When people are addicted to processes like pornography use, it's because of impairment to the braking part of the reward system. Once the reward system gets triggered, people with these types of addictions find it very difficult to stop regardless of the consequences. This is a terrible predicament. It's like driving a car with no brakes. You know it's going to crash but you can't do anything to stop it.
The Neuroscience of pornography addiction
The area of the brain that appears to be impaired in the type of syndromes that pornography addiction falls under is called the orbitofrontal cortex. This area is associated not only with OCD but also with addiction. Impulsivity and impaired decision-making are the result of damage to this area of the brain that is important when putting the brakes on a behavior.
Sexual and eating compulsions can have the same impact on brain structures as drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine.
"I had great difficulty with my own colleagues when I suggested that a lot of addiction is the result of experience … repetitive, high-emotion, high-frequency experience. But it’s become clear that neuroadaptation—that is, changes in neural circuitry that help perpetuate the behavior—occurs even in the absence of drug-taking. Although it is possible to debate whether we should include substance or process addictions within the kingdom of addiction, technically there is little choice. Just as the use of exogenous substances precipitate impostor molecules vying for receptor sites within the brain, human activities stimulate naturally occurring neurotransmitters. The activity of these naturally occurring psychoactive substances likely will be determined as important mediators of many process addictions." --Dr. Howard Shaffer, Harvard
Pornography addiction is the result of natural processes taking over the reward system of the brain. The same pathways and structures are involved as when using illicit drugs. This is true to such an extent that in an interview with Science, NIDA advisor Glan Hanseon said this regarding the opinion of the head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse:
"NIDA Director Nora Volkow also felt that her institute’s name should encompass addictions such as pornography, gambling, and food. She would like to send the message that [we should] look at the whole field."
Pornography addiction isn't a moral failing
Pornography is a toxin within the environment. However, as it is a massive industry worth $100's of billions of dollars, there is a concerted effort to hide this fact similar to how the effects of smoking were hidden from society for decades in the name of profits. People addicted to pornography and food have had natural biological processes hijacked. While those with eating disorders aren't shamed and ridiculed and seen as moral failures, we haven't evolved as a society enough to extend the same objectivity to those with pornography addictions. The medical field and mental health field, including psychiatry, must catch up and treat and manage pornography addiction with the same compassionate, non-moralistic approach as bulimia and anorexia.
What are some of the effects of having a pornography addiction?
Just like how not everyone who tries a drug becomes addicted to it, not everyone who uses pornography develops a process addiction. This doesn't mean it's any less of a threat to society and individuals as a result. Simply because some people aren't affected seriously by using pornography, we shouldn't discount the effects that are now widely known. It's now clear that there are many effects of pornography addiction. As mentioned earlier, it literally changes the structure of the brain in areas that relate to decision-making and the brain's reward system. As a result, it can lead to escalating behavior just like other drug use. This escalating behavior can lead to job loss, relationship loss and even legal consequences. If you're thinking this sounds just like the consequences of drug addiction, you're right because they both impact the same areas of the brain. The same unhealthy stress coping mechanisms that people have with drugs and alcohol show up with pornography.
"Mainstream pornography sites are changing the thresholds of what is normal and I think it’s dangerous. Of course, most people can watch extreme porn and walk away but I don’t see those people. What we are seeing on a daily basis is the conflation of easy access to hardcore and deviant pornography and an interest in child molestation. The link is unambiguous." - Michael Sheath, principal practitioner at the Lucy Faithfull Foundation
Younger children are being corrupted by pornography and are actually becoming the largest demographic of perpetrators of child sexual abuse. Some people who aren't pedophiles and who started off looking at "just regular pornography" have eventually found themselves looking at Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) as the brain continues to crave a more intense "high." Children themselves are broadcasting their own abuse as perpetrators coerce them in their own homes. Yes, it's beyond disturbing and our society is doing little to stop it or change it.
How to cope with pornography addiction
The first step when dealing with a pornography addiction is to find deep acceptance of the situation. One has to accept that there is a biological problem in the brain. There is impairment to important brain structures and now one must accept it and learn to live in a way to work with it.
If the car you had to drive had a serious problem with the braking system, how would it change how you drive it? Would you drive like any other car? Of course not. Would you pretend that the problem wasn't serious and only have it in your awareness right before needing to stop? Of course not. You would be constantly aware and disciplined to the fact that this car is very difficult to stop. You would modify every aspect of driving to cope with the faulty brakes.
How to drive a car with faulty brakes
- Go slowly
- Leave a lot of space to react
- Avoid tricky situations
- Minimize driving
- Maintain full awareness of the damaged braking system
- Don't even consider being impaired with substances
How do these insights apply to pornography addiction?
Yes, we aren't cars, but it's a helpful metaphor for how we are the drivers of our bodies as we navigate the environment.
The slower we go through life, the more we can pay attention to our bodies, our thoughts, and emotions. We are a dynamic system and every part of ourselves is affected by not only the environment, but changes within ourselves. When we go too quickly, we lose awareness of the state we are in. By going slower, we can remain sensitive to stress, our emotions, and how our body feels.
Leave a lot of space to react
Going slowly is aided by also giving ourselves space to react if we're triggered. Giving ourselves space might mean leaving the house and going for a walk. It might mean calling a friend and keeping us away from the computer or Internet. It might mean putting our phones down and going for a drive. All of these are ways to give ourselves space.
Avoid tricky situations
Avoiding tricky situations means not tempting oneself. If you have a pornography addiction, it might be tempting to look at imagery that isn't pornography, but that will obviously start the addiction process. This is an extremely tricky situation that should be avoided just like you would avoid slick roads if your car's braking system was impaired.
Minimize being online
Since most pornography is accessed online, it shows wisdom to avoid being online at all. Just like it's wise not to drive a car with bad brakes, it's wise to not be on the Internet where temptation is a click away.
Maintain full awareness of the damaged braking system
Denial is powerful. We can convince ourselves of all kinds of things. There's a special kind of positivity bias that people have about themselves where they believe that situations that affect other people don't affect them the same way. This is a huge impediment when it comes to pornography addiction. Telling oneself that it can be handled and managed or just forgetting about it completely is a surefire way to end up in a spiral of use, shame, guilt and suffering.
Limit or eliminate substance use
Since the brain's decision-making center is already impaired by the process addiction of pornography use, it certainly won't be helped by drinking alcohol or using drugs. This isn't a moral argument. It's just a logical conclusion. If you need to maintain as much ability to keep your wits about you, diminishing them with substances will work against your recovery goals.
Get help with pornography addiction in Minneapolis
For those who live in Minneapolis, I help people with pornography addiction at my office. I am also available for teletherapy for those who live in Minnesota outside of the Twin Cities area. Working with me is confidential. I am held to strict ethical and legal standards so that we are able to build a relationship of trust. If you are ready to work on your pornography addiction, please [contact me](/Contact/).
My approach to treating people with a pornography addiction
I approach treating people with a pornography addiction in an individual way. While I have a lot of techniques and lenses to use, I need to understand the unique person in front of me most of all. I want to use compassion since many people have a lot of deep shame and guilt around their pornography addiction. I want to use patience since recovery from a pornography addiction is as difficult and fraught with challenges as other addictions like opioid use, alcohol use, eating disorders, gambling addictions, and other serious reward system impairments.
I might explore childhood using psychodynamic approaches while also using third-wave cognitive behavioral and more traditional behavioral approaches to facilitating insight, acceptance and change. Change is challenging and we will devote time to trying as many things as we can. Other aspects of life might need to be addressed so that one can have less stress and more meaning which will contribute to the support and motivation to change and to sustain it.
I will be your therapist and your coach. I will help you to make goals and also coach you to stick to them. If you are losing motivation, I will work to help you rediscover it since recovery is a lifelong effort.
Medications to treat internet sex addiction
As mentioned above, the brain's reward system is impaired by pornography use. Massive amounts of dopamine can be release by pornography use. Opiates in the brain amplify the effects of dopamine. A drug that has been successful at treating alcohol addiction and opioid addiction is Naltrexone. Mayo Clinic found that Naltrexone successfully extinguished compulsive Internet sexual activity
Learn more about pornography addiction
Fight the New Drug is working to bring awareness to the effects of pornography on individuals, relationships, and society using scientific evidence. They have 1000's of articles, videos and podcasts about pornography addiction, the pornography industry, human trafficking and more. This web site is a tremendous resource to educate yourself about pornography addiction within a non-religious, science-based forum.