Porn Addiction: Signs, Effects & Treatment Options

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How to Recognize & Treat Porn Addiction

Pornography addiction is a chronic, progressive disorder characterized by a growing compulsion to see pornographic content. Porn addiction is a fast-growing disorder because of the availability of pornographic content on the Internet.

Thirty years ago, someone who viewed pornography was limited by practical and psychological considerations. Many adults can recall with perfect clarity the one or two times they watched or viewed porn during youth. Today, pornography is unlimited, and available 24 hours a day. Adolescents can view disturbing images at any time, on any technological device and with little or no evidence — images that may affect their sexual habits, interpersonal relationships and more.

Porn addiction treatment is a rapidly expanding field as a result. Although researchers debate the causes and effects of porn addiction, many people who demonstrate signs of porn addiction experience personal difficulties. These difficulties can include social isolation, sexual dysfunction, reduced physical intimacy and depression.

Some experts believe an unchecked addiction to pornography can lead to acting out and violent behavior, although there are no clinical studies that prove this link exists. Specifically, individuals who have viewed so much pornography that it is no longer effective must try to act out their fantasies to achieve the same effects. This may include rape, murder and other violent crimes.

Recovering from porn addiction requires more than simply stopping watching. The causes of porn addiction are complex, and individuals who compulsively watch pornography must work to change ingrained behaviors and modify triggering thoughts. Although porn addiction does not damage physical health the same way alcoholism or drug addiction do, the signs and effects of both are similar.

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Individuals who are addicted to porn cannot stop viewing it, despite negative consequences in important relationships. They may lie about how much they view pornography, or try to hide or deny abuse. Also, like alcoholism and drug addiction, the earlier one starts, the more likely it is an addiction will develop — and quitting earlier is easier than quitting later.

The Five Stages of Pornography Addiction

Unlike buying alcohol or illicit drugs, it is easy for individuals to access pornography. Online pornography companies don’t require legal identification. Traveling to a darkened alley to score pornography isn’t necessary. You don’t have to wait for the corner store to open, and you don’t have to find a new dealer when your normal source isn’t around. Pornography companies are happy to fulfill the basest desires for a price — including content that may include illegal or immoral images.

Some evidence suggests as an individual begins viewing pornography, the content must become more extreme in nature to achieve the same effects. The porn addict doesn’t need drugs, because the brain produces drug-like effects with every viewing.

Individuals who become addicted to pornography typically follow a five-stage progression:

  1. Exposure. The age at which individuals are first exposed to porn plays a large role in sexual expectations as well as the likelihood an addiction develops. Early exposure can be extremely damaging, especially among those who lack adequate sexual experience. The brain produces powerful chemicals during orgasm. If individuals view porn when masturbating, researchers believe they “bond” with the images they see — rather than a living, breathing person.
  2. Addiction. As individuals seek satisfaction, they continue to rely on porn to provide it. Relating in a sexual way to real people becomes increasingly more difficult because real people are unlikely to provide the necessary stimulation to achieve the desired effects. Only pornography can satisfy the brain’s demands.
  1. Escalation. With each viewing, the once-strong effect is reduced. This leads to the need to view pornography more graphic in content. Porn you would have once avoided now becomes stimulating, and the downward spiral deepens.
  1. Desensitization. Even the most graphic pornography fails to satisfy the addicted individual’s needs. Graphic and degrading porn leaves you numb or bored. The desperation you feel to find the same satisfaction grows in intensity. You feel trapped.
  2. Acting Out Sexually. Although the evidence is unclear, some researchers suspect individuals who reach the desensitization stage become so desperate to achieve the initial effects they act out sexually. This may mean finding a real-life victim to perform sexual fantasies with, which may include violent acts such as rape.

Signs of Porn Addiction

People who are addicted to pornography may not exhibit the same health problems as individuals with alcoholism or drug addiction. Therapists who treat individuals with porn addiction believe their behaviors are remarkably similar, however.

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Many with porn addiction need wide-ranging psychiatric and behavioral therapies before they can rebuild a lifestyle defined by healthy and satisfying relationships. If you notice any of these signs of porn addiction, it may be time to consider getting treatment.

  • You ignore loved ones or important obligations because of pornography. Individuals who watch pornography excessively often have trouble relating to the loved ones in their lives. They may prefer porn to sexual activity with their spouses, for example. If you neglect the sexual needs of your partner because porn satisfies your desires, you may need help.
  • You lie about, deny or hide how much you use porn. Although it is not uncommon for people to feel embarrassed or ashamed about using pornography, it is unhealthy to chronically lie to a loved one about how much you use it. Communicating with your loved one about your needs may deepen your relationship instead of threaten it. A therapist can help you express your sexual desires in a safe and healthy way.
  • The amount of money or time you spend on porn is causing problems. If you max out your credit cards because of pornography, or you hide how much you spend on it because you are embarrassed, you may have a problem. Losing hours to watching pornography is also a problem. Viewing porn is not a substitute for real-life interactions. If you substitute viewing porn for human contact, it’s time to talk to a therapist.
  • Your mood has changed for the worse, and your little voice is telling you you have a problem. Losing sleep, or feeling anxious or depressed, are common side effects of pornography addiction. If you feel persistently sad, lonely or hopeless, you need to speak with a counselor. Other common symptoms of depression and anxiety include changes in sleep habits, changes in appetite and difficulty focusing. A trained therapist can help you overcome these uncomfortable feelings and live a more satisfying lifestyle.
  • You have developed a tolerance to pornography. Many individuals use porn to stimulate themselves or their partners in advance of sexual activity. If you view porn compulsively and keep trying to achieve the same effects by watching more extreme porn, you may have a problem. If extreme porn cannot satisfy your desires, you may need help. Think of pornography like a drug — if you need more and more to achieve the desired effects, you have developed a dangerous tolerance to porn.
  • Watching or viewing porn has become your most important activity, and you feel angry or annoyed when asked to stop. When porn comes at the expense of once-loved activities, friends and family, and you cannot control your cravings, you have a problem.

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  • You cannot have an erection or feel sexually stimulated with a partner. Porn rewires your brain, and chemical processes can change how you view a real-life partner. When only porn will satisfy your need for sexual activity, or you have to use porn before being with a partner, it is time to get help.
  • You are tempted to act out violent or illegal sexual fantasies with a real-life partner. Porn fantasies might lead you into believing a partner will enjoy being raped, degraded or abused. It is never okay to act out a dangerous sexual fantasy on an unsuspecting or unwilling participant.

The Effects of Porn Addiction

Even though you may use porn alone, that doesn’t mean your addiction isn’t harming you or other people. The more you view porn, the more likely you are to experience significant personal problems, such as divorce. If the porn you view is illegal because of its content, you could face extremely serious legal consequences. Watching porn on technology that belongs to your employer can lead to job loss. If your porn addiction leads you to act out sexually, you put yourself and your partner at risk of physical and psychological damage, including sexually transmitted diseases. With all types of porn addiction, the isolation that develops can lead to depression and anxiety.

Individuals who demonstrate addictive behaviors of all kinds often use the false comfort provided by the addiction to avoid dealing with the realities of life. The escape provided by the addiction, whether pornography or alcoholism, lets the individual avoid disappointment and hurt. Porn distracts the brain’s need for interpersonal relationships and healthy relaxation. It also means individuals can avoid considering someone else’s feelings and instead focus only on themselves. As the addiction deepens, the sense of isolation grows, which is a precursor to depression. Trying to quit using porn then leads to anxious and irritable feelings, and often, relapse.

Depression and anxiety are serious problems for porn-addicted individuals because, when undiagnosed, they can lead to substance abuse. Common signs and symptoms of depression and anxiety include:

  • Feeling consistently sad or empty, which may be accompanied by a hopeless or pessimistic attitude
  • Feeling guilty, worthless or helpless
  • Losing interest in pleasurable activities
  • Feeling tired or noticing a decrease in energy
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Problems with sleep, including insomnia or oversleeping
  • Problems with appetite, including weight loss or gain
  • Persistent suicidal thoughts — If you think about committing suicide or harming yourself, the time to get help is now
  • Physical ailments, such as gastrointestinal problems, with no other known cause and that do not respond to treatment

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Porn Addiction Treatment

Porn addiction is not a life sentence. With the right tools, you can beat an addiction to pornography and enjoy satisfying personal relationships. The first step is admitting you have a problem. The next step is choosing a treatment solution.

There is an array of treatments available for porn addiction. Some support may come from 12-Step community groups led by individuals who also suffer from porn addiction. These groups are typically free or low-cost. If you’ve tried support groups before and feel you need more intensive help, you can opt for outpatient or inpatient therapy. Outpatient therapy programs range from an hour or two a day to full-day sessions that last several weeks. Inpatient therapy programs provide the most intensive treatment possible. During inpatient therapy, you will step away from “real life” for a short time to focus exclusively on your treatment needs.

Porn addiction treatment usually focuses on separating individuals from the addiction and convincing them they are in denial about the effects pornography has had on their lives. Addiction professionals recognize inpatient, or residential, therapy as providing the most comprehensive care. Holistic residential programs typically create customized recovery plans for each client they serve. These recovery plans can include treatment for mental health disorders such as depression in addition to porn addiction. You’ll also participate in group therapy, social support groups and behavioral therapies that help you deal with uncomfortable urges and stressors.

One of the most highly regarded kinds of behavioral therapy is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). In CBT, you will work one-on-one with a trained therapist who will help you uncover the root causes of your addiction. You will also identify triggers that lead to using porn and figure out healthier ways to manage cravings and stressors. The ultimate goal will be to completely abstain from porn use while rebuilding trust in your closest relationships.

If you suffer from preexisting depression or anxiety, you’ll also receive treatment. This may be a combination of psychotherapeutic and non-addictive pharmacological remedies, or psychotherapeutic only. Keep in mind medication can be helpful for individuals who suffer from depression or anxiety, but without therapy, it won’t solve your problems. Family therapy and cutting-edge treatments such as neurofeedback may also be a part of your treatment program.

Once you leave treatment, you’ll need a supportive group of loved ones to help you maintain recovery. A high-quality treatment center will design an aftercare plan that meets your lifestyle needs. This aftercare plan should provide follow-up outpatient treatments as well as instructions for what to do when you feel tempted to view porn. With the right program and support, you can leave porn addiction behind forever.

Stop Dealing with a Porn Addiction

Instead of struggling to deal with a porn addiction, seek help to overcome it. As your porn addiction rewires your brain, you will become more engrained in your addiction. The sooner you start treatment, the easier your recovery will be. While you may feel shame about your addiction, a common response, your addiction is actually a disease. The best step you can take for you and your loved ones is to get the help you need to heal from this disease. Speak with your healthcare professional or research your treatment options online.

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Reviewed By:

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis completed medical school at The University of Mississippi Medical Center and residency in general psychiatry in 2003. He completed a fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 2005. Following this, he served as Chief Medical Officer for 10 years of Brentwood Behavioral Healthcare a private health system including a 105-bed hospital, residential treatment, and intensive outpatient services.

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