Can We Alter Our Arousal Template?

David Fawcett PhD, LCSW

As stated in my previous posts on arousal templates, which can be found here and here, arousal templates are “maps” in the brain of what we find sexually appealing. Each person has a unique and highly individualized arousal template created by a variety of factors. Most of our arousal template is formed by the time we are 4 to 6 years old, even though we are not yet sexual. That said, as we age, elements can be added to (uncovered within) our arousal templates. The “adding to” process is often facilitated by pornography, especially when porn use is paired with drug use. For many people, this can be freeing. For others, it can be disturbing.

When Arousal Templates Become Problematic

Arousal templates, especially when impacted by the hyper-intensity of paired substance use and sexual behavior, can become problematic, creating relationship issues, trouble at work or in school, depression, shame, anxiety, financial issues, legal problems, and more. Typically, these problems arise because the unrivaled stimulation and intensity of sexualized drug use causes the user’s arousal patterns to become:

  • Fixed, rigid, and obsessive
  • Unhealthy, maladaptive
  • Inappropriate, in violation of their values
  • Inappropriate, in violation of other people’s boundaries
  • Paraphilic (kinks and fetishes to the degree that they are disturbing to the individual and negatively impact life)

Almost every paired substance/sex addict I’ve ever worked with deals with one or more of these issues. Typically, they find that their desire to satisfy the “chemsex” elements of their arousal template makes lasting sobriety more difficult. A sexual thought will trigger a drug thought; a drug thought will trigger a sexual thought. So the addict must work twice as hard to recognize and overcome triggers.

Can We “Fix” a Problematic Arousal Template?

As discussed in my previous posts, we can add elements to our arousal template (or, more accurately, we can uncover latent and repressed elements), but we cannot eliminate elements. We can’t un-bake the cake, so to speak. What we can do is choose to not act on elements that create problems in our life or that we find unsettling. For example, a bisexual man who is married to a woman can choose to accept but not act on his attraction to other men.

But what happens when sexualized drug use (or some other element of arousal) takes over the arousal template, causing it to become fixed, rigid, and obsessive? What happens when the intensity of paired substance/sex behaviors (or some other specific fantasy/behavior) overruns other elements of the arousal template to the point where we cannot be sexual without it? Is there no hope when this occurs?

Happily, there is hope. Although unhealthy and unwanted elements of an arousal template will always be part of the arousal template – especially when those elements have been reinforced with sexualized drug use – it is possible to step away from those behaviors. With sexualized drug use, for example, we can allow the substance/sex superhighway we’ve created in our brain to fall into disrepair and eventually become overgrown with weeds.

This can be accomplished by limiting the attention we give to substance/sex elements of the arousal template. This means we cannot think about or masturbate to fantasies of these behaviors. (Masturbation reinforces these fantasies and keeps them at the forefront.) We also cannot look at porn depicting these behaviors, nor can we engage in them in real-life or even skirt the edges of engagement.

At the same time – or perhaps after a period of total abstinence, including abstinence from masturbation, to let the brain’s reward system return to baseline – we must rediscover healthier elements of arousal. Essentially, we must remember the things that turned us on before we started pairing drugs and sex, and we must reintegrate these turn-ons into our sexual and romantic fantasy life. We must let the substance/sex superhighway fall to ruin while building new pathways for healthier and less disturbing forms of arousal. Lastly, we must accept that this new road of arousal might be a two-lane blacktop rather than a ten-lane freeway.

The good news about refocusing on less intense sexual pathways is that they open the door to emotional intimacy and connection with our partners – something that is lost completely with pornography and sexualized drug use. Many individuals that I have worked with over the years tell me, as they progress in their process of healing and recovery, that even though their sex life is nowhere near as intense as it once was, it is far more enjoyable because of the sense of connection they now feel. They find that the intensity of emotional intimacy with a loving partner is significantly more rewarding than any high they could ever get from things like pornography and substance/sex behaviors.

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If you or someone you care about is struggling with sexual behavior or paired substance/sex use, help is available. Please explore the webinars, discussion groups, podcasts, and blogs on this website. If you think professional treatment is needed, please contact us at this link. We will be happy to point you toward qualified help.