Sex Addiction: Why Porn Addicts Relapse

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Porn addicts relapse because their addiction affects the pleasure and reward centers of the brain. The addict has to continually engage in the addictive behaviors to feel anything.

Porn addicts tend to fall back into their addiction. This addiction to pornography is similar to drug or alcohol addiction. The desire to stop the activities or habits isn’t enough for the porn addict to overcome the power of the addiction. While it was once thought that addictive drugs altered the makeup of the brain, current research indicates that porn addiction and other “natural” addictions have a similar effect on the brain. The brain chemistry changes as a result of the bodies need and craving for the addictive substance. This is  what make is so difficult for people to overcome their porn addiction and get in and stay in recover. The brain chemicals and pleasure centers in the brain are constantly stimulated. This, in many cases, leads the porn addict to relapse. The help of a trained sex addiction therapist is the best treatment along with working a 12 step program of recovery and a deep personal commitment on the part of the addict.

The habit of using pornography slowly and methodically sneaks up on a soon to be addict until they become addicted. There are some stages of addiction that will help clarify what happens to the addict and how their addiction develops over time. This will help you better understand why so many addicts relapse in early recovery. According to Gene McConnell and Keith Campbell in “The Stages of Pornography Addiction”  on the Focus on the Family website, The stages are:

1.Early exposure. “Most men who become addicted to porn start early. They see images and porn when they are very young, and it starts them down the part to becoming addicted.

2.Addiction. “Then comes the addiction itself. The addict keeps returning to porn. It becomes a regular part of your life. You’re hooked. You can’t quit.”

3.Escalation. “After a while, escalation begins. The porn addict starts to need a higher level of intensity and needs more graphic porn. You start using porn that would have disgusted you when you started. Now it excites you.”

4.Desensitization. “Eventually, you start to become numb. Even the most graphic, degrading porn doesn’t excite you anymore. You become desperate to feel the same thrill again but can’t find it.”

5.Acting out sexually. “At this point, many men make a dangerous jump and start acting out sexually. They move from the paper and plastic images of porn to the real world.”

The above 5 stages, over time, alter the brain chemistry and the way is responds to the natural reward for sexual behavior. In healthy people, the brain rewards natural behaviors such as eating and sex with dopamine. This chemical is an important reward to enable survival of both the individual and the species. However, in addicts, the reward system becomes altered because of the over-stimulation of the pleasure and reward centers of the brain.

As Donald L. Hilton Jr., MD puts it, “When we overuse pleasure centers, the cells that produce dopamine are overworked, and in what may be a defensive reaction, the brain decreases the amount of dopamine available for use and also causes shrinkage in the cells that produce the dopamine in the frontal control areas. Paradoxically, the pleasure cells in the nucleus accumbens (the reward center) may actually enlarge in the addicted state because they have less dopamine available for pleasure and are seeking to extract every possible molecule.”

It’s not the porn itself that’s hard to overcome, it’s the process the brain gets hooked on.  The brain is essentially making it impossible for the addict to fight the compulsion to engage in the addictive behavior due to its craving for dopamine.

“Thus, in addiction, normal pleasures are not enough to alleviate the craving for dopamine, and this craving in the newly reset pleasure thermostat in the brain is likely key in the desire to relapse,” states Hilton.

Even the most committed people will struggle to prevent relapse with porn addiction because of this process within the brain. However, recovery from porn addiction is possible with the proper treatment.

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4 Responses to Sex Addiction: Why Porn Addicts Relapse

  1. I ve been with a man for 7yrs. Who is a sex addict (late stage) he looks at very hardcore porn , that is barbaric at best and owns A LOT of it, he goes to great lenghths to hide this serious problem. My question is / is it possible to have an addiction like this and not go to strip clubs, have sex with other partners or prostitutes, phone or cybersex when they also belong to many of these sites? Is it even possible? His addiction preoccupies almost all his free time,. Yet he swears he’s just looking and masturbating.. please, give imput on how this disease pans out. We no longer are involved, I’m curious.

    • scottv on at

      Thank you for your comment and question.
      It is possible to have a serious sex addiction in just looking at hardcore pornography. For some, spending all their free time watching pornography and masturbating is a way to medicate their feelings and to avoid the real life challenges they are experiencing. Different people respond to sex addiction in different ways. A sex addict does not have to to to strip clubs, have multiple partners or prostitutes. Some sex addicts will use some or all of the above mentioned “acting out” activities. Some will choose one and stick with it. Over time, a sex addict will find what they can hide best and use that form of acting out. For some the disease will escalate and porn sites will not be enough, they will move to other activities you mentioned; prostitutes, phone and cybersex, affairs, bookstores, adult theaters. For each sex addict, the addiction pans out in different ways. It depends on what’s available for that individual addict.
      Thanks,
      Scott

  2. AH on at

    This is completely accurate with what I am going through. I have had a whole lot of trouble with relapsing, and I am super paranoid of getting caught. I am a college student, and I live with my parents. I have avoided addiction programs in case they found out. But at this point, I am at a loss. I have trouble with porn and masturbation but I am afraid to get professional help since I’m a girl. Seriously, I am a girl. I can’t find anything specific to females online and even reading the article on this website doesn’t help. My emotions are all over the place and my boyfriend is worried about me. I can go a few days and then the urge hits me so hard that I cry when I am alone. I can only go longer than that if I don’t have access to the internet for at least a week, which helps to a point and then I slip up again. Can you help me?

    • admin on at

      AH,
      Your situation is not uncommon and you’re not alone. The fear of discover and exposure to a sex addict is at times what keeps the addict in their disease. It’s the secrets that fuel the shame and the shame that fuel the addiction. My suggestion, since you’re afraid to get professional help, which I highly recommend you do, is to start attending tele-meetings. You can dial in on your phone and attend the meetings. There are women’s only meetings as well. I highly suggest you get a few phone numbers after the meeting and find a sponsor. A female sponsor. Here’s the link.
      http://saa-recovery.org/Meetings/ElectronicMeetings/index2.php?timeOffset=-300

      You’ve taken the first step in the recovery process. You’ve asked for help!
      Let me know how else we might help…

      Scott

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