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A new frontier in the treatment of sex and porn addiction has emerged in recent years to move away from the old modalities of abstinence-based tools to a new modality of uncovering and addressing trauma as the catalyst for these compulsive and highly addictive behaviors. To understand trauma’s role in sex addiction, we must have a basic understanding of the brain and the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and how these systems were affected, causing the individual to be predisposed to addictive behaviors. Doing so enables the addict and their partners to:

  1. See how the brain and nervous system function together;
  2. Understand the role of the brain and the nervous system in emotional health and addiction;
  3. Understand how damage to the normal functioning of the brain and nervous system predisposes individuals to self-regulation and addiction; and
  4. Better engage with their systems, allowing greater awareness, control, and healthy bonding and intimacy.

The autonomic nervous system and addiction

In this article, we will provide a brief synopsis of the autonomic nervous system in order to provide a better understanding of how addiction and specifically sex and porn addiction are biologically perpetuated. The goal is to provide knowledge that can empower those suffering from this debilitating disease to seek treatment and to know that there is hope.

Dr. Stephen Porges’s polyvagal theory demonstrated that our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) comprises three distinct responses:

  1. Immobilization, freeze, and collapse (dorsal branch of the vagal nerve)
  2. Mobilization, fight/flight/freeze (sympathetic division)
  3. Social engagement (ventral branch of the vagal nerve)

The Dorsal Vagal Our oldest and most primitive form of defense occurs when the dorsal vagal nerve is activated. The result is behavioral shutdown, freeze, and collapse. We can see an example of the activation of this nerve in animal documentaries when a lion is chasing a gazelle, and the gazelle, knowing that it cannot fight or flee the lion, drops to the ground and appears dead, hoping the lion will leave the gazelle alone, thinking that it is dead, or if it decides to feast on the gazelle, this response helps to prepare the gazelle for death with minimal pain. Sympathetic

The sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system is associated with mobilization, or fight or flight. Activation of the sympathetic response results in increased metabolic activity and cardiac output. Our sympathetic nervous system is also known as our fight-or-flight system, enabling us to escape threat by either running away or fighting off our attacker. Ventral Vagal Our most recently developed autonomic nervous system response is our social engagement system. This system is the second response of our parasympathetic nervous system (the first being freeze and collapse) and is responsible for our ability to engage socially with others and navigate relationships. This system allows us to be highly attuned to other human beings and to scan our environments for safety by such measures as reading facial expressions and listening to verbal tones.

Ventral Vagal Nerve and its Role

The social engagement system is controlled by our ventral vagal nerve (which is a very smart nerve with a rapid response) allowing us to “know” if we are safe enough to calm our defenses through a process called neuroception (the brain’s ability to sense safety). The chief function of this system is to inhibit our usually active sympathetic nervous system so that we won’t go into a fight, flight, or freeze response, enabling us to better relate, bond, and form intimate relationships. Within each of us, there is a metaphorical foundation in which we can observe in real time the functioning of our brain and of our autonomic nervous system.

Within that foundation, we see the parasympathetic nervous system (dorsal and ventral vagal nerves) and the sympathetic branch of our nervous system constantly in a state of flux. If all goes well and as expected in our daily lives, we can stay within our foundation by self-regulation, utilizing our ventral vagal response.

Those of us with unresolved trauma are more likely to have many more threats than those who did not experience early trauma

If, however, there is a threat, our sympathetic branch will be activated and take us out of our foundation, placing us into a state of either fight or flight. We will either angrily lash out or find a way to run away, depending on how large the threat is. It is important to remember that threats can be real or imagined, but our bodies will react in exactly the same way. Those of us with unresolved trauma are more likely to have many more threats than those who did not experience early trauma or adverse developmental experiences or those of us who have since had this trauma resolved.

Understanding the autonomic nervous system and this foundation allows my clients who suffer from sex and porn addictions to see their current state of autonomic (automatic) functioning. A great deal of relief can be provided when a person in a numb state knows that what is happening at that moment is a normal neurological function designed to protect him or her. That person is not crazy or bad or different; his or her brain and ANS are simply responding to a real or perceived threat. In short, understanding this foundation allows people to see

  1. How they function;
  2. Their daily state of emotional arousal and regulation;
  3. How their foundation was affected by early trauma;
  4. How they have been using unhealthy self-regulatory reactions to control their foundation; and
  5. What to do in healthy ways that can help them regulate their own systems without the use of unhealthy self-regulation or addiction.

Now, what’s most important about understanding the foundation of the ANS, is understanding how the nervous system and brain work together. If at any time, there is a threat (real or perceived) and the threat is large enough, our two older, more primitive brains (limbic and reptilian regions) take over. This is what we term “hijack” because this response is out of our conscious control. It is also important to remember that when the brain is hijacked in this way, the majority of the frontal lobe turns off (the part of our brain that is responsible for making logic, conscious decisions) out of necessity, and we react rather than respond without conscious thought. Our ability to make good decisions, weigh consequences, or consider others is virtually nonexistent.

This knowledge allows patients to see how their autonomic nervous systems are affected and allows them access to begin building back the capability for healthy, normal responses to threats.

This can go a long way in answering the question as to why addicts seem to lack the ability to see that what they are about to do could harm them, their relationship, career, etc. With their automatic reactions, many of my clients have found themselves ruining relationships, careers, reputations, and even their personal freedom. Trapped in the unconscious brain’s automatic response, addicts lack the awareness and capacity to think things through. The brain works in one way, and when triggered, it automatically switches into a defensive posture out of self-protection. Understanding trauma and its biological role in sex and porn addictions works to uncover the root cause of the addiction.

This knowledge allows patients to see how their autonomic nervous systems are affected and allows them access to begin building back the capability for healthy, normal responses to threats. This type of knowledge and trauma-based treatment helps patients to determine if a threat is real or an automatic response that is attempting to block off the feelings, sensations, or beliefs that are now triggered by earlier, unresolved wounds. The goal of treating sex addiction from a researched backed, neurological approach is to help the client navigate their life daily and be the captain of their own ship.

  • Category: Pornography AddictionRecoverySex Addiction
  • By Development Account
  • September 20, 2018

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