Understanding the role of dopamine in sex and porn addiction
Our last blog looked at how understanding your thoughts can help you recover from sex and porn addiction. We focused on how our thoughts can trick us into thinking we are having a treat (sexually acting out). If you missed the blog, then click here.
This blog will look at what is going on in your brain when your thoughts are telling you to have a treat and your behaviour ends up being a trick.
What is dopamine?
We have about 100 neurotransmitters in our brain and they all have a different role to play. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter. It transmits messages to neurons which in turn create neural pathways in our brain. The neural pathways are the roads which help our brain to remember certain actions. One of dopamine’s main tasks is to motivate the brain into action by seeking pleasure and rewarding the pleasure by giving us a drop of dopamine. Two of our most pleasurable activities are eating and having sex and dopamine ensures we keep repeating these activities because they’re enjoyable and we need to do it to maintain the human race.
Dopamine can also be released just by thinking about eating even if you are not hungry. For example: you walk past a bakery and smell fresh baked bread. You imagine eating warm bread with a slab of butter on it. Your mouth starts to water and possibly your tummy will rumble. The dopamine tells you to want’ the bread and you start to crave having the bread. You have a choice to ignore the craving or you can decide to go into the bakers and buy the loaf. Even reading this sentence may trigger you to want to go and buy a freshly baked loaf!
Primitive brain in a modern world
Another role of dopamine is involved with memory processing. A heightened hit of dopamine is released into the hippocampus when a person encounters something for the first time. Your brain is tuned to remember events that are different from previous experiences, because it’s beneficial for us to learn from new experiences. The brain assesses if the new experience is worth remembering for future survival. Furthermore, the primitive part of our brain sees sex and high fat foods as key components for survival. In hunter gatherer days, having fat reserves helped us survive winter months and kept us warm. Unfortunately, our brains don’t know the world has changed, we no longer need fat reserves to keep warm, we have central heating and onesies! Similarly, in hunter-gatherer days, being aroused by a novel sexual partner would have encouraged us to mate and strengthen the gene pool, and our primitive brains are unaware that we already have sufficient diversity. In our modern society our brains are flooded with an endless variety of new and novel images, which the advertisers use to their advantage, and of course, so do those who provide us with an infinitely novel array of Internet pornography.
Each time you give into a craving – be it looking at porn, eating a sugary cupcake, or having a glass of wine – you are strengthening that specific reward system in your brain. The neural pathway for looking at porn or having a cupcake gets stronger and less used neural pathways for reward start to fade away. Unfortunately, the greater the craving becomes the less pleasure you get from the reward system. The ‘novelty’ of one glass of wine needs to increase to a bottle of wine a night, or the porn you are looking at needs to change, or a ‘simple’ massage turns into something more. People with sex and porn addiction report that cravings build up and they can feel like they are going crazy because they’re dominated by thoughts and feelings to act out. The only way to take the craving away is to act out, and thus the addict stays on the cycle of addiction.
Rewiring the brain
Sex addiction and porn addiction is part psychological and part biological. Understanding that craving is normal – your brain is designed that way – helps to reduce shame. Neural pathways that have been created from your acting out behaviour can be changed. They can reduce in size, but this can only be done by not using them! One way of doing this is to change your thinking with regards to craving. When you get a thought “I NEED TO ACT OUT”, change the thought to “my brain is craving to act out” or another thought “I NEED TO WATCH PORN TO SLEEP”, change to “my addiction is telling me to watch porn to get to sleep”. Changing the way, you think about your cravings will give you some distance from the NEED and give you breathing space to make another choice. The other part of rewiring your neural pathways is to look at the emotional link with your craving. This can be done with sex addiction trained therapists or groupwork.
For more information on healing from your addiction, then please read “Understanding and Treating sex and pornography addiction” by Paula Hall (Routledge Feb 2019 – 2nd edition)