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"What Causes Pornography Addiction?" by Floyd Godfrey, LPC, CSAT

There isn’t one single cause for pornography addiction.  However, there are three different aspects of the addiction that influence its development.  Likewise, these areas must be considered when developing a treatment plan that will be effective long-term.

The first aspect involves biochemistry.  There are specific combinations of hormones and neurotransmitters released into the bloodstream when using pornography compulsively.  Unlike substance abuse, this addiction involves chemicals your body is producing rather than ones you ingest.  It is nonetheless very addictive.  Over time your brain escalates the production of these chemicals to increase the ‘high.’ Once it gets accustomed to these levels, it will slowly climb upward in production to gradually magnify the experience.  Eventually the addict will require increased amounts of these chemicals to feel normal, which typically means increased use of pornography or perhaps new sexual experiences.

“During sexual process, the brain begins narrowing its focus as it releases a tidal wave of endorphins and other neurochemicals like dopamine, norepinephrine, oxytocin and serotonin. These ‘natural drugs’ produce a tremendous rush or high. When these chemicals are released during healthy marital intimacy… they generate [positive connection] between husband and wife. When they are released during pornography… [they produce] many negative consequences… in the brain and nervous system.”[1]

Most pornography addicts experience biochemical changes in their bodies which contribute to the addiction development.  Like other addictions, the addict will go through a period of withdrawal until their biochemistry can compensate and normalize.  This can take anywhere from 2-12 weeks depending upon the addict.

The second aspect of pornography addiction involves neural-pathway development.  This is when the body develops pathways in the neural makeup in correlation to the behavior.  Pathway development happens with everything we do in our lives.  When a child is learning to ride a bike, he will gradually become more skilled and coordinated as he learns.  This happens as his brain creates and then strengthens pathways to accommodate bicycle riding.  When an addict habitually uses pornography, pathways are generated that accommodate that behavior.

As the behavior is increased compulsively, these pathways become magnified and strengthened.  Like riding a bike, the more you do it the easier it gets.  Over time, these pathways become automatic.  In other words, upon the least trigger an addict’s pathways will automatically take him to the addiction behavior.  When fully addicted he won’t have time to think through it much.  His brain will instantly take him there due to the neural-pathways it has created.  “As early as 1949, the neuroscientist Donald Hebb claimed that neurons that frequently fire together form stronger linkages.  In other words, ‘neurons that fire together, wire together.”[2]

Most pornography addicts will be fighting the neural-pathways that have been created over time.  They must learn new coping behaviors which eventually can override the brain’s tendency to fall back into the old pathways.  The brain has to grow new ones.  This takes time, patience, and support.

A third aspect of pornography addiction involves emotional factors which fuel the obsessive nature of the behavior.  Some addicts become easy prey to the addiction when attempting to overcome emotional pain such as depression, anxiety or other mood disorders.  Examples of possible emotional pain could include things like rejection, betrayal, sadness, fear, trauma, abuse, neglect, loneliness or anger.   Whatever the emotional dynamic, the pornography becomes an easier way of coping with the emotional distress and pain.

Most addicts are also experiencing toxic shame.  Unlike guilt, toxic shame is destructive to one’s sense of value and confidence.  Toxic shame destroys inner strength and self-esteem.  Guilt would tell a person they did something wrong, where toxic shame would tell a person that something is wrong with them. Guilt would tell a person they did something bad, where toxic shame would tell a person that they are bad. Guilt would tell a person they made a mistake, where toxic shame would tell a person that they’re the mistake. “A shame-based addict feels flawed and defective in their very being. To feel that way is to feel hopeless.”[3] 

When a person is addicted to pornography, they will be fighting varying levels of toxic shame.  Often this toxic shame has developed over a long period of time. The addict will need to learn new ways of talking to themselves and uproot any shame messages that persistent unconsciously. This typically requires group support and individual coaching or therapy.

In summary, although there are many different contributing factors to pornography addiction, these three aspects of both cause and recovery are important: biochemistry, neural-pathway development, and emotional issues.  An effective treatment plan will include tasks within all three areas.

 

[1] Kastlman, M. (n.d.). The 'Brain Science' Behind Internet Porn Addiction. Retrieved April 14, 2017, from https://www.netnanny.com/learn-center/article/175/

 

[2] Horvath, T., PhD, Kaushik, M., PhD, A. E., PhD, & Cooper, G., PhD. (n.d.). Addiction Changes the Brain's Communication Pathways. Retrieved April 14, 2017, from http://www.amhc.org/1408-addictions/article/48372-addiction-changes-the-brains-communication-pathways

 

[3] Bradshaw, J. (n.d.). The Role of Shame in Addiction. Retrieved April 14, 2017, from https://www.themeadows.com/blog/item/152-the-role-of-shame-in-addiction