Many hold the opinion that people become addicted to pornography because they are weak, lack moral fiber, or have zero self-discipline. Destructive labels such as these make it more difficult for those with addictions to seek porn addiction treatment. It is therefore important to understand the nature of pornography addiction.

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What Is Porn Addiction?

Porn addiction is a behavioral or process addiction similar to gambling addiction, food addiction, or gaming addiction. A person who is addicted to porn engages in the behavior compulsively, despite the negative consequences it brings into his or her life. The act of viewing porn gives a rewarding “high” while engaging in the activity, but the addict may later feel guilty, remorseful, anxious, or overwhelmed by the addiction when not viewing porn.

Someone with a porn addiction may compromise other areas in life just to be able to view porn. An addict will spend excessive amounts of time and money viewing porn and neglect other important activities like work, eating, and sleeping. He or she may be hiding the behavior and lying about it to their loved ones. And, while an addict may have strong cravings to view porn, he or she may wish to stop the behavior.

The Chemistry of Addiction

All addiction can be characterized as a hijacking of the brain’s reward system. The human brain is designed to reward us for activities that help us survive and succeed in life. It does this primarily with a chemical called dopamine—a hormone that both makes us feel good and motivates us to seek out the thing or activity that made us feel good. Dopamine release constitutes a “high,” and we experience it when we eat good food, laugh at a joke, engage in sexual activity, or achieve the aptly-named “runner’s high.”

Why are people addicted to porn? It’s in large part due to this dopamine reward.

In the normal pattern of reward, we perform an activity that makes us feel good, our brain rewards us with dopamine, and then begins building memories of where that good feeling and dopamine release came from. In the future, we seek out those things that gave us a dopamine high in the past and repeat them. This is how we develop habits, preferences, and hobbies.

Porn And The Brain

The problem lies in how some substances and activities can overload this system. When something produces an unusually strong or reliable dopamine release, we build stronger memories and stronger cravings to repeat the experience. The reliability, speed, and intensity of the release of dopamine influence the likelihood you will develop an addiction. This is how, for instance, a heroin addiction works—the mood-altering substance floods the system with dopamine, overloading it and creating a powerful memory.

The same thing is happening when viewing pornography, except unlike taking a pill, the release is immediate. That immediacy of the high overrides the normal reward system and teaches it to prioritize that activity over other less efficient highs. After the dopamine wears off, the brain remembers where the high came from; in the event of reminders (called “cues”) or stress and negative emotions, the memory kicks in and teases the reward center with a taste of dopamine, promising more in the event of indulgence.

The brain, however, is not designed to handle the immediate, high levels of dopamine that these kinds of behavior generate, and starts trying to “turn down the volume” on them, either by producing less dopamine or by removing dopamine receptors. This results in tolerance, which necessitates more intense indulgence at higher volumes to achieve the same high.

As the cycle continues, the addiction builds a block between the reward center and the judgment center of the brain, inhibiting the mind’s ability to tell itself “no.” So the part of the brain that usually tells a starving man not to eat poisonous berries loses the capacity to interfere with any efficacy, and the reward cycle operates on autopilot. Eventually, the addict is left without the ability to walk away from their addiction on their own, regardless of the harm it inflicts on themselves, or others.

To Learn More About the Brain and Porn Addiction:

  • Talk with an expert like a therapist or recovery center.
  • Read scholarly articles in science magazines and online from reputable sources.
  • Learn more from sites like who talk about the impact of porn addiction on the brain.
  • Talk to a physician about dopamine and other brain chemicals.

Takeaways: Addictions form because of a chemical reaction in the brain involving dopamine. Dopamine is a feel-good chemical that releases as a reward. The more used to a behavior we become, though, the more of that behavior it takes to get the dopamine reward. Thus, addictions form.

Why is Porn Addiction a Brain Disease?

Like all addictions, porn addiction has a significant impact on the brain. The compulsion to watch pornography causes a chemical reaction in the brain, producing high levels of dopamine. These chemicals bring pleasure and stimulation when viewing pornography, but the brain requires more pornography over time in order to feel the same sense of pleasure. This causes changes in the brain that can reduce the ability to control impulses and rationally think through bad decisions.

Viewing pornography activates the same brain networks as drinking alcohol or doing drugs. Therefore, those who are consistently using pornography experience similar effects to those of drug use. The brain changes caused by porn addiction can be reversed, but it may take professional intervention and dedicated effort.

Can Porn Really Be an Addiction?

Is it possible to be addicted to porn? While there has been significant anecdotal evidence for years, organizations like the APA still have yet to include pornography addictions in their lists of behavioral addictions. Most cite a lack of research as the reason, despite acknowledgment of the harmful effects porn is clearly having on members of the populace. New studies, however, are beginning to turn the tide in the debate, and are beginning to prove what we’ve known all along.

first-of-its-kind study published in September 2013 by the University of Cambridge demonstrates the role of memory when it comes to pornography addiction. Through MRI scans, it was discovered that when compulsive pornography viewers are exposed to porn, their brains “light up” and become stimulated in the same way as an alcoholic who sees an alcohol advertisement.

The fact is, our bodies and minds are designed to be rewarded for sex, and sex-related activities. Porn hijacks the reward system in the same ways that drugs, alcohol, and gambling do, and thus create the same kinds of dysfunction, with the same kinds of ramifications for the addict’s life. Just as an alcoholic risks losing friends, spouses, jobs, and more from their condition, a porn addict risks losing the same things due to their loss of control.

Steps to Take If You Feel You May Be an Addict:

  • Analyze your behavior patterns and look for signs of addiction.
  • If you find yourself fixating on porn or viewing it compulsively, seek help.
  • Gather a trusted support group.
  • Admit your addiction and ask for help.
  • Always seek help before the situation escalates.

Takeaways: Though just recently recognized as an official addiction, porn hijacks the pleasure center in the brain and causes harmful effects, just like other addictions. Porn can be a difficult addiction to overcome because many in pop culture do not recognize the problems associated with porn use and don’t recognize it as a real addiction.

Why Is Porn So Addictive?

What causes porn addiction and why do people get addicted to porn? Pornography can be very addictive for some people because of the way it induces high levels of dopamine in the brain, similar to the way drugs and alcohol produce a “high” when engaging in the activity. Those who view excessive amounts of porn can become desensitized to this high, which requires them to view more porn or more explicit porn to get the same dopamine hit.

How the Addiction Escalates

The excessive amount of dopamine that floods the system when viewing pornography overwhelms the receptors in the brain. How does the brain cope? Over time, it produces less dopamine or gets rid of dopamine receptors altogether. A tolerance is developed, so to speak, making it harder to get the same “high.” This can lead to a person feeling compelled to expose themselves to pornography more and more just to get the same effect, in spite of any associated pain or guilt.

However, with desensitization, one also runs the risk of not only needing more, but also requiring different stimulation. This opens the door to a host of other possible problems, such as sexual dysfunction with a partner, or the need to act out extreme scenarios inspired by the pornography one has viewed. The risks involved are real, and the condition only gets worse over time. The problem is, without external assistance, an addict has little hope for a successful recovery.

How to Avoid Developing a Porn Addiction:

  • If you find yourself thinking about watching porn when your focus should be elsewhere (like at work), consider that a red flag.
  • If you find it difficult to become sexually interested in your partner, or find yourself replaying porn in your mind during sex, that’s a red flag.
  • If you realize you’re watching porn more often than you used to, that’s a red flag.
  • If you see any red flags, determine whether you’re able to walk away from porn, or whether the addiction is already too strong.

Takeaways: Like all addiction, a harmful pornography habit starts little by little. Desensitization often accompanies porn addiction and that desensitization can lead to several harmful side effects.

Identifying Addiction

Identifying a porn addict is similar to identifying those addicted to other habits. Do they seek pornography compulsively, to the exclusion of other activities and responsibilities? Have they lost interest in old hobbies (especially intimacy with their partner)? Do they regard themselves with derision, considering themselves unworthy of love or admiration?

Other indications include denial, secretive behavior, an insistence that indulgence could be ceased at any time, and anger or irritation at the mention of the subject. Addiction is frequently accompanied by symptoms of depression and anxiety, including insomnia, change in eating habits, low self-esteem, and even attempts at self-harm.

It’s important to understand that, with any addiction, being a user and being an abuser are two different things. Biology has a significant impact on the propensity for addiction, accounting on average for half of the vulnerability to developing a problem, with environmental factors, peer pressure, upbringing, and other concerns making up the other half.

Whatever self-control an addict had available to exert at the beginning is quickly diminished, leaving them trapped in a cycle of self-loathing that most try—repeatedly and unsuccessfully—to break. Beyond all else, a sense of compassion for individuals who often want to quit porn but can’t is critical to helping aid recovery.

Signs of an Addiction:

  • Denial
  • Secretive behavior
  • Anger or irritation at the mention of porn
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Change in eating habits
  • Low self-esteem
  • Self-harm

Steps To Take To Get Help For Your Loved One:

  1. Approach them about the problem
  2. Work on a plan of action together
  3. Get professionals involved
  4. Continue to work on a treatment plan with professionals

Takeaways: If your loved one begins to exhibit signs of a porn addiction, act fast. Signs of a porn addiction are similar to signs of other addictions. When confronting a loved one, always approach them with love and compassion. Avoiding judgement is essential. If your loved one’s addiction ever puts them in immediate danger, involve the proper authority immediately.

What Is Considered Denial?

Denial often plays a big part in addiction and is the reason the behavior continues, despite all of the negative consequences that may come as a result of the addiction. When an addict is in denial, he or she ignores or refuses to believe the reality of the situation.

In the case of pornography addiction, a person might distract himself or herself, or forget about how he or she feels after viewing porn. This protects the addict from feeling the full pain and stress of his or her relationship with pornography. Denial also protects the addict from thinking about the future and how his or her addiction will affect his or her life. One of the first steps in recovery for any addict is to admit the problem and accept reality, with all of its negative consequences.

How To Help the Addict In Your Life

If a loved one approaches you about a pornography addiction or you find yourself suspecting a loved one of an addiction, always approach the situation with love and understanding. In the past you may have found yourself asking things like, “why are people addicted to porn,” or “how do people get addicted to porn,” but the truth is when it’s someone you love, how they got there doesn’t matter. All that matters is getting them help.

The road to recovery is not easy, and chances are that your loved one will need support, encouragement, and lots of understanding. Being supportive does not mean that you condone the addiction, it means that you love the addict more than you dislike the addiction. Separating the addict from the addiction also helps you remember that your loved one is still the same person, just with a very real sickness.

It is natural to feel hurt or angry about addiction, but remember to direct that anger in the right place. If you fail to separate addict from addiction, you risk misdirecting your anger at someone you love, instead of a disease that afflicts millions. Remember that your loved one is in no way bad or unlovable because they have an addiction.

How To Support An Addict Through Recovery:

  • Get educated through credible sources
  • Be compassionate and understanding
  • Reserve judgment
  • Ask the individual how they would like you to be involved
  • Lovingly hold the addict accountable
  • Approach relapses with kindness and understanding

Takeaways: Don’t let the hurt you feel harm your relationship with the addict. Helping the addict in your life can be done by small, simple, and supportive steps. Ask the addict how he or she feels you would be most helpful and go from there.

Self-compassion During The Recovery Process

If you yourself struggle with an addiction, you have to practice patience, love, and self-compassion. Sometimes it’s easy to fall into a trap of self loathing when addiction is present, but fight through—you are deserving of love and support. Having an addiction does not make you dirty or unlovable; it simply makes you human.

On the road to recovery, it doesn’t matter how people get addicted to porn or why—all that matters is that you push forward toward recovery. Because of pornography’s pervasive presence in modern society, this addiction can be difficult to overcome; but it is possible. With an eye fixed firmly on recovery, push forward.

As you fight through addiction make time for yourself and practice some of the following to cultivate a feeling of self-compassion:

  • Take up a new hobby
  • Spend time with family
  • Don’t close yourself off from loved ones
  • Journal
  • Find a new form of exercise
  • Meditate
  • Make time for relaxation
  • Read a book
  • Get out in nature
  • See a therapist
  • Join a support group
  • Be patient with yourself

Takeaways: One of the most important parts of addiction recovery is self compassion and love. When you make yourself a priority, you make recovery a priority. Find a self-care routine that works for you and stick to it. Your mind and body will reap the benefits as you seek treatment.

Seek Porn Addiction Treatment Early

The key to recovery from a pornography addiction, like any addiction, is getting help. Seeking support from loved ones, therapy, and potentially medical advice is all part of recovery. Porn addiction treatment varies from person to person, and it is essential that those who find they have a compulsion to view pornography seek pornography addiction counseling at the earliest possible moment. The sooner you begin the road to recovery, the sooner you can begin healing the damage done to your mind, and your life.

Here at LifeStar, we understand the first step towards recovery can be the hardest and you are not alone. Take a moment to download our free ebook, The First Step: Taking the First Step Toward Recovery, to start taking back your life.

It is not too late to start your recovery. Contact us today and learn how LifeStar Therapy can help you take back your life.

This piece was reviewed by LifeStar Therapist Dan Gray.