From the 28th October to the 4th of November marks Addiction Awareness week. There is such stigma and shame associated with any addiction, the key to unlocking this is to try and understand what leads a person to become an addict.
An addiction is more than just an intense interest in something. It is a medical condition that changes the brain and the body and causes the person to feel compelled to continue using a substance or partaking in an activity, even when doing so may cause harm.
Most research into addiction suggests that it activates regions in the brain associated with motivation and reward. Specifically, addiction alters the body’s dopamine system. When a person with addiction initially uses the substance or engages in the behaviour, they receive an intense rush of dopamine, causing feelings of pleasure and reward. Over time, their body may produce less dopamine and rely on the substance or behaviour to feel the dopamine rush.
The most talked about addictions are alcohol, drugs, gambling and porn, however I am seeing more individuals now who are finding themselves with addictions to eating, exercise, surgery, shopping and mobile phones whilst interacting with many different social platforms.
One topic of addictive behaviour that doesn’t get as talked about is pornography. Porn addiction, along with sex addiction, isn’t an official diagnosis recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM). That means there’s no definitive porn addiction criteria to guide mental health professionals in diagnosing it. The World Health Organisation acknowledged compulsive sexual behaviours as a mental disorder in 2018 - but even that acknowledgement doesn’t specifically refer to “porn addiction.”. It refers more broadly to sexual activities becoming a main focal point in a person’s life to the degree that they are neglecting their “health and personal care or other interests, activities, and responsibilities.” While pornography is harmless fun for some people, for others it can become an obsession that interferes with their ability to carry out daily tasks.
Because it has become so easy to access porn thanks to the internet and mobile devices (POPU - problematic online pornography use), more and more people are watching pornography. One of the biggest issues with pornography is the easy availability of it and the fact that people can be exposed to it at a very young age. Children and teenagers exposed to porn online may develop destructive addictions that can affect their lives as they get older.
Addiction to pornography is similar to other addictions in that it affects the way the brain functions. Those who get a thrill from watching porn may actively seek it out in the same way that others would with drugs or alcohol. Studies have shown that, as with other addictions, porn addicts develop psychological cravings for it and feel a strong compulsion to watch, even if doing so could negatively affect them.
As with all other types of addiction, a pornography addiction develops in stages:
Exposure – those who develop porn addictions tend to be exposed to it at an early age. They are quite young when they first start watching it, which can lead to a desire to watch more of it.
Tolerance – the more a person watches porn, the less likely they are to get the same thrill. The individual may feel that they need to watch more porn or more explicit images to get the same effect.
Dependence – after a while, the person starts to feel a need to watch porn and it becomes a regular part of their life. They cannot stop watching even if they want to.
Escalation – when regular porn stops being exciting, the porn addict may begin to look for more graphic or degrading porn. The images they are now watching could be images that they would previously have been disgusted with.
If you are worried that your pornography habits have become something more serious than a bit of harmless fun, ask yourself the following questions:
Do you watch pornography regularly?
Are you engaging in “risky” behaviours to watch it, like doing it at work or in public.
Are you spending more time watching porn than you used to or are you watching more explicit images?
Do you feel anxious when you are not watching porn?
Have your expectations of sexual behaviour changed as a result of your habits?
Do you avoid spending time with family and friends in favour of watching porn?
Do you watch porn to make yourself feel better?
If you have answered yes to these then it may be a good time to look at seeking help. The first step to addressing a porn addiction is recognising that you have a problem and that porn is actually having a clear detrimental effect on your life. Accept that you may be struggling, and that you want to change. You will need a support system around you, whether it’s paid professional help, members of a recovery group, or your friends and family. Help yourself by setting clear goals of your own, defining your reasons for stopping the porn-related behaviour, and establishing specific, achievable goals, like saving money or reconnecting with your partner.
There are many different organisations that can help support you.
The NHS has an addiction support helpline www.nhs.uk
Addiction line is another great organisation that can provide confidential help. www.addictionhelper.com
Sexaholics anonymous www.sa.org
Remember recovery from any addiction is possible. It can be a long and bumpy road but with the right help and support recovery can change your life.