Problem Porn Use: Tolerance and Escalation

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Robert Weiss PhD, LCSW, CSAT

One of the questions most commonly asked by individuals who struggle with pornography is: “Why is it so hard to quit and stay quit?” To answer this question, we must first understand the ways in which pornography affects the human brain.

  • In the human brain, a small portion of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens controls the experience of pleasure, desire, and motivation. For simplicity’s sake, this region is sometimes referred to as the pleasure center or the reward center.
  • The reward center is activated (we feel pleasure) when we engage in naturally occurring, life-affirming stimuli such as eating, playing, learning, being sexual, helping others, etc. These activities are rewarded because they ensure, in various ways, survival of both the individual and the species.
  • This pleasure response is two-pronged, involving the release and reception of various neurochemicals – mostly dopamine but also adrenaline, serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins, and a few others.
  • Some brain cells release these neurochemicals, other brain cells receive them, and both actions must occur before we experience pleasure. It’s like a lamp. It doesn’t turn on until you plug it in and complete the circuit.
  • When pleasure is experienced, the reward center tells other parts of the brain – in particular, the mood, memory, and decision-making regions – how much it enjoyed eating, playing, learning, being sexual, helping a friend, or whatever. This encourages us to engage in these life-sustaining activities again in the future. In short, it creates desire and motivation and ensures our survival.

That’s awesome, right? Intelligent design at its finest.

Unfortunately, the reward center can be manipulated. For instance, alcohol, addictive drugs, and intensely stimulating behaviors (viewing pornography, for example) can be used to artificially stimulate the system, flooding the brain with unusually high levels of dopamine – anywhere from two to ten times the amount provided by normal pleasurable activity. Then, as is the case with all pleasurable experiences, this enjoyment-related information is conveyed to areas of the brain dealing with mood, memory, and decision-making, creating desire and motivation to repeat the behavior.

Is it any wonder that porn users sometimes want to go back for more, more, and still more?

Unfortunately, that’s only the first part of the problem porn use story. And it’s not the ugly part. The ugly part is this:

  • The brain is highly adaptive. It “heals itself” based on the inputs it receives and the actions it takes. So, when the brain is consistently overstimulated, as occurs with the heavy use of pornography, it recognizes the ongoing neurochemical imbalance and adjusts (heals) by reducing the amount of dopamine that is released and the number of receptors that can absorb the dopamine. (This is like a dimmer switch on a light.)
  • As the brain adjusts in this fashion, pornography has less of an impact; this means we must use more of it or a more intense version of it to achieve the desired reward. And then the brain adjusts yet again. (Basically, the light gets even dimmer.)
  • Despite this continual loss of the ability to experience pleasure from pornography, the mood, memory, and decision-making regions expect the same feeling. Because of this, the desire and motivation to use pornography remain. Thus, users feel compelled to engage in the behavior, despite the continually increasing loss of in-the-moment pleasure.

In this way, liking pornography transforms into wanting/needing pornography, and conditioning, compulsivity, and addiction take over. Even though the stimulus (pornography) no longer provides the pleasure it once did, users want and need to continue.

This neurobiological adjustment process creates what we call tolerance and escalation. To understand this, consider alcohol abuse. When a person first starts drinking, a single beer might get that individual buzzed. Over time, depending on how much and how often that person drinks, he or she might need three or four beers, or a twelve-pack, or several shots of hard alcohol to feel the same buzz. The same is true with sexual behaviors, especially pornography. Tolerance develops, and then, in an attempt to achieve the same high, usage escalates.

Sadly, as usage escalates, the brain continues to adjust as described above – reducing the amount of dopamine released and the number of dopamine receptors. Unfortunately, this dims the lights on more than just pornography. All forms of pleasure, including natural rewards like eating a nice meal, being friendly, playing, learning, and feeling connected are dampened.

Over time, many problem porn users find it difficult to experience pleasure through either normal or supernormal means. They are unable to experience natural rewards at all, and with pornography they are simply feeding the beast – using porn not to get high, but to get back to ground zero. This inability to experience pleasure is known as anhedonia. Anhedonia occurs because, as stated above, when the brain dims the switch on the addiction, it dims the switch on the entire reward system; the dimmer switch impacts everything.

The good news for problem porn users is that the brain eventually resets with sobriety. Over time, the reward system (usually around the six-months to one-year mark) returns to baseline. Until that happens, however, problem porn users may struggle to enjoy life, to connect, and to avoid relapse. Often, it helps to know that this inability to feel pleasure is a temporary phase of recovery; the brain is healing as fast as it can, and eventually they will be able to enjoy all aspects of life – even the small and simple pleasures.

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If you or someone you care about is struggling with pornography, help is available. Seeking Integrity offers inpatient treatment for sex and porn addicts, as well as low-cost online workgroups. At the same time, SexandRelationshipHealing.com offers a variety of free webinars and drop-in discussion groups, podcasts, and more.