The Unique Link between Pornography and Depression

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A rising concern over Porn Addiction is becoming grave. With increased in accessibility and easy availability of internet, there is a steep increase in the porn consumption behavior among people. Whereas, in the earlier times the institutional guidelines kept away the under 18 age group from the sexually explicit content, but at the current time this regulation is hard to maintain, since every individual, across all age group has access to mobile phones.

With easy access and exposure to sexually explicit content, individuals hardly know about the whirlpool of events it possibly leads to.  It begins with the loop of repetitive watching because of the stimulation and gradually the dependency increases to experience that stimulation. Users, at the initial time of usage, hardly are aware of the mental health implications of pornography.  

Porn Addiction And Depression

The relationship with pornography and depression are not direct and explicit. A lot of studies have failed to find out the direct link between the two, but there are a number of mediating factors, and depression is seen as a common mental health problem among the porn addicts. On the other hand, depression leading to pornography is also highly inconclusive.  

Although at times sexual activities and masturbation helps in elevating low mood as it increases the level of oxytocin momentarily, but sustainability of this is very low and occasional. Depressive symptoms decrease libido – meaning sexual drive (decrease in libido is one of the symptoms of depression) and there is marked decrease in sexual energy, so depression leading to pornography addiction is very unlikely and inconclusive. 

Mental health professionals across the globe have carried out numerous studies on pornography and depression, studied cases very closely, talked to the porn addicts, mapped their experiences deeply, went deeper to understand their mental status, their thought process and so on. What is emerging in the results is the causative link between pornography and depression. They tried exploring is Porn Depression real or does something like Porn Depression ever exit. But no empirical evidence were found. Excessive porn watching behavior, losing the sense to control to watching, is itself a mental health concern and excessive porn watching behavior leading to various other mental health issues are most common.  

Mental health awareness in developing countries is considerably poor. When it comes to mental health related problems due to pornography, awareness is further poor. The scenario isn’t very promising in developed countries either.  

Having a poor mental health awareness, most people do not recognize that excessive porn is related to mental health concern or could possibly lead to mental health issues. They see it separately; even true for common people in the society. Parents or relatives of a porn addict often have asked me “Why porn addicts are required to be taken to a mental health professional?”  

The most challenging point for a mental health professional in ‘diagnosing’ porn addiction is that porn addiction has not been recognized as a mental health issue or a disorder, although the clinical profile of a porn addict replicates and overlaps substance addiction, behavioral addiction, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder of sexually explicit content and so on. Possibly this could be a reason why mental health issues and pornography are seen separately; lack of mental health awareness fuels the ignorance even further.  

The initial Clinical Presentation of an individual with Pornography Consumption Behavior 

As a practicing Clinical Psychologist, the experience of dealing with individuals with porn addiction is highly complex. The first time an individual with excessive porn watching behavior seek consultation for therapy, their first complain is never about their porn watching behavior. They mostly report with complaints of difficulty in sleep, difficulty in attention and concentration, feeling lethargic and uneasy. These are most common.  

Apart from it some may report of low mood, anger spells, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, difficulty in maintaining intimate relationship, preference to stay alone, etc. to name a few but not limited to only these. As we probe into the difficulties, and therapy sessions progress, then comes onto surface the problem of porn watching. In the therapy set up, understanding excessive porn consumption is complex. There is a thin line of demarcation between porn addiction and compulsive porn watching behavior, although the common between the two is the lack of control.

Understanding the causative link 

The complex causative link between pornography and depression is multifaceted. It can be better understood by going deeper into the experiences of clients of problematic porn consumption behavior.  

Excessive porn consumption behavior does not just occur overnight. It breeds over the time, merely begins with experimenting at a young age, which now according to research is evident among children under 10 years of age. This experimenting stage paves way to more complex behavior of craving. As the use of porn consumption behavior increases, it gradually turns into ‘problematic category,’ where the individual loses the sense of control to watch.  

By now the individual feels a lot stimulated and craves for such stimulation even more. This problematic behavior triggers our neural system of the brain in a certain way. This neural trigger works in such a way that porn consumption is experienced as more rewarding, and this further reinforces the porn consumption and thus gradually it gets worse. In order to gratify the increasing stimulation, and maintain the rewarding experience, porn consumption behavior is increased manifold.  

While the individual gets completely engrossed in achieving this gratification, his/her lifestyle gets totally maladaptive. I have had experience of dealing with individuals of similar condition where they had given up eating, considering eating would consume their porn watching time. Disruption of sleep- wake cycle is most common in these cases, for obvious reasons- 1. Night gives easy and uninterrupted access to indulge in porn watching behavior after everyone has slept, and 2. Compulsive exploration of explicit content and masturbation and inability to resist consequent urges consumes a lot of their time at night, and hence they go to sleep very late. The disruption of sleep- wake cycle effects a neural chemical called melatonin which further disrupts cognitive functioning, resulting into various mental and physical health issues.  

Individuals with problematic porn watching behavior keep looking for opportunities to explore explicit contents when alone and thus always want to stay aloof, disrupting their social functioning and behavior. This takes them to a cave hole, away from loved ones, family members, friends and relatives.  

They often report feeling fatigue, both because of excessive masturbation and sleep disruption. They are unable to concentrate and pay attention- mostly since they are occupied with thoughts of sexual contents and masturbation and could also possibly due to melatonin disruption. Their day- to day activities get shattered, their socio- occupational functioning are highly disrupted. Deadlines are missed, procrastination is common since either they are fatigue or porn consumption becomes priority. Social life gets highly disrupted particularly for those who are married or has a partner. Sexual dysfunctioning due to pornography is not uncommon, and additionally hampers the sexual health of the relationship.  

By this point when the individual realizes of how things have been shaping in his/her life – of not able to live an adaptive lifestyle, socio-occupational functioning is disrupted, pending work are piled up over the head, haven’t been sleeping well, losing or distancing from loved ones- this hits a spell of low mood. The individual upon realizing what has happened to him while he was immersed into the sea of problematic porn watching behavior, triggers the series of depressive symptoms- experiences low mood, feels enormously guilty, develops negative thoughts about self, self-esteem is affected, experiences worthlessness, experiences difficulty in attention and concentration and so on. The spells of depressive symptoms are not just limited to this phase, it possibly gets severe in the recovery process. 

Recovery from problematic porn watching behavior or porn addiction is a difficult process with roller-coaster of emotions. It can be comparable to a de-addiction process of a substance abuse patient. While quitting from pornography problem, individual experiences severe difficulty in resisting the urge, often showing signs of withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms in porn addiction often replicates and/or overlaps with depressive symptoms. This is because failure and struggle are part of the process of quitting porn and as the individual struggles to overcome problematic pornography behavior they feel very pessimistic about themselves, experiences low mood, self- doubt their ability to overcome the problem, loss of motivation and so on. 

Based on a lot of research and my personal experience of dealing with clients of problematic exposure to porn as a Clinical Psychologist, we can say that depressive symptoms are commonly seen among individuals who indulge into problematic porn watching behavior, possibly not having a direct link between the two, but having a causative mediating link between the two. Often interestingly, it is because of these symptoms of depression, an individual with problematic porn watching behavior seek therapy, and not because of the porn watching problem; going back to the same vicious circle – of not considering porn watching as a problematic behavior.  

pornography and depression

(The article is based on certain cases reported and intervened at the clinical set up of the Clinical Psychologist )

American Psychiatric Association . 2013. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association. 

Mattebo, M., Tydén, T., Häggström-Nordin, E., Nilsson, K. W., & Larsson, M. (2018). Pornography consumption and psychosomatic and depressive symptoms among Swedish adolescents: a longitudinal study. Upsala journal of medical sciences123(4), 237–246. 

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