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Sex, Trauma, and the Brain

trauma, sex and the brain

In order to understand the process of sex addiction recovery, it’s helpful if you first have an understanding of the neurobiology of addiction. Neurobiology can help us understand what’s going on in the brain during addiction.

Trauma and traumatic developmental wounding can cause abnormalities in the nervous system. Having this understanding is a great foundation for you or a loved one’s recovery work.

Trauma-Induced Sexual Addiction Model 

The TINSA® model of recovery was developed by Begin Again Institute after more than ten years of extensive research in the areas of sex addiction and neuroscience. It is now the primary form of therapy in multiple treatment centers throughout Colorado and has been used in the treatment of over fifteen hundred sex addicts and couples. 

The TINSA® model assumes that the primary origin of sexual addiction lies in a damaged autonomic nervous system (ANS) due to developmental traumas. TINSA® concludes that trauma during a person’s developmental years can predispose them to addiction. How exactly does this work? Let’s take a closer look at the brain.

Addiction: A Maladaptive Response

Various types of trauma could inflict damage upon the ANS. Specifically, a lack of attunement in your formative years of childhood through various types of trauma can lead to the ANS not functioning properly. Begin Again Institute theorizes that addiction is a behavior that is desperately attempting to regulate the ANS, which, through trauma, has become maladaptive.


What counts as trauma that can damage the ANS and potentially lead to addiction? Many experts divide traumatic events into two categories: big-T traumas and little-t traumas. While big-T traumas are generally associated with a single catastrophic event, little-t traumas are generally less noticeable but can be just as damaging to a person’s psyche. 

“Little t” Trauma

Little-t traumas have the capability to impact how children view themselves, their relationships, and their place in the world. The long-term effects of little-t traumas can result in a person growing up with a fear of abandonment, a feeling of not belonging, or with a constant need to be on guard against possible invasion or pain. That person might also suffer from an inability to form truly intimate relationships. Some examples of “little t” trauma include:

  • Injury
  • Emotional Abuse
  • Death of a Pet
  • Bullying
  • Harassment
  • Loss of Significant Relationships

Big T vs. Little T: What’s the Difference?

Many people think of trauma as being a major life-altering event, such as the devastation of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, or the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans.

While this may be the case for some, the truth is that traumatized individuals can often trace their adverse developmental experiences back to events that might have seemed inconsequential at the time.

When we are subjected to traumatic and overwhelming situations, especially from a young age, our instinctual responses can be obstructed. This inability to adequately respond can impact us in obvious ways as well as subtle ones, such as hyperarousal, panic, rage, rigidness, obsessions, or chronic anxiety. Alternatively, we can experience feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, shame, or immobility. 

“Little t” Trauma and Addiction

Although both Big-T traumas and Little-t traumas can lead to addiction, it is the little-t traumas that are most commonly reported. To identify the root cause of your addiction, it’s a good idea to try and pinpoint where in your life you reached out to connect, only to be left with the inability to have that connection completed. 

The following are examples of traumatic occurrences commonly reported by those who suffer from sex addiction:

  • They were not attuned to by their caregiver.
  • They were invalidated for who they were.
  • They were not emotionally recognized. They were either told or were otherwise made to believe that they were not good enough for their parents or peers.
  • They felt rejected or abandoned.
  • They were subjected to parental divorce or the death of a loved one.
  • They experienced a loss of a pet, friendship, or young love.
  • They were not permitted to pursue their desires or interests.
  • They were dismissed, minimized, ignored, disregarded, shamed, or ridiculed for their feelings, thoughts, physical appearance, or spiritual beliefs.
  • They were punched, hit, kicked, slapped, or violently shaken.
  • They were sexually abused.
  • They were made to feel unsafe or threatened with exclusion and alienation.
  • They were forced to avoid having feelings.
  • They were not properly instructed on how to connect with, understand, and resolve their emotions.

What is important to note here is that most people experience many of the above occurrences at one time or another. The difference between most addicts and people who do not become addicts is that non-addicted people are able to resolve the effects of these occurrences, but addicts cannot, and it is these unresolved issues that can lead to addiction. 

therapy for those with traumaThe Importance of Attunement

Psychologists and therapists have long known the importance of attachment and attunement when it comes to human health and relationships. However, many people do not have an understanding of how pivotal these concepts can be in later life.

“When asked if they received proper attunement as a child, most of my clients answer yes and report an above-normal amount of physical care. They proudly report that they come from homes where there was plenty of food, clean water, heat, and adequate clothing.

But none of this has much to do with the process of parental attunement, and so it is very clear that this process is widely misunderstood.” – the founder of Begin Again Institute recalling previous clients not making the distinction between attachment and attunement.

Early Connections

The founder of Begin Again Institute, the creator of the TINSA® theory, recounts some common details among clients he has treated:

“After hearing hundreds of similar accounts where early childhood traumas or ADEs were consistently reported by my clients, I quickly began to understand that these experiences were directly related to their sexual addictions.

I saw that while the sexual behaviors were often different, the core of their addictions was surprisingly similar.

The most common forms of adverse developmental experiences reported among sufferers of sexual addiction are a lack of attunement and protection, thwarted emotional development, invalidation, and abandonment.” – The founder of BAI.

Begin Again Institute stresses that these deficiencies are not about bad parenting, but about a parent’s inability to respond to the child’s emotional needs. 

Most parents are doing the best they can with the tools they have. Whether deliberately or inadvertently, the traumas of our childhood can have a tremendous impact on our lives. Although these wounds most frequently occur within the family unit and within the first years of a person’s life, they can also occur outside of the family unit and at any time throughout a person’s developmental lifespan.

Attachment and Attunement in Early Life

“The attachment figure is intended to be the source of joy, connection, and emotional soothing,” according to Daniel Siegel (2017). “Instead, the experience of the child who develops a disorganized attachment is such that the caregiver is actually the source of alarm, fear, and terror, so the child cannot turn to the attachment figure to be soothed.” 

Because attachment is linked to attunement and being adequately cared for as a child, attachment without attunement is not enough for optimal development.

In the words of BAI: “Although one might assume that attunement and the use of nonverbal forms of communication with their child should come naturally to parents, for some it does not. Attunement and the ability to express intimacy with another human being is a learned skill that is passed down from generation to generation.”

BAI stresses that attunement is not a genetic inheritance, but is something that is either environmentally present or absent. 

“A lack of attunement might be the single most important variable in the predisposition to addictive behavior. if a parent or caregiver, for whatever reason, lacks the ability to scaffold the child’s emotional development and regulate the child’s nervous system, the child will be handicapped in these vital areas that are required for future healthy bonding,” BAI concludes from his years of professional work.

Connecting Addiction and Emotional Regulation

In BAI’s experience, clients seeking recovery from sex addiction oftentimes “live in a world devoid of true emotional experience and expression. My clients have a very difficult time identifying their emotions, or if they can identify what they feel, they then often lack the skills required to regulate or express these emotions.”

When people are never given the opportunity to express emotion, they also never learn how to regulate their emotions, so they are led down a rabbit hole of constantly seeking other ways by which to regulate their emotions, either through behaviors, such as compulsive sexual behavior or substance use.

TINSA® and Recovery

TINSA® defines trauma as the result of being injured while vulnerable or when being authentic. 

Vulnerability plus authenticity enables intimacy. 

Since sex addiction is defined as an intimacy disorder, it is not surprising then that the two most common characteristics contributing to the formation and progression of sex addiction are wounds to an individual’s innate vulnerability and expression of authenticity, both of which can threaten a person’s capacity to be intimate. 

Understanding sex addiction from a neurological perspective allows each patient to see that their addictive behaviors started as is an automatic reaction formed by trauma. The latter stages of this addiction is actually an intimacy disorder that makes bonding and healthy relationships impossible. 

Understanding Neurobiology Makes a Difference

At Begin Again Institute, we treat sex addiction from a neurological approach uncovering how these automatic reactions formed early in our neurological networks. Knowing where addiction originates (early in our lives through adverse developmental experiences) is just the first step in recovery. 

We find the root cause of your addiction, making the unconscious, conscious to build back healthy neural pathways and begin the healing process. We begin the healing process in our 14-Day Men’s Intensive program. The next one starts on December 5th. If you’re ready to get to work, contact us

  • Category: Sex Addiction
  • By Ryan Pryor
  • November 30, 2020

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