategy. They also become distressing if the behaviour is actively harmful: unfortunately, some of the most powerful things which can give us a temporary state of calm, or relaxation, or peacefulness can be very destructive in the long run. Drugs and alcohol are a primary example of things that provide satisfying temporary benefits at the risk of longer term problems.When navigating pornography and depression it can be useful to understand the severity of your porn use, and to determine if it has started to feel compulsive or addictive.
Pornography as a Worldview
Another way that pornography can be particularly harmful and can have an interaction with depression feelings is when the strange, artificial, and idealized version of reality which pornography promotes becomes internalized.
Most easily available pornography emphasized very particular types of bodies and very specific styles of sexual arousal and activity. The bodies and behaviours in pornography are exagerated, detached, and sometimes violent. If we come to believe that this is representative of ordinary attraction, sex, and connection this can be particularly harmful.
Seeing porn as representative of real life can lead to feelings like:
● Inadequacy: We don’t look or act like the objects of attraction in porn.
● Hopelessness: We can feel that since we don’t look or act that way, we won’t be attractive to others, there’s nothing we can do about it since we can’t change the basic anatomy of our bodies.
● Loneliness: We can feel that if that is how people connect, we will be left lonely and without sex or partnership.
● Afraid: We might also see that much of the detached and aggressive sexual behaviour in pornography is very different than the caring intimacy we might desire, and we can become afraid of what sexual attraction and fulfillment really looks like.
● Disgust: If we believe that the type of sexuality in pornography is what people around us all want from us, we may feel feelings of anger or disgust, and wish to step away from this manner of sexualization.
● Sexualization: We may learn to view ourself and our own body through an entirely sexualized lens, instead of with all the complexity of real human life.
Many of these understandings of the world can lead to feelings of shame, anger, disconnection, etc, which can be the cause of depression.
What To Do about Pornography and Depression?
Because there’s no clear, general direction of causality between these two the journey of understanding and healing will be different for everybody.
Some key questions to better understand the relationship between you, your depression, and your pornography use are the following:
● How does porn help me? Does it give me feelings of entertainment, distraction, or relaxation? Does it fill my time in an easy, safe way? Does it give me a feeling of aliveness amidst numbness or dullness or fogginess?
● How does porn hurt me? Does it give me feelings of shame or guilt, or isolation and disconnection? Does it emphasize the feeling of unmet desires in life? Does it affect how I view myself, others, or the world?
● Does porn use feel out of control? Is it compulsive or addictive?
Therapy, of course, can help to answer these questions. By bringing this set of questions to your therapist, you can give your conversation a framework to understand the interaction between pornography and depression.
Perhaps you’ll find that porn has been a useful coping tool for a depression that is caused somewhere else. Perhaps you’ll find that the use of porn itself has played a role in creating depression feelings. Perhaps the interaction between the two is something in between, that you can learn to navigate better by understanding the specifics of your own situation.
The Nightingale Take
At Nightingale, we start with your personal experience of pornography and depression and learn from you how they interact. Rather than relying solely on research which tells us general connections, we listen to find out from you in just what ways these interact.
Because we take a completely non-judgemental approach (we are a sex-positive clinic) we are able to explore the use of porn without cultural or personal stigmas that may be associated with it elsewhere. This opens the door to discuss honestly the feelings, emotions, reactions, and behaviours which characterize your use of porn.
By working collaboratively with you to understand your situation, we can learn about where change might be useful and how to implement it. Some examples of change might be:
● Learning about alternative coping strategies which do not also contribute to your depression.
● Making new meaning about your use of porn to remove the parts of that experience which contribute to depression.
● Treating the depression more directly, removing the need for powerful coping strategies like pornography use.
● Discuss how pornography influences our identity, or the picture of the world, Others, sexuality, etc.