Chasing Intensity: The Need for Stimulation

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David Fawcett PhD, LCSW

The potent mood-changing power of high-intensity, dopamine-related addictions such as stimulant drug addiction, pornography addiction, and sex addiction creates a super-stimulating effect that resets the brain’s reward circuitry, essentially hijacking the nature of the activities and behaviors that give us pleasure. Because stimulant drugs are both highly dissociative and heighten sexual desire, when they are coupled with porn or other sexual behaviors they represent a perfect storm for individuals seeking to escape from their everyday lives.

Sexual minorities feeling shame (such as internalized homophobia) quickly discover that combining certain drugs with sex releases their inhibitions and heightens their feelings of connection. At the same time, heterosexuals, particularly those in economically depressed regions, use these drugs and behaviors to get energy for menial tasks and to escape feelings of hopelessness.

Unfortunately, these intensity-based addictions, over time, can change the brain in ways that can impact the trajectory of recovery. Extensive research on the impact of methamphetamine, for example, has revealed much about its unique properties. Dr. Nora Volkow of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), among other researchers, has identified meth’s long-term damage to the reward circuitry of the brain.[i] She and others have found that the damaged pathways regenerate, but the process takes up to two years, during which time the emotional and cognitive abilities of the recovering person can be seriously impacted. For example, they may have difficulty experiencing pleasure, they may have fuzzy thinking, they may be impulsive, and they are often hopeless, depressed, and highly susceptible to triggers and cravings for both drugs and sex.

Addictions and compulsive behaviors dissociate the user from uncomfortable feelings, numbing or distracting emotional pain while creating their own complications and consequences. Stimulant drugs, especially when combined with sex, also fuel a desire for intensity and connection. Ultimately, combining stimulants and sex dissociates the user from low self-worth, shame, and other inhibitions while boosting arousal, a sense of invincibility, and the likelihood of high-risk sex.

Having eliminated drug abuse, porn addiction, and sex addiction from their lives, many people in recovery find themselves pulled toward other intensity-related behaviors such as gambling, spending, excessive work, and even romance.

In the last decade, we have begun to learn much about the experience of love and romance, which triggers a similar cascade of excitement as stimulant drugs and sexual activity. The subjective state of “being in love” sets off chain reactions of dopamine, oxytocin, vasopressin, and serotonin, engaging the very same brain circuitry as paired drug use and sex. “Being in love” replicates addictive states such as highly focused attention (here on a preferred individual), mood swings, craving, obsession, compulsion, distortion of reality, emotional dependence, personality changes, risk-taking, and loss of self-control.[ii] Other intense behaviors (gambling, spending, etc.) can do the same.

Experience shows that emotional states characterized by low intensity can be challenging for someone who craves intensity. One such low intensity state—a state that is generally pleasant—is relaxation. Most people enjoy states of relaxation, but for some recovering addicts, relaxation can be a trigger. Even more threatening are moods characterized by low intensity and unpleasant feelings such as boredom. Being bored, having open space in one’s calendar, not being unaccountable for a period of time, and a general lack of focus/purpose can be a dangerous combination for stimulant/porn/sex addicts who are retraining their brains to slow down.

One of the important tasks in early recovery is developing the ability to regulate emotions. In recovery, life continues: People get sick, there are car accidents, couples break up, etc. Strong emotional reactions to such events can be triggering for an addict whose main goal in life, prior to recovery, has been to avoid experiencing anything unpleasant. In recovery, the ability to identify, feel, and release any emotion that may emerge, to the best of their ability, is critically important and empowering.

Typically, however, this cannot be done in isolation. A key element of recovering addicts’ ability to manage emotions involves the creation of support networks. It is this interconnected web of supportive relationships that provides the perspective, the skills, and sometimes even the lifeline that pulls addicts back from the edge when they have a desire to flee into the vortex of intensity.

If you or someone you care about is struggling with sexualized drug use (paired/fused substance and sex addiction), Seeking Integrity offers residential treatment and a variety of workgroups that specifically address these issues.

References

[i] Volkow, N. D., Chang, L., Wang, G. J., Fowler, J. S., Franceschi, D. Sedler, M., … & Logan, J. (2001). Loss of dopamine transporters in methamphetamine abusers recovers with protracted abstinence. Journal of Neuroscience, 21(23), 9414-9418.

[ii] Fisher, H. E., Brown, L. L., Aron, A., Strong, G., & Mashek, D. (2010). Reward, addiction, and emotion regulation systems associated with rejection in love. Journal of neurophysiology.