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Understanding porn addiction and porn addiction withdrawal are crucial in preparing yourself or your loved one for the recovery process. We hold the firm belief and understanding here at the Begin Again Institute that education is the first step towards healing. 

We all throw around the term “addict” far too loosely, belittling the experience of someone who is suffering from an addiction. Addiction and chronic use are similar sets of formed and solidified habits. However, addiction is a unique affliction. 

Addiction is a set of behaviors that have a massive impact on your neurochemistry. All of this centers around the chemical dopamine. Dopamine is the brain’s “pleasure chemical.” This description of dopamine is accurate. A desire or anticipation for heightened amounts of dopamine in our brain drives us to do most things in life. 

How Porn Addiction Affects Your Brain’s Reward System

If you feel that you are experiencing porn addiction withdrawal, you’re probably right. Porn, and many other experiences, substances, etc., can profoundly affect how your brain works. 

When you begin to recover from porn addiction, you will notice that you will have porn addiction withdrawal symptoms. Much like any other addiction, such as substance use, gambling, sex, etc., these symptoms are more accurately described as dopamine withdrawal symptoms. 

To understand your porn addiction withdrawal, you must understand the reward system of the brain and how it perpetuates addiction as well as symptoms of porn addiction withdrawal. 

What Is The Reward System?

The reward system in our brains evolved over thousands of years. We learned what felt right, and these feelings encouraged us to reproduce, seek shelter, nourishment, and develop relationships with others. 

When you do something that your brain interprets as pleasurable (in this instance, watching porn), the reward system in your brain boosts the production of the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, dopamine. 

Dopamine contributes to feelings of pleasure and satisfaction and is associated with “seeking” behaviors. That means dopamine fuels you to seek out food, shelter, entertainment, information, etc. 

Thanks to dopamine, if you do something that your brain decides feels good and wants you to do again, it will release dopamine. 

Your brain rewards you for having the experience, and your brain makes a note that watching porn is rewarding. 

Therefore you have learned that if you want to feel good again, you should watch porn. This creates a behavior, or reward system, loop. 

The more you repeat an experience, the more that behavior becomes enforced. 

Increases in Tolerance

As time goes on, you keep craving the feeling of that first experience. You continue to seek out porn that gives you the same sort of dopamine high. 

However, the porn you once enjoyed no longer provides the same level of enjoyment. This is mainly due to the brain’s defense system. Since the brain can not withstand dopamine barrage, it merely turns off dopamine receptors or produces less dopamine altogether. 

Tolerance occurs when the brain reacts to repeated exposure by adapting its chemistry to offset the effect of the drug—it adjusts itself to tolerate the drug.”

Suddenly, you remember how taboo it was for you to look at those magazines. That’s what you need to recreate! You begin to seek out different porn, exploring categories and types that you haven’t before. You are looking through an unaware neighbor’s window. 

You’ve escalated to the point where your desire for the stimulus has completely impaired your judgment and put you in danger.

To receive a shot of dopamine that made you feel like it did in the beginning, you must seek out riskier or more taboo experiences to recreate previous dopamine levels. 

A person with dark skin, a beard, and a short haircut lies awake in a bed fittied with white linens.

Difficulty sleeping is a hallmark symptom associated with porn addiction withdrawal.

Dopamine Dysregulation

While the dopamine-based reward system has served us from hunter-gatherer communities, it has fallen short of adjusting to the abundance of over stimulus in a modern world. 

However, when we begin to overuse the dopamine system, we begin to experience what is known as dopamine dysregulation. Dopamine dysregulation is when you become desensitized to something that previously gave you pleasure.

For example, the first time you watched pornography or saw something sexually explicit probably gave you a massive surge of dopamine. Not only did it feel good to look at, but it is also taboo and your secret. Your brain takes note that this particular activity felt terrific. Therefore it wants to recreate that experience. 

When we learn that something feels right, our brain reminds us to do that thing again. These memories are what you may know as a cue or a trigger. 

Let’s say your first exposure to sexually explicit material was a women’s lingerie magazine when you were a child. This early experience is a formative experience for you. You remember everything about it: what the models were wearing, how the weather was, and what songs were playing in the background. 

As time goes on, every time certain things trigger that foundational pleasure-based memory, it leads to you experiencing sexual arousal. Therefore, as you get older, you seek out and find more magazines with similar content based on cues you experience. However, you aren’t able to recreate that same formative experience. You have created a craving for a specific form of stimuli.

This craving is fueled by dopamine linking it to a desire for something specific. 

However, this craving becomes a problem when it begins to disrupt your life or lead to risky behaviors. 

Common Porn Addiction Withdrawal Symptoms

If you are suffering from porn addiction and try and quit using pornography or other similar stimuli, you’ll probably experience some severe porn addiction withdrawal symptoms. 

These are due to the sudden lack of stimulus, which perpetuates the dopamine reward cycle.

Without giving your brain that dopamine, it’s warning you that something that feels good is missing. This misguided attempt by your brain to create a happy feeling will usually lead to symptoms like:

  • Headaches and stiffness or pain in your joints
  • Difficulties sleeping
  • Fatigue 
  • Increased agitation or aggression
  • Lack of focus or brain fog
  • Nausea, fever, or flu-like symptoms
  • Little or no sexual desire, known as flatline
  • Intense sexual cravings, thoughts, and urges to watch porn or self-soothe
  • Depression, sadness, or feelings of despair
  • Intense mood swings

All of these symptoms will vary from person to person and from day-to-day. These symptoms are due to your brain experiencing withdrawal from its typical stimulus. It is the desire to self-regulate by sending in a cascade of other neurochemicals. 

How to Manage Porn Addiction Withdrawal 

While the recovery road may feel bleak and, at times, feel completely isolating, you’re not alone. 

There are some ways to help manage your withdrawal symptoms. 

One of the key ways is to stay present and in the moment. Learning how to live moment-to-moment and stay present are critical tenets of meditation, which has long been regarded as a helpful tool for recovery. 

You can also try and seek out natural sources of dopamine production, such as exercise. Exercise gives the body a natural “high,” so to speak. It can help provide your brain with the dopamine it desires only healthily and naturally. 

Other fundamental tenets to recovery are learning how to empathize and find others that are sharing your journey. Volunteering to work with other people in need or joining a support group can help you do just that. 

Seeking Treatment for Porn Addiction at Begin Again Institute 

If you or your loved one are still trying to answer the question, “am I addicted to porn?” you can take our free online assessment here

In our 14-day men’s intensive treatment program, you can learn the tools you need to recover from your sex or porn addiction. Help is out there. All you need is the willingness to heal. 

  • Category: Pornography Addiction
  • By John Squires
  • January 27, 2021

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