Sexual Fantasy: The More You Scratch the More You Itch

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Looking for greater contentment? Know thy brain.

scratching dog Sexual fantasy has long been touted as a way to meet sexual needs or fill the gap between mates’ out of sync libidos. This assumes sexual desire is like hunger: you simply eat (or orgasm) until you’ve had enough. Obviously, if you have a bigger or more varied appetite than your mate, you’ll add snacks, or masturbate, as the case may be. Many people view orgasms as they do dietary staples. If fast food is a valuable convenience because it gets you fed sooner, your favorite fantasy is valuable because it gets you off faster, or with a bigger blast of neurochemicals.

There’s more to the story. Just as some kinds of food trigger cravings and binging, some kinds of sexual fantasy do, too (i.e., whatever gets you really aroused). For example, make sugary foods a habit, and you are likely to yearn for them even when you have no desire for healthy food, that is, even when your body does not need to eat. You aren’t looking for nutrients, but rather for a brief rush of the brain chemical dopamine, which soon drops off again—leaving you anxious for more.

Similarly, the more you fantasize about that three-way or kinky partner, the more intrusive and stronger those thoughts become. You wire nerve cells together to construct a pathway connecting your internal movie with sexual arousal. As a result, fantasizing can lead to playing something over in your mind like a damaged CD. As you jack up your dopamine with each promise of pleasure, cravings for orgasm may soar far above previous baseline libido. Your increasing frustration makes it that much harder to find satisfaction. At the same time, your brain can become desensitized to the real deal. Said one woman,

I enjoy fantasizing to porn scenarios. But now I keep it to a bare minimum, because when I had sex with my husband again orgasm seemed difficult.

An urge you enhance with fantasy isn’t the same as your healthy need to connect deeply with another person. Loud neurochemical “GOTTA GET IT!” signals arising from fantasy can dysregulate your brain’s reward circuitry—and skew your priorities. When this primitive part of your brain releases more exciting neurochemicals during your fantasy than during sex with your partner, part of you will actually value your fantasy above your mate. This creates inner conflict and misleads you about the benefits of warm affection and close, trusted companionship (both of which have been shown to increase well-being).

Fantasy is widely assumed to be harmless, whatever its content. However, just as in the case of food, type and quantity of sexual stimulation matter at a brain chemical level. One man said of his experience:

There are a lot of problems with being too intense with sexual fantasies. I've noticed a ratcheting effect: once I act upon a fantasy, the fantasy becomes less interesting, and then I have to move on to something more intense and even less realistic, kinda like porn escalation. The reality of enacting a fantasy rarely matches the expectation, and many fantasies would not be healthy for a relationship if acted on.

scratching armsIs too much fantasy a problem for you? Are you climaxing with increasing frequency, or to more extreme scenarios? Do you experience demanding cravings, which don’t abate for long even when you orgasm to your fantasy? Do you feel angry when your mate does not meet your “needs” for, say, domination games or making home videos? Is your anxiety increasing? Are you isolating more? Are you moody or irritable? Are your erections weaker? Do you quest endlessly to find that perfect video of your fantasy so you’ll be satisfied at last? (Good luck with that.)

If you are experiencing such things, then more, or hotter, orgasms are probably not the answer. It could be time to seek satisfaction via another route. Jeffrey Schwartz, MD has used a version of the following technique to help obsessive-compulsive disorder patients rewire their brains.

An OCD sufferer believes that if he can just check that the stove is off enough times, he’ll feel at ease. Instead, his anxiety grows because he is activating an unhelpful brain loop each time he checks. He only begins to weaken the loop when he doesn’t act on his impulses. In other words, the more you do it, the more you want to do it; the less you do it, the less you want to do it.

Instead of trying to exhaust your sexual frustration via more fantasy, you could let the air out of your fantasy. Allow that brain loop to weaken from neglect. Stop climaxing to your fantasy. Stop searching the Internet to find videos of it. Each time it pops into your mind, say to yourself playfully, “Reject!” Imagine a loud buzzer going off in your head, and visualize stamping a big red circle with a slash through it over your flashback image with a clang. Immediately turn your attention elsewhere.

As you stop stimulating those familiar brain pathways, the connections at the synapses of the related nerve cells actually weaken, and the fantasy loosens its death grip. Take care not to wrestle the fantasy, call it names, or label it (or yourself!) “sick” or “sinful.” Don’t try to analyze whether you’re making progress. Such tactics increase anxiety. (If you establish a link between anxiety and arousal, you could find yourself wanting to orgasm whenever you’re stressed.)

At first this process is challenging, seems pointless, and increases frustration. Your brain wants its fix of exciting neurochemicals and withdrawal is uncomfortable. No matter how much inner conflict you feel while applying the technique, it is what you do that counts. Your goal now is to gently disconnect all fantasy from your natural sexual arousal, and allow your brain to return to balance.

It will take patience and consistency, but it can be done. You’ll know your new approach is working when your sexual arousal arises naturally without fantasy. That’s an excellent sign; your brain is rewiring itself. You are also likely to discover two things: (1) your need for orgasm is far less than you imagined while you were using fantasy to climax, and (2) reality is a lot more fulfilling as the sensitivity of your brain increases. One man, who had been seething with resentment and dissatisfaction for years because he was convinced that anal sex with his unwilling wife was his only path to happiness, stopped fantasizing about it and seeking out anal-sex porn. He posted:

Until recently, I believed that I could never get enough sex, and that I was unlucky because I married a woman who prefers sex not more than once every other day and does not accommodate indiscriminate penetration of every orifice. But then I successfully got through 31 days without watching pornography, masturbating only minimally, genuinely trying to appreciate my wife for her sexuality on its own terms, and actively suppressing the fantasy/obsessive urges that have progressively insinuated themselves on my personality over the last decade. Result? I feel increasingly attracted to my wife and find it easier to forget my resentful feelings. The strife seemed to come from entertaining my fantasy, instead of concentrating on the immediate reality during sex. I truly feel, for the first time in probably 16 years, that my life still has the potential to offer deep, meaningful experience without a hyperactive sexual component.

Garden of Earthly Delights detail by BoschRemember, the thoughts and images that make your genitals jump can be little more than cartoons, random cues you have inadvertently wired to activate your brain’s reward circuitry. Your brain falsely values such cues because they release exciting neurochemicals, so it keeps signaling that you need another fantasy-based orgasm.

Over the long haul, however, contentment appears to be a product of balanced brain chemistry, plus intimacy (or lots of friendly social interaction), rather than frequency of orgasm. This is easier to see once your brain is back in balance.

What helps in the meantime? Vigorous exercise, friendly social contact, daily bonding behaviors with your mate, daily meditation, dancing, partner yoga, time in nature, daily cold showers, playful or caring interaction with family and pets, cutting back on sugar and caffeine, and many other well-being practices.

Sexual fantasy seems like a sure way to increase your happiness. Yet if your angst is increasing, you’re probably looking for satisfaction where it can’t be found. More and hotter orgasms offer fleeting relief, but they do not satisfy more completely or for longer.

In short, not all orgasms are like dietary staples. Some have more in common with Fritos. Once you have allowed your brain to come back into balance, you may find that the occasional orgasm—the product of a fantasy-free, sensual encounter—eases frustration better than a fantasy-sex binge. You may even care to try a more radical approach to lovemaking.

For science buffs: Growing evidence of a lingering post-orgasm cycle (links to studies)


Deconstruct, reconstruct

How many times have I repeated the same fantasy? I estimate roughly 10 or 12 times a day for a decade, reinforced by orgasm to that fantasy approximately two days out of three (based on more than two years of meticulous records). The fantasy appeared during sex when the sex in no way resembled the fantasy. My interactions with nearly all women were, fundamentally, overshadowed by the initial thought of 'what if this one would let me...' The fantasy twice brought me within a 10-minute car-ride of infidelity. I let it waste hundreds of irretrievable hours.

As Goebbels said (albeit in a rather different context), "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it." In functional terms, fantasy is a lie. I repeated my lie so much that I genuinely believed it, and, honestly, part of me still does believe it.

Marnia, thank you for verbalizing a truth that I can set up in opposition to my ongoing mental fallacy. The first time you explained this to me, I told you that I understood. Then I spent a year demonstrating willful ignorance. But something has changed; Rational Self appears to have gained some measure of influence with Irrational Self. The Fantasy has now played at Le Theatre d'Esprit for 43800 consecutive performances, very often with a 'standing O'. One hopes that the actors will forget their lines far more quickly than it took them to reach their current levels of mastery.

Thank you again for your important work.

Ha ha!

Very entertaining, as usual.

But be gentle with yourself. Of course you believe that lie. It is coming from your reward circuitry, the very part of your brain you rely on when making the many perfectly sound decisions that you make all day. It's disconcerting to have to second guess it, especially when the signals are really loud.

If you weren't so busy right now, I'd beg you to read "Mean Genes." Sometimes it just helps to see the humor in our human dilemma, and that book had me rolling on the floor. It doesn't address porn/fantasy, but it's very easy to extrapolate from the authors' other examples. Maybe you can save it as a treat for when work calms down again.