Many hold the opinion that people become addicted to pornography because they are weak, lack moral fiber, or have zero self-discipline. Destructive labels such as these make it more difficult for those with addictions to seek porn addiction treatment. It is therefore important to understand the nature of pornography addiction.
The Chemistry of Addiction
All addiction can be characterized as a hijacking of the brain’s reward system. The human brain is designed to reward us for activities that help us survive and succeed in life. It does this primarily with a chemical called dopamine—a hormone that both makes us feel good and motivates us to seek out the thing or activity that made us feel good. Dopamine release constitutes a “high,” and we experience it when we eat good food, laugh at a joke, engage in sexual activity, or achieve the aptly-named “runner’s high.”
In the normal pattern of reward, we perform an activity that makes us feel good, our brain rewards us with dopamine, and then begins building memories of where that good feeling and dopamine release came from. In the future, we seek out those things that gave us a dopamine high in the past and repeat them. This is how we develop habits, preferences, and hobbies.
The problem lies in how some substances and activities can overload this system. When something produces an unusually strong or reliable dopamine release, we build stronger memories and stronger cravings to repeat the experience. The reliability, speed, and intensity of the release of dopamine influence the likelihood you will develop an addiction. This is how, for instance, a heroin addiction works—the mood-altering substance floods the system with dopamine, overloading it and creating a powerful memory.
The same thing is happening when viewing pornography, except unlike taking a pill, the release is immediate. That immediacy of the high overrides the normal reward system and teaches it to prioritize that activity over other less efficient highs. After the dopamine wears off, the brain remembers where the high came from; in the event of reminders (called “cues”) or stress and negative emotions, the memory kicks in and teases the reward center with a taste of dopamine, promising more in the event of indulgence.
The brain, however, is not designed to handle the immediate, high levels of dopamine that these kinds of behavior generate, and starts trying to “turn down the volume” on them, either by producing less dopamine or by removing dopamine receptors. This results in tolerance, which necessitates more intense indulgence at higher volumes to achieve the same high.
As the cycle continues, the addiction builds a block between the reward center and the judgment center of the brain, inhibiting the mind’s ability to tell itself “no.” So the part of the brain that usually tells a starving man not to eat poisonous berries loses the capacity to interfere with any efficacy, and reward cycle operates on autopilot. Eventually, the addict is left without the ability to walk away from their addiction on their own, regardless of the harm it inflicts on themselves, or others.
Can Porn Really Be an Addiction?
While there has been significant anecdotal evidence for years, organizations like the APA still have yet to include pornography addictions in their lists of behavioral addictions. Most cite a lack of research as the reason, despite acknowledgment of the harmful effects porn is clearly having on members of the populace. New studies, however, are beginning to turn the tide in the debate, and are beginning to prove what we’ve known all along.
A first-of-its-kind study published in September 2013 by the University of Cambridge demonstrates the role of memory when it comes to pornography addiction. Through MRI scans, it was discovered that when compulsive pornography viewers are exposed to porn, their brains “light up” and become stimulated in the same way as an alcoholic who sees an alcohol advertisement.
The fact is, our bodies and minds are designed to be rewarded for sex, and sex-related activities. Porn hijacks the reward system in the same ways that drugs, alcohol, and gambling do, and thus create the same kinds of disfunction, with the same kinds of ramifications for the addict’s life. Just as an alcoholic risks losing friends, spouses, jobs, and more from their condition, a porn addict risks losing the same things due to their loss of control.
How the Addiction Escalates
The excessive amount of dopamine that floods the system when viewing pornography overwhelms the receptors in the brain. How does the brain cope? Over time, it produces less dopamine or gets rid of dopamine receptors altogether. A tolerance is developed, so to speak, making it harder to get the same “high”. This can lead to a person feeling compelled to expose themselves to pornography more and more just to get the same effect, in spite of any associated pain or guilt.
However, with desensitization, one also runs the risk of not only needing more, but also requiring different stimulation. This opens the door to a host of other possible problems, such as sexual dysfunction with a partner, or the need to act out extreme scenarios inspired by the pornography one has viewed. The risks involved are real, and the condition only gets worse over time. The problem is, without external assistance, an addict has little hope for a successful recovery.
Identifying an Addict, and How to Help
Identifying a porn addict is similar to identifying those addicted to other habits. Do they seek pornography compulsively, to the exclusion of other activities and responsibilities? Have they lost interest in old hobbies (especially intimacy with their partner)? Do they regard themselves with derision, considering themselves unworthy of love or admiration?
Other indications include denial, secretive behavior, an insistence that indulgence could be ceased at any time, and anger or irritation at the mention of the subject. Addiction is frequently accompanied by symptoms of depression and anxiety, including insomnia, change in eating habits, low self-esteem, and even attempts at self-harm.
It’s important to understand that, with any addiction, being a user and being an abuser are two different things. Biology has a significant impact on the propensity for addiction, accounting on average for half of the vulnerability to developing a problem, with environmental factors, peer pressure, upbringing, and other concerns making up the other half. Whatever self-control an addict had available to exert at the beginning is quickly diminished, leaving them trapped in a cycle of self-loathing that most try—repeatedly and unsuccessfully—to break. Beyond all else, a sense of compassion for individuals who often want to stop but can’t is critical to helping aid recovery.
Seek Porn Addiction Treatment Early
The key to recovery from a pornography addiction, like any addiction, is getting help. Seeking support from loved ones, therapy, and potentially medical advice is all part of recovery. Porn addiction treatment varies from person to person, and it is essential that those who find they have a compulsion to view pornography seek pornography addiction counseling at the earliest possible moment. The sooner you begin the road to recovery, the sooner you can begin healing the damage done to your mind, and your life.
Here at Lifestar we understand the first step towards recovery can be the hardest and you are not alone. Take a moment to download our free ebook, The First Step: Taking the First Step Toward Recovery, to start taking back your life.
It is not too late to start your recovery. Contact us today and learn how Lifestar Therapy can help you take back your life.