Can a Behavior (Like Sex or Porn) Really Be an Addiction?

When people hear the word addiction, their typical first thoughts involve alcohol and drugs. Many people are surprised to learn that behaviors can also be addictive. Even those who work in the mental health field sometimes struggle with the concept of behaviors as potentially addictive. As such, there can be a good deal of confusion when it comes to understanding, identifying, and treating behavioral addictions, including increasingly common issues like sex and porn addiction.

This confusion is largely unnecessary when one understands the basic neurobiology of addiction. Addictive substances and addictive behaviors trigger the same neurochemical pleasure response – primarily the release of dopamine, along with other pleasure and excitement related neurochemicals like oxytocin, adrenaline, and serotonin.

For addicts, this neurochemical response becomes, over time, less about pleasure and more about distraction and escape. If someone is having a bad day, rather than turning to another person (who might reject them, ignore them, or disappoint them), they turn to a substance or a behavior to distract themselves from what they are feeling. Over time, this becomes their go-to coping mechanism for any and all forms of emotional (and even physical) discomfort. When the individual feels stressed, or bored, or lonely, or depressed, or whatever, he or she will trigger a pleasurable and therefore distracting neurochemical response by ingesting a certain substance or engaging in a certain behavior.

It doesn’t matter if they choose a substance or a behavior. The escapist ‘high’ is exactly the same.

To further understand the link between substance and behavioral addictions, consider a cocaine addict on payday. After receiving his check, he runs to the bank to exchange it for cash, perhaps skipping out of work early to do so. Then he dashes off to his dealer’s house to spend money that he really ought to set aside for food and rent. As he approaches his dealer’s house, his heart races, he’s sweating, and he is so obsessed and preoccupied with using that he doesn’t even notice the police car parked a block away. He is completely focused on cocaine, so much so that the day-to-day world, with all of its problems and obligations, has temporarily receded. From a neurochemical perspective, he is already high. It doesn’t matter that there is no cocaine in his system because his brain is behaving as if there is.

This escapist neurobiological state, no matter how it is induced, is the goal with all addictions, and it can occur with or without an addictive substance. Sex and porn addicts in particular ‘get high’ based more on anticipation and fantasy than anything else. When they use porn, for example, they experience a greater sense of emotional escape while searching for the perfect image or video than they get by masturbating and orgasming to that image or video. Clinicians and addicts even have a name for this emotionally escapist anticipatory high, referring to it as either the bubble or the trance.

This means that sex and porn addiction are not, as most people might expect, about actually being sexual and reaching orgasm, even though most sex and porn addicts do eventually reach orgasm. Instead, sex and porn addiction are about losing touch with reality for an extended period of time. For sex and porn addicts, reaching orgasm actually ends the high and throws them back into the real world, where they must once again face life and its many difficulties, which is what they were trying to avoid and escape in the first place.

For more information about the identification and treatment of sex and porn addiction, contact us at SeekingIntegrity.com or visit our affiliated free resource website SexandRelationshipHealing.com.