“Masturbation is fun,” says New York-based sex therapist Cynthia Pizzulli, PhD. “Thinking about what’s sexy is fun.” But despite the fact that we’re finally on the up and up when it comes to women masturbating, a lot of us still might have some deep-down worries when it comes to self-pleasure that can sometimes detract from the experience. “In this society, we really don’t socialise girls to be comfortable with the whole idea of their erotic response,” says Pizzulli. “From very early on, we teach boys that that’s a cool thing to explore, but we don’t do it with girls.”
So what better time than now to get a move on with that exploration? Plus, aside from just feeling good, masturbation has some real benefits when it comes to every aspect of your health. Here’s how it helps you—physically, mentally, and emotionally.
You’ll feel less stressed
We all feel physical or emotional stress—and masturbation can be a great remedy for alleviating some of that. “Masturbation is a great stress reliever,” says Alyssa Dweck, MD, a New York-based gynaecologist and author of The Complete A to Z for Your V. “It releases a lot of neurotransmitters, and there’s some muscle tensing and release that physically feels like a release.”
The release of neurotransmitters like serotonin (which calms you), endorphins (which help ease pain), and oxytocin (the “love hormone”) is what makes the experience of masturbation so relaxing, says Philadelphia-based sex therapist Jennifer Foust, PhD.
Setting aside time for yourself can be key to keeping masturbation in your arsenal of stress relievers. “After a difficult day interacting with people, it feels good to just encounter yourself,” says Los Angeles-based sex therapist Christine Milrod, PhD.
It improves blood flow
Other good news? With less stress comes better cardiovascular health. “The blood flow to the genitals increases when you have an orgasm because it fills the area with a plentiful amount of blood, and then it drains, so this is a good thing,” says Dr. Dweck. “It helps make the tissue more healthy.”
This is especially true of women who might be experiencing menopausal symptoms. When you go through menopause, sex can become painful, due to vaginal dryness(thanks to your body’s lower estrogen levels).
“I’ll have a lot of menopausal women who will come in and they’re having painful intercourse,” says Dr. Dweck. “I’ll often recommend that they use a vibrator and masturbate on their own and increase the blood supply and enhance the blood flow to the genital region.”
You figure out what you like
When it comes to improving your sex life—both for you individually and with a partner—exploration is key. “You cannot possibly know how to get from point A to point Z without actually exploring your arousal, and the only way to do that is through masturbation,” says Pizzulli.
Even if you’re not currently with someone, exploring what you like now helps keep those muscles engaged, so you can find what works for you before hopping into bed with a new partner. “It’s like anything—if you don’t use it, you lose it,” says Pizzulli.
If you’re just starting out with that exploration, don’t immediately jump in with touching yourself. “The first step to masturbation is the mind,” says Pizzulli. You have to start thinking about what’s erotic before you’ll reap those physical rewards. To start, try reading some erotic literature or binge-watching five movies that you think have really great sex scenes. “Then, if you feel aroused, then you might start exploring, how does it feel?” says Pizzulli. “If you touch your clitoris, how does it feel? If you touch your breasts, how does that feel while you’re engaging in this activity? And that’s a start.”
You’ll have better sex with your partner
Figuring out what you like on your own ultimately leads to better sex with your partner, says Pizzulli. That’s because knowing what you like before getting to it with another person helps you better communicate what feels best and what doesn’t. “When you know what kinds of touch you like and what increases pleasure, you are then equipped to teach your partner how you like to be touched,” says Foust.
You can also incorporate masturbation into your sex life with your partner by having him or her watch you masturbate, which in itself creates a lot of sexual excitement, says Milrod.
At the end of the day, remember that it’s you who’s really responsible for your orgasm. “Women really have to stop putting the onus on their male partners, or even their female partners, to give them sexual pleasure,” says Pizzulli. “It’s got to come from us. You’ve got to bring it. It’s not your partner’s responsibility to know what feels good to you, and if you don’t know what feels good to you, then you’re not going to be able to have good sex.”
Your sex drive will get a boost, too
There’s that old myth that if you masturbate too often, you won’t be sexually aroused with a partner, but “it’s actually the opposite that’s true,” says Pizzulli. “The more that you exercise that muscle, the more you’re ready to go.”
In fact, your body actually starts wanting it more when you masturbate often. “The more you engage in physical stimulation, the more you train your body to want it and anticipate it,” says Foust. “Your body essentially learns how to feel sexual pleasure and have an orgasm.”
Like all sources of pleasure, there can be too much of a good thing. If you find that your masturbation habits are interfering with your relationship with your partner or your day-to-day activities, that’s when it can become problematic, says Dr. Dweck.
But how much you masturbate will be completely unique to you, so long as that line isn’t crossed. It can be once a month, once a week, or even once a day to help you get to sleep. “Whatever it is, it’s what’s comfortable for that person, and something that is not interfering with their day-to-day life,” says Dr. Dweck.
You’ll just feel happier
The chemistry that’s involved in an orgasm has also been linked to decreased depression and anxiety, says Pizzulli. “We know that folks that suffer from depressive symptoms and also have anxiety have decreased amounts of the neurotransmitter serotonin in their brains, and there is a decent amount of literature that shows women who do masturbate regularly have a decreased likelihood of having those types of symptoms,” she says.
Masturbation also makes you feel better about yourself overall—especially for older women. “I have a bunch of older folks who masturbate who say it helps them feel youthful,” says Pizzulli. “It helps them feel sexy and reminds them of the things they find erotic, and that makes people feel good.”
This article originally appeared on Prevention US.