Media, news, and education have informed us that substance addictions can cause brain changes. This phenomena is widely studied and accepted, but people typically associate these brain changes with alcoholism and physical dependency. Sex addiction is just as powerful. Brain scans have shown that when people are addicted to sex, cellular activity is reduced in the decision-making area of their brains (orbitofrontal cortex). When this part of the brain is damaged, people become more impulsive. It becomes more difficult to think through decisions and consequences. When the ability to think through decisions is diminished, one is susceptible to making more impulsive choices. Therein, a destructive cycle begins. People make high-risk decisions, and then become more prone to making the same high-risk decisions again.
Other functions of the brain are influenced by addiction. One of the key chemicals involved in pleasure seeking is dopamine. Dopamine is well known for its role in the reward system of the brain. When pleasure is experienced, dopamine is released and people experience a heightened sense of well-being. This feels very good and people often want to experience it again, so they repeat the same behavior. This can create an addictive cycle. Individuals may seek what brought them pleasure and then want more of it. As a result, the intensity of their arousal must increase as tolerance is built up.
The memory-related areas of the brain also play a part in addiction (hippocampus and amygdala). When dopamine is being released into the brain, these areas actively create memories about the addictive behavior. For example, a sex addict might remember a computer and the sound it makes when they turn the device on to watch pornography. This may trigger a thought of pornography when they see or hear a computer later on. Environmental information is stored in the brain and recalled in the future when people experience cravings. When cravings are strong enough, the behavior becomes repetitive.
A real life of example of this whole cycle might involve a sex addict who is in the check out lane of a grocery store. The individual may see a magazine with a provocatively dressed model. This may give the individual a rush because the brain associates this image with previous images of pornography or sex. This may increase the person’s urge to look at pornography or act out sexually. These fantasies may also activate a dopamine release. The individual may develop a craving and engage in addictive sexual behaviors when the chance arises. The behavior then releases dopamine, and the addictive cycle is reinforced. As a result, the behavior is more likely to be repeated in the future.
This addictive cycle is a powerful one, but it can be broken.
There is hope for healing and change with the support of counseling through our sexual recovery program. We have groups and individual counseling available for men and women struggling with sex addiction. We also have support programs for couples and for partners of sex addicts. For more information, give us a call at 925-820-1467.