PMO is on the Rise

*This blog post was edited in January 2024 after the original was published in May 2020.

At the start of the COVID pandemic in 2020, many people were predicting that divorce and birth rates were going to increase, or even skyrocket, as a result of social distancing and people being at home. It’s impossible to know whether this will come true or not, only time will tell on that one. Interestingly, as of 2024, the statistics showed that birth rates declined during the acute phase of the pandemic (Scientific American article on this) as did divorce rates. Something that did increase during the pandemic (based on anecdotal evidence from client reports and some studies as well), is PMO.

What is PMO? In the Addiction recovery community, it is used to refer to ‘pornography-masturbation-orgasm.’ Essentially, it is a short-hand to refer to the triad of sex-related behaviours that people with Addiction are vulnerable to engaging with in an unhealthy way. People outside of the Addiction recovery community use this term as well and it is not specifically proprietary to the recovery folks. PMO in a problematic way (where it becomes obsessive, compulsive, impulsive, and disruptive to life) is more of a risk when there are higher levels of: Stress, opportunity, and/or boredom.

Check, check, check for stress, opportunity, and boredom for many people as they navigated through the COVID pandemic, but even after the pandemic these vulnerabilities still persist. Just because COVID is not at a pandemic level where it is consuming the news and all of our waking thoughts and behaviours does not mean that other stressors, opportunities, and/or feelings like boredom are not around in our lives. We are still seeing a high number of people seek support for compulsive sex addiction therapy Calgary, Airdrie, and virtually. Pornography creators might have pivoted during the pandemic and were creating material that was COVID-19 specific, with people wearing masks, gloves, and full medical attire but they continue to pivot and adapt to what is extra stimulating for the brain. Pornography at anytime, in any fashion is a huge dopamine injector for the brain and has an impact on our minds and relationship with self, sex, and others.

What impact does this all have on our brains? A huge one. Sex is driven by the reward circuitry of the brain and drives big releases of dopamine into the brain. Dopamine is what encourages humans to do ‘more’ of something. If your reward circuitry is malfunctioning and encourages you to do ‘more’ but does not tell you when to ‘slow down’ or ‘stop’ doing something, this is a problem and can lead to problem behaviours with many things. This is what Addiction is. Let’s try to erase those outdated notions that Addiction is just about substance use or it being about choice, willpower, or morality, because it is not. Addiction is a brain issue and must be treated as such.

If the brain is naturally driven to sex for procreation and this system starts to misfire, then this puts individuals and relationships in a risky spot. The brain is at an increased likelihood to turn to PMO even at times and with circumstances it normally would not. These behaviours can be used for escape, relief and intoxication as any other behaviour can be and, over time, the brain becomes tolerant of the existing stimuli and continues to seek out more and more intensity, which escalates the severity of the behavior.

When people are isolated, bored, and/or stressed, turning to PMO with self (or others for a sexual encounter) for escape and relief is a vulnerability. As in other blog posts where I talked about people’s vulnerabilities with food and gaming, the message is the same: All of our brains are vulnerable to misusing something that, in and of itself, is neutral. For those with Addiction or who are genetically at risk (which is many), it becomes even more likely that engaging thoughtlessly in these behaviours will put one at risk for relapse in the areas you have moved away from over time, or it can flip a switch on Addiction generally which can create many problems in life and relationships.

The bottom line is, that it is important to check-in on your motivation for engaging with something, including PMO. If the motivation is for escape, approval, relief, to ease boredom, for “fun” or stimulation, then this puts you at risk for using that behaviour in an unhealthy way that can create short and long-term problems. If the motivation is about connection, fulfillment, serenity, and well-being and you are engaging in a thoughtful and balanced way, then proceed, but still with caution based on that genetic risk as our brains can get overly attached to pretty much anything.

Treatment of PMO Issues

Wonder if you’re struggling with problematic PMO use? Some symptoms that indicate this are:

Difficulty expressing yourself

Not feeling heard

Relationship conflict

Frequent difficulties in relationships, whether that be with colleagues, friends, family, or romantic partners

Questions and confusion about sexuality and orientation

Being relationship avoidant

Bingeing on relationships, not feeling comfortable being alone

Using relationships for escape and relief


Sexual anorexia and/or bingeing/compulsion



There can be other symptoms too that are listed here. These can exist, as well as behaviour that feels unmanageable, out of control, more frequent than intended/planned/hoped, and/or there are have been consequences to your self, work/academics, relationships, and/or other parts of life because of this behaviour. The presence of 2 or more of these is an indicator that you may be struggling with compulsive sexual behaviour and may benefit from professional guidance and assessment to determine appropriate next steps.

Treatment of PMO Problems

If it is determined that you are struggling with compulsive behaviour related to your sexual world, treatment often involves prioritizing boundaries and/or abstinence with certain behaviours (such as abstaining from pornography use or even sexual activity of all kinds for a period of time to allow the brain a reset period), along with the increase and promotion of health related behaviours, such as:

Physical activity/body movement

Prioritization of rest

Proper nutrition and hydration

Time outside

Cultivating hobbies and meaningful interests

Spending time with other people

Giving back to others somehow

Connection with self, others, and spirituality (whatever that means to you)

Peer support through groups

Professional support

In therapy, people who struggle with PMO in a compulsive way often have deeper rooted issues with relationships stemming back to childhood, which may or may not include trauma. These experiences impact people’s sense of worth and esteem which has an impact on their relationships and confidence. I have found that healing these wounds can also be an important aspect of behaviour change.


Those who follow this blog may be thinking of me as a killjoy, taking all the ‘fun’ out of things that we use for that purpose. That’s not the intent at all. In fact, I have lots of fun in my life and encourage others to do the same, but escaping and finding relief is not actually fun. Being within yourself and connected to your life is fun. This is the benefit that is offered from recovery and healthy living.

If you feel that you may have issues with Addiction of any kind, we would strongly recommend reaching out to a healthcare provider in your area (doctor, therapist, crisis line, medical centre, etc.) and/or start a conversation with someone you trust to discuss options for treatment. In the thousands of people that I’ve supported over the years, I know that change, health, and recovery are possible and know that is the case for you too. If you happen to be in the Calgary or Airdrie area and are looking for support, please consider contacting us at Sana Psychological to be there along with you in your journey. We also support those in Alberta, Yukon, and New Brunswick through virtual consultation. Appointments can be booked online anytime.

Paige Abbott is a Registered Psychologist in Alberta, Canada. She comes from a family that has Addiction and found herself working, inadvertently, in Addiction Psychology since 2011. It has taught her a great deal about herself, her family, and the human condition. She is passionate about this area of mental health and has seen people revolutionize their lives through the healthy steps they have taken. It is amazing. Thank you for being here and please feel free to check out our other blog posts too or find us on Instagram @sana_psyc.