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FEATURE — As harmless or neutral as internet pornography can seem, it changes brains, body chemistry, moods, motivation and sexual function, and by many scientific opinions, it’s easily one of the most addictive behaviors. It’s been found to be a massive contributor to relationship decline and divorce, it adds to the problem of human trafficking, and it’s responsible for young and old losing interest in connection, learning and life.
Pornography is tricky. It can have the appearance of being almost harmless. But for even the mildly addicted, it always takes its toll on the brain and body while it pushes behaviors, feelings and brain patterns away from healthy states.
To know how pornography addicts us, we start with our biology. Our bodies are hard-wired to be rewarded for doing the things that will preserve and perpetuate our species. So when we engage in activities like eating food or having sex, natural reinforcements of dopamine increase in our systems. Dopamine is a feel-good chemical our bodies produce, and while it is released as a reward, its main purpose is to help us remember the reason behind that reward so that we repeat the behavior. Because of this, dopamine is also the door to addiction.
When this reward system was created, our Paleolithic ancestors did not have the life span or population sources we have today. When they came across a potential mate, they were strongly met with a dopamine reward for connecting sexually with a partner. Nature cleverly configured this feature into their wiring to perpetuate the species, and it’s still active in us today.
Since the majority of the pornography industry is male-centric, to understand the addictive component of porn, it’s also important to know the nature of the dopamine delivery system with the male sexual reproductive system. A man can ejaculate only so many times in any given time period with one woman, but animal studies have shown that if a new partner is introduced, the time it takes for recovery decreases and dopamine goes up, allowing his genetic line to capitalize on mating season. Again, this is nature’s ancient strategy for maximizing the number of potential babies, and it is the same for nearly all mammals.
Today, pornography viewers can see and imagine interacting with any number of new sexual partners, many more than ancient men and women would have even seen or known existed in their lifetimes. The issue with the internet is that there is no end; there are always more videos, novel bodies and sex acts to be viewed with dopamine hits available at the click of a mouse.
When we delve into the workings of porn addiction, we also have to take into account the very addictive nature of the internet in general. Our brains get little hits of dopamine every time we see a new picture, find a new piece of information or get a like. There are countless studies done on this subject that prove the addictive and dopamine-producing effects of swiping through even the most “vanilla” internet experiences. These tiny bits of regularly delivered dopamine doses program us to have very strong connections – even addictions – to our phones and the internet.
And there’s another facet that’s not often talked about: When human beings are sexually intimate, along with the dopamine, a little hit of oxytocin – the “bonding love chemical” – is also released. It’s not very talked about, but if a person has an orgasm while watching porn, on top of the dopamine hits, they are bonding to porn.
As the dopamine levels in the brain increase, dopamine receptors down-regulate. This means that normal activities won’t feel as great as they used to, causing an increase in the desire for high dopamine-producing activities, such as porn viewing, risky living or doing drugs.
As the behavior continues to increase, DeltaFosB, the “binge” chemical, pops into the hormone cocktail party, and here’s where we see the strongest structural changes in the brain, particularly in the prefrontal cortex.
The effects of porn addiction look like this:
- Numbed pleasure response. Everyday pleasures don’t feel as enjoyable.
- Hyper-reactivity to porn. Even a swimsuit ad can set off strong cravings for porn.
- Willpower erosion. This also includes a lack of motivation.
- Decrease in decision-making skills. Poor decisions are made more easily.
- Erectile dysfunction. Sex is less enjoyable.
The biggest question that my clients and their family members want to know is this: Will their brains, mannerisms and sexual responses return to the pre-pornography state? The answer is yes! Luckily, our brains have plasticity, and a brain that changed to become addicted can change to become healthy again.
When it comes to pornography, the best treatment to reverse damage in the brain caused by addiction is complete abstinence from porn and from thinking about any accompanying sexual imagery. But for even short-term users, quitting cold turkey can be challenging. The fastest transition out of cravings will be to change neural pathways and begin to associate pornography use with negative feelings, which is something that’s most quickly done in deeper states of consciousness, making hypnotherapy a fantastic tool for those looking to cut down the desire for pornography immediately.
Often, there’s a deeper reason for the addiction that needs to be resolved: depression, anxiety, relationship troubles or old trauma that needs some healing. These things can also be dealt with in hypnotherapy or in group therapy settings or with a behavioral cognitive therapist.
As therapy clients feel the ability to be free from pornography and notice cravings drop and willpower grow, just like others who’ve taken part in pornography abstinence studies, they’ve reported happier relationships, higher motivation and productivity, better social connections, better sex lives and increased overall happiness and life satisfaction. Healing the mind, spirit and body is a beautiful process.
If I can help you or a loved one solve the issues of pornography, sex addiction or betrayal trauma, please text or call my office at 435-429-2560 to set up a consultation, or visit BalancedModernHypnotherapy.com to learn more or make an appointment.
Written by ERIN DEL TORO, clinical hypnotherapist with Balanced Modern Hypnotherapy.
This article was originally published in the March/April 2022 issue of St. George Health and Wellness magazine.
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