Was the Cowardly Lion Just Masturbating Too Much?

Printer-friendly version

Comments: This is one of our very first posts describing one of the unexpected benefits reported by former porn users. We are not saying that Internet porn is the primary cause of social anxiety in young men. No one knows what percentage of those with SAD have porn use as a contributing factor, because no studies exist. High-speed Internet porn is a new phenomenon; no control groups are possible; and no study has asked the right questions. That said, heavy porn users continue to report increased confidence and remission of social anxiety by altering one variable - Internet porn use. Our more recent article on this subject (with lot more science) is Porn, Masturbation and Mojo: A Neuroscience Perspective

Also see 1) Is porn making my social anxiety/confidence worse?, which contains several stories, and 2) the stories below this article.

In his 5 minute TED Talk, "The Demise of Guys" famous psychologist Phillip Zimbardo noted that "arousal addiction" (porn, video games) is a major factor in social anxiety.

There may be a correlation between porn use and social anxiety

Porn addiction can lead to isolationHas anyone reading this noticed a correlation between giving up porn and reduced social anxiety?

Due to a search engine coincidence, I have been listening to the agonies and ecstasies of recovering porn addicts for several years. Over and over, a common pattern appears: As users manage to abstain from porn and cut way back on masturbation (generally temporarily), their desire to connect with others surges. So does their confidence, their ability to look others in the eye, their sense of humor, their perception of their "manliness," their concentration, their optimism, their judgment, their attractiveness to potential mates, and so forth.

Even those formerly suffering from severe social anxiety are more often than not emboldened to explore new avenues for social contact: smiling and joking with work colleagues, online dating, meditation groups, nightspots, and so forth. In some cases it takes months, but often the shift is so rapid that it catches them by surprise. (I'm not implying that social anxiety is solely due to porn use, or that extroversion is a sign of its absence. I'm merely wondering whether, for some, more careful management of sexual desire might be surprisingly beneficial.)

In Addiction as an Attachment Disorder, Philip J. Flores makes the point that one can't attach in a normal, or even therapeutic, relationship while one is attached to an addiction. By the same token, the best support for avoiding relapse is solid relationships with others—and the ability to form them at will.

Why might a porn addict be obliged to address his compulsion in order to form, or restore, real relationships? Psychiatrist Norman Doidge suggests that the intense stimuli (high dopamine) of today's porn hijacks and rewires "brain real estate" that would otherwise be devoted to making social ties rewarding. (The Brain That Changes Itself, p. 109) Actual people become less rewarding; fake people become far more enticing. In this case, size does matter, namely, the amount of brain that lights up. Ceasing the compulsive behavior frees the brain to restore its normal priorities.

Interestingly, people whose habits cause continuous over-stimulation of their reward circuitry with high dopamine—drug users, for example—often feel anxious or depressed the rest of the time. This is largely due to abnormally low dopamine (or low sensitivity to dopamine due to a decline in D2 receptors) between the highs. Rats that have been bingeing on sugar show signs of anxiety and brain changes (decreased dopamine). And mice exposed to protracted elevated dopamine later behaved like they were depressed in response to stress. When one is anxious or depressed, socializing can feel like too much of an effort.

Several studies show that social anxiety is associated with low dopamine or decreased sensitivity. Also see this study about the link between dopamine instability and social anxiety.

Is excessive masturbation to Internet porn leading to social anxiety in some individuals?

Dopamine surges during sexual arousal and drops after climax. Do some people masturbate so frequently that their reward circuitry is unable to return to homeostasis between orgasms? Are they suffering from chronically low dopamine (or low response to dopamine)—making social anxiety more likely?  It's important to realize that masturbation frequencies in modern Western society may bear little resemblance to our hunter-gatherer ancestors (see WEIRD Masturbation Habits).

If not masturbation, then heavy porn use can certainly lead to a decline in dopamine and dopamine receptors in some brains. All addictions, including behavioral addictions such as pathological gambling and Internet gaming, cause a measurable decline in dopamine signaling. If you have a porn addiction, you have what we call a numbed pleasure response or desensitization, which means low dopamine signalling. (See: Porn Then and Now: Welcome to Brain Training and Intoxicating Behaviors: 300 Vaginas = A Lot of Dopamine to understand the mechanisms.)

Ponder this: Studies show that both behavioral and substance addictions cause a decline in dopamine (D2) receptors, which is a major aspect of desensitization.

First question: What's one primary biological difference between dominant and submissive primates? Answer: Dominant primates have higher levels of dopamine D2 receptors. They were not born with higher levels of D2 receptors - rather, "becoming" dominant caused the increase in D2 receptors.

Second question: Could the benefits (confidence, sociability, motivation, less anxiety) men feel as they recover from porn addiction be related to an increase in D2 receptors an dopamine? (It's certainly not blood testosterone levels.)

Without a doubt, some users may have chronically low dopamine or dopamine receptors to start with, but so many users notice improvements in outlook when they cut back on porn/masturbation, that we can't rule out the possibility that the habit itself further depresses dopamine levels.

Once the brain becomes less sensitive to dopamine, it "becomes less sensitive to natural reinforcers" such as the "pleasure of seeing a friend, watching a movie, or the curiosity that drives exploration." —Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse

Hardcore, ever-novel Internet porn is mightily compelling—for the same reason as crack and Krispy Kreme donuts. These stimuli are like nothing our ancestors' brains had to cope with as humans evolved. Yet the primitive limbic system mistakes them for things so "valuable" that it urges us to seek more and more of them—even when they cause hangovers and withdrawal symptoms.

As with drugs and alcohol, "too much" is different for everyone. However, for some, the vulnerability of the brain's reward circuitry in combination with Internet porn means that pursuit of sexual stimulation has become compulsive pursuit of sexual stimulation. That is a problem because compulsions, remember, get in the way of forming rewarding relationships. In short, it may be that balanced masturbation habits are more important for our psychological health than generally recognized.

There's clearly much to learn. For now, I'll let recovering users speak for themselves.

Stopping porn addiction can improve ability to socializeI'd always just accepted that I was below average socially. It wasn't even an issue anymore, but turns out, after two weeks without orgasm, my voice has gotten bigger and richer, I've been laughing and cracking jokes almost nonstop, and talking to people has been fluent and easy. Now, I'm the chatty one. It's something to get used to.

Another man:

I'm 25 years old and I've been using porn for 14 years. There was a period of 2 years though where I couldn't look at it because I was on a government facility where pornographic sites were banned. During those years I was at my peak of creativity: writing poetry, songs, and stories. I also talked to everyone, not shying away from a soul. When I got home I went back to spending the day looking at the nakedness of the Internet. Two years later, I've become an introvert, secluding myself away, and I'm shy and depressed most of the time. Which is the exact opposite of how I was away from it. I keep telling myself I'll "snap out of it," but when will that be? I don't want to spend another decade this way.

Another man responded:

My therapist swore that I needed meds a couple of years ago. Instead, I set about figuring out what was going on underneath the depression. When I stopped using porn, I felt worse at first, but now I am feeling better than I have in 7 years. There is no reason for depression to be so prevalent in our society other than certain lifestyle habits. We are perfectly capable of figuring out what these things are and alleviating our depression. It's a matter of sorting through our habits to find what is causing our pain, and remaining totally honest with ourselves.

A sixth-month veteran:

People ask me what have I changed because I am so much more outgoing. I have never, NEVER been more confident or motivated about approaching and engaging actual women. (And I'm actually getting real sex now!) The severe performance anxiety I had during sex, while consuming porn and beating off, is gone. [Read more men's experiences.]

Our nervous systems are open-ended circuits designed for living in community with others. In fact, it's biologically impossible for most of us to regulate our emotions on our own for any length of time.

Introverts, and those who didn't develop healthy bonds as infants, may be particularly at risk for social anxiety due to frequent porn use. Isolation lets them control their exposure to awkward and unsatisfying interactions. Reaching for the escape of porn use (or other stimuli) can then become a substitute for socially acquired self-knowledge and emotional regulation. As one man said about social anxiety:

Social isolation and porn reinforce each other. That is, being isolated leads to seeking escape and gratification by oneself, which can mean porn addiction, which lowers self esteem and confidence, which makes one more socially anxious...and so on.

The Western ideal of individualism and self-reliance encourages the attempt to become self-sufficient in lieu of cultivating the rewards of closer social ties. As Flores points out, our normal emotional need to be mirrored by others is wrongly labeled dependency and neediness. In truth, this is what our brains were designed for.

pornography addiction can make social isolation worseAs tribal, pair-bonding primates, our brains need close contact for good health throughout our lives. Frequent porn use may replace this basic human need with escalating desire and orgasm (without the health-giving touch of affectionate intercourse). When porn/masturbation becomes compulsive, it can tend to keep healthy relationships in the future indefinitely, perhaps because it modifies the brain, its physiology, and the signals it bleeps. For many, these changes may show up as debilitating social anxiety.

The good news is that many find it easier and more enjoyable to connect with others when they abstain from porn and cut back on masturbation. I'd be very interested to hear from social anxiety sufferers (or their therapists) who experiment with giving up porn.

Studies on the overlap between sex and drugs in the brain

Growing scientific evidence of a lingering post-orgasm cycle (studies)