Plenty of people occasionally use internet porn – more than 70 million is a conservative estimate (Goldberg et al, 2008). It is now so easily available that, for many, a porn habit  begins young, with most users having seen pornography before reaching secondary school (Deem, 2015). For some, that’s the end of it, but many find it a helpful way to relax and de-stress, becoming regular porn users. Indeed, it is most commonly used on weekdays, often during the working day, with one in five mobile searches being for adult material (Covenant Eyes, 2015).

Unfortunately, the longer you spend searching for porn online, the more chance there is that you will become dependent. Under usual circumstances, sexual arousal is provoked by thoughts or images, but passes relatively quickly. Active stimulation also often culminates relatively rapidly in orgasm. However, prolonged sexual arousal, lasting many hours on a regular basis, produces feel-good hormones which make the body become more sensitised to arousal triggers and to crave more of them more often and more intensely.

Dopamine

The hormone dopamine is particularly implicated, as it causes the brain to remember pleasant and useful (to the body) experiences, such as eating, sleeping and sex, and ‘reminds’ you to do them again. Its release during sex can reduce anxiety and induce a feeling of well-being. However, its presence prevents the release of other feel-good hormones, such as serotonin (Kafka, 1997), and it becomes increasingly difficult to achieve a sufficient hit. Even when you reach the stage of hating your sexual behaviours, the high levels of dopamine in an area of the brain called the nucleus acumbens makes you feel the need to continue them. This is the same process that happens with  chemical addictions, particularly cocaine (Hilton, 2013).

The extreme release of dopamine is also thought to trigger a naturally occurring opioid, dynorphin, which neutralises the rewarding effect of dopamine, making the reward harder to achieve (Love et al, 2013). As time passes, dopamine release becomes associated with high dynorphin release, fooling the body into thinking it is experiencing dopamine withdrawal. With this comes the unpleasant effects of real withdrawal – anxiety, irritability, depression, for instance. Though these are clearly unwanted, craving nevertheless grows, trapping you in a never-ending cycle of compulsion.

Thrills and risk

Vasopressin is a brain chemical released during sex which increases focus and attention, which is part of the reason why internet use can steal time. It is so easy to become absorbed that hours pass without your awareness. Combined with dopamine, it is difficult to tear yourself away. The thrill of waiting to see what comes up when you click – even if the pause only lasts a millisecond – can create a hormone rush. The slight ‘risk’ that you may be disappointed adds to the excitement. Indeed,  many compulsive porn users also enjoy extreme sports and other risky activities, as well as often engaging in other behaviours compulsively – alcohol or drug use, shopping or gambling, for instance.

Chemical dependency and sexual compulsivity share many of the same features (Birchard, 2015). For instance, the very same neural pathways and the same areas of the brain are activated by sex as are triggered by drugs and alcohol (Ray, 2012). Eventually, the body comes to expect the hormone hit this produces. It is then interested only in short-term gain. The consequences of behaviour are not considered or are rationalised.

Brain changes

Ultimately, the brain is physically changed by repetitious learning, such as searching the internet for hours to find the perfect image (Hilton, 2013). Because some searches are more successful than others, and take more work than others, the variability makes the exercise more exciting and more addictive.

Moreover, the use of sex to manage boredom or stress can cause the brain to become sensitised to sex, so that sexual cues generate a more marked response. Indeed, triggers can start to operate outside conscious awareness (Reynaud et al, 2010: 265). As a result, the tiniest triggers can cause cravings.

Compulsive users often do not recognise that a problem is developing and reassure themselves that they are only using free porn sites, that they are entitled  to relax in any way they choose or that they are not involving/harming anyone else. Nonetheless, studies have shown that half of those who regularly use porn do develop problems, especially with relationships, work and school (Philaretou et al, 2005). It is social problems, usually involving work, study or friendships, which often cause people to seek help. However, problems with relationships may sneak up first.

You may find you are having less sex with your partner or even that it is becoming more difficult to become aroused with your partner. Some people then start to use sex workers to try to prove to themselves that they can still have partnered sex. But sex workers aren’t partners, and the experience contains the kind of thrills and risk that partnered sex never will.

Compulsion and dependency

Signs of a developing problem include spending a lot of time thinking about the sexual activity or porn, engaging in it or recovering from it, particularly if you don’t really want to or if it has become less pleasurable. Unsuccessful attempts to give up also suggest dependency.

Specialist help is normally needed to get over compulsive porn use, so it is worth checking your use to ensure you don’t reach the stage where help is necessary.  Or, if that point has been reached, it is important to get help as soon as possible.

There are other ways to destress –  make it your New Year Resolution to discover them.

 References

Birchard, T. (2015) CBT for Compulsive Sexual Behaviour, Hove: Routledge.

Covenant Eyes (2015) Pornography Statistics: Annual Report 2015. http://www.covenanteyes.com/pornstats/ Accessed December 29th 2015.

Deem, G. (2015) PIED, Reboot Nation. http://yourbrainonporn.com/content/extended-interview-gabe-deem-about-pied accessed October 20th 2015.

Goldberg, P.D., Peterson, B.D., Rosen, K.H. & Sora, M.L. (2008) Cybersex: The impact of a contemporary problem on the practices of marriage and family therapists. Journal of Marital & Family Therapy, 34, 469-480

Hilton, D. (2013) Pornography addiction —  a supranormal stimulus considered in the context of neuroplasticity. Socioaffective neuroscience and Psychology 3. http://www.socioaffectiveneuroscipsychol.net/index.php/snp/article/view/20767. Accessed November 19th 2015.

Kafka, M. (1997) A monoamine hypothesis for pathophysiology of paraphilic disorders. Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 26;4, 348-358.

Love, T. et al (2015) Neuroscience of internet pornography addiction: A review and update. Behavioural Sciences, 5, 388-433. http://www.behavsci-05-00388%20(1)pdf  accessed November 19th 2015.

Philaretou, A. G., Malhfouz, A. Y., & Allen, K. R. (2005) Use of Internet pornography and men’s well-being. International Journal of Men’s Health, 4, 149–169.

Ray, L. (2012) Clinical neuroscience of addiction: applications to psychological science and practice. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 19;2, 154-166.

Reynaud et al (2010) Is love passion an addictive disorder? American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 36;5, 261-267.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements