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Giving up the payoff

Visit Your Brain On Porn for updated information about recovery. This article is out of date.

Leaving all guilty feelings behind will make it easieranxious man to move out of the sexual addiction cycle. However, you may believe you are helpless to resist the pull of pornography. If you haven't succeeded in the past it may be because you tried to find a compromise - such as frequent orgasm without porn, or less frequent masturbation with porn. Orgasm produces a hangover that can last up to two weeks - however it occurs. During that time the discomfort of withdrawal can most easily pull you right back into your addiction. In other words, you end up in a repeating cycle of withdrawal symptoms, which never allow you to experience balanced brain chemistry and a natural sense of well-being. (Recovery from the addiction can take longer than two weeks, however, as explained below.)

In general, you're likely to find more satisfaction (over the long-term at least) with an occasional masturbation to ejaculation without porn or porn fantasy...than you are with looking at porn with or without climax. Intense stimulation promotes a desire to binge. Remember, Internet porn itself is much of the problem in addiction. "Edging" to several videos, even without climax, gets your dopamine soaring, and it's the excess dopamine that apparently causes the drop in dopamine receptors...creating the urge to binge, or intense inner conflict if you don't keep scratching that itch. Orgasm can bring on a desire to binge too, especially if it's really intense, but a gentle, sensual session of self-love doesn't seem to kick off the same cycle (and is good practice for your future love life Smile ). Unfortunately, you may not find a single climax without porn satisfying at first. Yet, despite the temporary discomfort, you may get better results by going through the misery of withdrawal once, and not going back into the cycle. In other words, avoid porn/orgasm/masturbation for weeks, or even a couple of months. This sounds impossible because as you read this you are in a withdrawal period and believe that your happiness depends upon your drug of choice (porn and climax). However, after you get through the first two weeks, you will find that it gets easier. At that point, if you have a partner, it is possible to stabilize. You can make love frequently, without orgasm, and therefore without slipping back into the cycle of highs and lows that drove you toward addiction in the first place. One of the gifts of this practice is that your addiction to pornographic images will fade naturally. Those images are a powerful turn on because they lead to the "payoff" of high dopamine and intense arousal. Gradually, they will gradually lose their hold over you. Honest! Try it. A ritual is not exciting without an addictive (high dopamine) destination. Thinkcouple reading in bed about it...would you find it exciting to get dressed up for a night out - knowing that you were actually going to spend the evening quietly at home? Here's a second gift: because you're not going for orgasm when making love, you will find that you can focus on the many other aspects of lovemaking that are rewarding: the sensual touch, the laughter, the mutual comforting, the intense intimacy, and, ultimately, the deeply fulfilling sense of soul connection that the experience potentially offers. The neurochemistry associated with these activities is not the same neurochemistry as the dopamine cycle. Companionship offers more profound, lasting satisfaction. If you don't have a partner, you may find that cutting back on orgasm actually helps you attract one. All that sexual magnetism you are currently emptying from your reservoir can often draw a partner to you if you store it. To summarize, two courses of action can help:

  • Stop berating yourself and you will find it easier to avoid seeking the comfort of your addiction.
  • The more seldom you orgasm, the weaker your addiction becomes because, if your orgasms are more than two weeks apart, you spend less time in the discomfort of withdrawal.

Not a piece of cake

The goal is to use your analytical mind to rise above your animal instincts. Otherwise, the future will continue to show you just how ill suited your inherited genetic make-up is to modern life with its constant, quite unnatural flood of erotic images. rat experiment with gridBut how? Fighting one's survival programming is tough - and harder in the case of sex than food. An experiment on rats demonstrates why. In this experiment, a rat is learning how to push a lever situated at one end of a long cage, in order to obtain a brief electrical stimulation of its reward circuitry. The rat must cross through an electrified grid in the cage's floor, in order to press another self-stimulation lever situation at the other end of the cage. The rat can endure a strong painful electric shock to its paws for the sake of this electrical stimulation to its reward circuitry. However, normal rats, even when starving, will not take the risk of crossing an elctrical grid in order to reach food. An orgasm is a lot closer to electrical stimulation of the reward circuitry than is eating, due to the respective amounts of dopamine accompanying orgasm and eating. No wonder the threat of burning at the stake, didn't stop adultery in the Middle Ages. We are designed to value the passing on of our genes more highly than our own continued existence. In other words, a sexual control program is doomed if it relies on mere force of will, peer pressure, or threats of an uncomfortably warm afterlife. Those who wish to outwit biology in the bedroom may want to consider another strategy. Its merits are, again, suggested by an experiment involving food. Scientists studying binge eating in rats found that rats become addicted to sugar within 10 days of bingeing on it; if they don't get their fix, their teeth chatter and they shake. However, researchers noted that the dips in dopamine behind the addiction cycle don't occur when "meals are moderate and regularly scheduled." This suggests that "moderate lovemaking, regularly scheduled" is the key to coping with our ancient design in a modern world. But first there's the challenge of withdrawal.

The pain of withdrawal

Just as the tobacco industry wanted us all to think that cigarettes were harmless, the billion-dollar porn industry - and even many of today's experts - want you to think that porn addiction is a myth. To be sure, some people can smoke and still die of something other than lung cancer or emphysema - and no doubt some people can watch porn or masturbate frequently without getting hooked or depressed, damaging their relationships, or becoming vulnerable to other addictions. If you're reading this, however, you are probably not one of them. Most Porn-off graphof us aren't. See this light-hearted, yet serious, look at just how addictive pornography is. A hundred porn viewers tried to stop viewing porn for two weeks. Over half were honest enough to admit that they failed. Unfortunately, to shed your addiction and move toward balanced brain chemistry, you have to ease through an uncomfortable withdrawal period. Here's a segment from an 'Oprah' program on porn.

Now that he's stopped looking at pornographic websites, Josh's body is suffering from withdrawal symptoms. For the last two weeks, Josh says he's been getting headaches and feeling irritable and anxious. "You wouldn't expect this because, you think, 'It's material that you choose to look at,'" he says. "But, I mean, drugs are things that you choose to take."

Rob Weiss, founder of the Sexual Recovery Institute, explains:

Porn addicts become hooked on their brains' chemical responses to the stimulating material. "I think of sex addicts as being drug addicts - only their drug is their own neurochemistry, Rob says….Contrary to popular belief, sex addiction is not about sex, Rob says. "It's like a gambling addiction."

(Link to beginning of 'Oprah' show on porn, "Famous Gospel Singer Admits His Addiction to Porn") One man blogged his withdrawal experience after giving up porn and masturbation:

I'd like to stress that undergoing this cleansing process is not easy and as with most addictions, abruptly putting a stop to it results in some sort of withdrawal syndrome. I don’t know if anyone can relate to this but in protest to the discontinued sensual stimulation induced by porn, my body reacts by: vomiting, muscular tremors, profuse sweating, indigestion, constipation, the urge to throw rocks at passing cars, and death. Well not really death but something really close to it.

What are your withdrawal symptoms? Tell us. Whatever they may be, the good news is that the misery won't go on forever. The bad news is that withdrawal could trigger sleeplessness, anxiety, shaking, irritability, and so forth. What can you do to help yourself?

Practicalities

When you are determined to recover from your addiction, it's better to go "cold turkey" than to cut back gradually. As explained, each time you "go for it," you throw yourself into an uncomfortable withdrawal period that can last for days (or even a couple of weeks). Not only that, addicts often experience something called the "abstinence violation effect." If they abstain for a bit and then indulge, they tend to binge. That can be very discouraging. (However, if they abstain for long enough to get back to balance, which may be 2-4 months, the abstinence violation effect doesn't seem to kick in.)

So make up your mind that you want to go through the worst of withdrawal as seldom as you can. A partner and a careful approach to sex can help a lot. It will get easier. However, men on our forum have discovered that recovery continues for months so be patient. Addiction is unfortunately not just about initial withdrawal. It's also about the degree of learning reinforcement in the brain. Your brain may have physically rewired itself to react powerfully to certain cues associated with intense excitement.

Some men even report spontaneous flashbacks to porn images, as the brain apparently tries to provide its own cues to urge them to seek the instant relief of another orgasm. Once you understand that porn addiction is a learned behavior, and that your challenge is to "unlearn" it, there is a tool that can help a lot when the urge to look at it strikes. Tell yourself that you won't look for at least 15 minutes, and meanwhile turn your attention to a pre-selected constructive alternative activity. Examples might be a breathing exercise, a favorite exercise routine, meditation, making your favorite healthy snack, putting on some music you like, recording your thoughts in a journal, taking a cold shower ;-), or whatever. It doesn't matter, as long as it's something you can do immediately, and automatically, instead of looking at porn.

At first selecting the alternative activity will require a mighty exercise of your will. However, when you consciously direct your attention to something, it grows easier to turn your attention to it again in the future. You are actually rewiring your brain. So each time you turn your attention away from your cravings, toward your chosen activity, you strengthen the new pathway in your brain, and weaken the old automatic response. (For more on this technique, see these excerpts from a recent book on neuroplasticity.)

Laying down new pathways in the brain (and learning to steer away from the familiar ones) will take more than two weeks in most cases, and encouragement from others is very helpful to people struggling with this challenge. All addictions hijack the pathways in the brain that are there to make connection with others rewarding (mating, companionship, parenting and so forth). Unfortunately, the addiction itself tends to isolate the sufferer, which means he often drifts away from the companionship that would soothe this withdrawal. Connections with others also benefit addicts because contact with empathetic people produces more of a neurochemical called oxytocin, which actually soothes addiction and withdrawal symptoms. Here's a post from our blogs, from a guy who has been through the withdrawal, encouraging another:

I found that I was feeling MUCH better after 4 weeks. Then around 6 the urges raised their head again and I had to fight hard to stay on track. Just a warning to stay vigilant when you start feeling better. I remember the flashbacks and urges. I found blogging to be very helpful. It kept me honest so I applaud your efforts. They are bearing fruit (in working out they always say it is going to hurt before it gets better.) I think this is the same thing.

Intriguingly, an addiction researcher has found that a protein called Δ-FosB sticks around for as long as four to six weeks after repeated exposure to a stimulant, and it can induce relapse in animals, if injected.1 So a porn addict may not feel significant relief until this protein clears out.

Be aware of "triggers." The prime one will be any porn-like image. So resist the urge to "just look, without masturbating." It will intensify your cravings. Instead find other ways to cope with the feelings you're trying to escape. Try exercise, connecting with others, watching something funny, meditation, etc. Above all, choose one "automatic alternative activity," as explained above. If you habitually view porn at certain times in your schedule, be prepared by making sure your mind is otherwise occupied with something interesting during that time. Distracting yourself with interesting material even for a few moments can be enough to tiptoe past the natural cravings you will experience during your withdrawal. Also check out advice from Uncle Bob (the collective wisdom of hundreds of guys who have already made this journey) or join a support forum.

  • Make a list of interesting topics you can browse, or visit your local library and check out some books.
  • Read others' withdrawal symptoms, so you know what to expect
  • Do something helpful for someone else. Brightening someone else's day will make you feel better, too.
  • If you have flashbacks, try watching this soothing video of women's faces
  • Read inspiring material to strengthen your resolve. It is difficult to find support material that neither makes light of the risks of sex addiction, nor grounds itself in religious scolding. We have therefore decided to post excerpts from the writings of people who have addressed the issue of sexual addiction and withdrawal in practical ways. Feel free to submit anything you think might help others.

You won't see the full benefits of your efforts until you are clear of your addiction. Meanwhile, rest assured that although the discomfort depressed manof withdrawal feels like it is going to go on forever, the torment will pass. In fact, the worst of it will likely pass in the two weeks after your last orgasm - and after a month, you can be experiencing longer and longer periods of genuine well-being (with a little help from a lover who is also on board).

In the interim, however, you may temporarily feel like this young, healthy medical student whose dopamine was artificially lowered in an experiment. As with any addiction, you may experience temporary relapses into intense withdrawal misery, but they will become less frequent as time passes. And in between those recurring bouts of abject misery, you'll feel better and better. In other words, expect your progress to have ups and downs, and don't be discouraged by the tough times.

Good luck

Remember, you absolutely will succeed if you keep trying. Don't let setbacks stop you from beginning again. And don't blame yourself. After all, millions of years of evolution, billions of dollars of advertising, and an isolated modern lifestyle played major roles in creating your current predicament. One of the gifts in this drama is that when you succeed in moving beyond your addiction, you will also realize that you have the willpower to do anything you choose. This is very empowering. Meanwhile, if you need to moan, visit our blogs. Your thoughts and suggestions can genuinely help those struggling with sex addiction. P*O*R*N keys removed from keyboardThis challenge has been around a long time. The difference today is that pornography is beckoning from every computer, so pornography is nearly everyone's problem - directly, or indirectly through the lives of loved ones. This crisis, however, may force us to take a major step forward as we learn to manage the reward circuitry of the brain, how to regain our free will, and how to tap the full potential between lovers.

Strongly recommended reading:

Excerpts from psychiatrist Norman Doidge's book The Brain That Changes Itself, which deal with the addictiveness of pornography.

Visit Your Brain On Porn

It's a sister-site that collects many of the experiences (and tips) of recovering and recovered visitors, related research and articles about porn and the brain.

  • 1. Laura Helmuth, “Addiction. Beyond the pleasure principle,” Science, 294(5544), November, 2001: 983-4.