Have you lost interest in your partner? Do simple pleasures no longer give you much satisfaction? Do you spend hours on the Internet looking at pornographic sites? Are you becoming more isolated and irritable? You may be suffering from pornography addiction. Internet pornography addiction has become a serious worldwide problem with devastating effects on individuals, relationships and the culture at large. It is widespread and may be more compelling than any substance we usually associate with addiction. In 2010, 47% of families reported pornography to be a problem in their homes. An estimated 28% of men watch porn on line at work. The average age at which a child first sees porn on-line is 11. 56% of divorces involved one person having an obsessive interest in 'adult' websites. Young males are particularly vulnerable, though it crosses age and gender lines. It can cause brain changes, relationship ruptures, isolation, self harm, loss of motivation, and huge amounts of wasted time. It is free, available 24/7, offers endless novelty, and is easily kept secret. Moral arguments that shame users and 'sex friendly' attitudes that dismiss or minimise the negative effects miss the point and worsen the problem. Fortunately, the brain is resilient and one can recover from this addiction, but it can take time, cause serious discomfort, and take lots of support.
Why is internet pornography so addictive? It starts with the reward centers in the brain. These reward centers are designed to reinforce us for finding food, sex, and security in particular. Although other neurochemicals are involved, the main hormonal player in the sex drive is dopamine. Dopamine surges are the barometers by which the brain determines the value of an experience. Dopamine is responsible for the seeking and drive for pleasure more than the source of satisfaction. This seeking has been crucial in keeping our species alive and reproducing. Internet pornography stimulates dopamine production in a way that pornographic magazines or even real sex can not compete with. The brain is thus telling us that this type of pornography is more important to our survival and the passing on of our genes than real sex.
How could this be? Internet pornography is like a perfect dopamine producer. Each time we click to a new image, we are getting new squirts of dopamine because not only are the images provocative, but the variety of erotic images and activities are extremely compelling to the male brain. Our brain's reward centers are flooded with dopamine which can eventually lead to the brain protecting itself from excess by decreasing our responsiveness. This is called 'desensitization'. Desensitization can result in not being turned on by real people, not appreciating everyday pleasures, depression and isolation. The brain remembers those earlier experiences of super pleasure involving not just dopamine but internal opioids. These body memories create powerful cravings that can be triggered very easily. This is called 'sensitization' and is what makes porn addicts so susceptible to relapse.
Another effect of chronic internet pornography use is called 'hypofrontality'. Brain scans show an actual shrinkage of the gray matter in the prefrontal cortex of chronic porn users. This part of the brain is responsible for impulse control. So now the user can become super-sensitive to any type of trigger, creating powerful cravings which call for more variety, and a search for sites with more extreme behaviors. Meanwhile the user's capacity to inhibit these impulses is greatly diminished and daily life and real people are becoming less and less interesting. No wonder that depression, anxiety, lack of motivation, isolation and self harm correlate strongly with heavy pornography use.
Although one can feel helpless and despairing in the face of this addiction, many people have been able to stop using porn and reclaim their lives. For most addicts, this starts with stopping the use of pornography completely. This has been called 'rebooting' your rewards center. In time, your brain can regain its sensitivity so you can enjoy everyday pleasures again, reduce the intensity of the cravings, reestablish will power, and reduce one's susceptibility to acting out under stress. At first, life may feel flat, and interactions with real people might be very unsatisfying. Over time, this will change. Education (I suggest reading Your Brain on Porn), exercise, support, relaxation techniques, and socializing are crucial. Therapy, group participation with others in recovery, mindfulness practices, and spirituality that fits you can be extremely helpful. Recovery can take months to a few years before one feels confident in not relapsing. But eventually when dopamine and other body chemicals become more regulated, sexual attraction, socializing, clarity of mind, sensual responsiveness, and feelings of well-being and aliveness can begin to find you again. With severe depression or anxiety or with serious suicidal thoughts, be sure to seek help from a mental healthcare practitioner.
Jim Cunningham, LMFT, practices body oriented psychotherapy in Grass Valley and is a certified facilitator for 'The Living Inquiries', a method or working with anxiety, depression and compulsion/addiction.
RESOURCES: "Your Brain on Porn", by Gary Wilson (2015) is available from Amazon and through "yourbrainonporn.com".