Quitting Pornography: Will You Experience Withdrawal?

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Robert Weiss PhD, LCSW, CSAT

Typically, individuals who want to quit porn do so for one or more of the following reasons:

  1. They are conditioned to, compulsive with, or addicted to pornography, and they are experiencing negative life consequences as a result.
  2. They feel a disconnect with their primary romantic partner, and they do not like this lack of intimacy.
  3. Their partner knows about their porn use and is upset about it, possibly threatening to leave the relationship.
  4. They found porn early in life, turned to it, and now, as adults, they find that they are clueless about entering into and maintaining a real-world romantic relationship.
  5. They are experiencing sexual dysfunction with real-world partners because a single, real-world partner simply cannot provide the sexual intensity that endless streams of porn provide.
  6. They object to porn based on religious, feminist, or other cultural beliefs and values.

Many problem porn users, when they finally decide to quit, wonder what that experience will be like. For example, will they experience withdrawal the same as alcoholics and drug addicts?

Alcoholics and drug addicts, when they suddenly go “cold turkey,” can experience a variety of unpleasant withdrawal symptoms – delirium tremens (DTs), chills, fevers, insomnia, night sweats, headaches, nausea, diarrhea, tachycardia (elevated heart rate), hypertension (elevated blood pressure), depression, agitation, anxiety, hallucinations, irritability, and the like.

But what about porn use? Do problem porn users get the DTs and hallucinate the same as alcoholics and heroin addicts? Typically, they do not. This does not, however, mean that a sudden stoppage of addictive sexual fantasy and porn usage does not produce withdrawal. In fact, it nearly always does to some degree, typically manifesting as one or more of the following ways:

  • Irritability, anxiety, agitation, depression, etc.: Most problem porn users experience extreme emotional discomfort in early sobriety. And why would they not? After all, pornography has been their primary way of coping with any and all discomfort – including feelings as seemingly benign as boredom – for months, years, or even decades. When pornography is taken away, they no longer have this easy means of numbing and escaping. And without that, they must face their emotions head-on. Needless to say, this can be incredibly uncomfortable.
  • A desire to “switch” to another behavior: Many problem porn users, when they are new to recovery and healing, find themselves replacing (or wanting to replace) their use of pornography with some other compulsive or addictive (i.e., emotionally escapist) activity. Knowing this, it is incredibly important that recovering porn users and those who support them keep a watchful eye on their other behaviors, especially in the first few months of the recovery process.
  • Loneliness and longing for connection: For most problem porn users, pornography masks not only day-to-day stress and emotional discomfort but underlying issues related to a longing for intimacy. Without the constant distraction of sexual fantasy and imagery, this longer-term condition can rise to the surface and cause intense feelings of loneliness, fear, isolation, and unhappiness. These feelings are perfectly normal and to be expected.

In early recovery and healing, even the smallest annoyance can feel like a major issue. Without their go-to coping mechanism, problem porn users tend to overreact and blow up. They get angry with themselves and others, they cry, they’re afraid, they’re lonely, etc. As such, they are not always fun to be around. This is primary evidence of their (mostly emotional rather than physical) form of withdrawal.

Conversely, some problem porn users experience the opposite of withdrawal in early recovery. This is known as the honeymoon or the pink cloud. These lucky individuals find that when they embark on the path of healing, they suddenly lose all desire to use pornography. They are fascinated by the insight they are developing and thrilled to have finally found a solution to their deepest problem.

This temporary phase of early recovery is great while it lasts. However, problem porn users who are riding a pink cloud should be aware that their desire to use porn will return, and it may be stronger than ever when it does. If this eventuality is not anticipated and prepared for, it is easy to either relapse or to think that something has gone wrong in the healing process. In reality, the porn user is simply experiencing a delayed form of withdrawal.

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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.