Do Compulsive/Addicted Porn Users Experience Withdrawal When They Quit?

It is common knowledge that alcoholics and drug addicts, when they suddenly go “cold turkey,” sometimes experience withdrawal – delirium tremens, chills, fevers, insomnia, night sweats, headaches, nausea, diarrhea, tachycardia (elevated heart rate), hypertension, depression, agitation, anxiety, hallucinations, irritability, and the like. Withdrawal from some substances is worse than withdrawal from others. Opiate addiction (including addiction to heroin) and alcoholism tend to produce the worst physical symptoms. Sometimes these symptoms can actually be life-threatening if not medically managed.

Typically, substance addicts dealing with severe physical withdrawal symptoms are titrated off their drug of choice, meaning they are given a medication that “manages” their withdrawal by temporarily replacing their addictive drug of choice, and then they are slowly but steadily weaned off of that medication. Usually this process takes anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. For instance, chronic alcoholics often receive a steadily decreasing dose of Librium for the first week or two or treatment, and opiate addicts often receive decreasing doses of a “lesser” opiate like Buprenorphine (also called Suboxone).

But what about porn compulsivity/addiction. Do compulsive/addicted 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 in one or more of the following ways:

  • Irritability, anxiety, agitation, depression, etc.: Most porn addicts 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 years or even decades on end. When porn 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 an incredibly uncomfortable experience.
  • A desire to “switch” to another addiction: Many compulsive/addicted 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 (and therefore highly distracting) activity. Sometimes this manifests as a cross-addiction. For instance, a porn user who suddenly stops will typically experience a flood of uncomfortable emotions (as discussed above), and without pornography to stem the tide, he or she may turn to drinking, drugging, smoking, eating, gambling, spending, or any other pleasurable/escapist substance or behavior. Knowing this, it is incredibly important that recovering porn users and those who support them to keep a watchful eye on their other behaviors, especially in the first few months of the recovery process.
  • Loneliness and a longing for connection: For most compulsive/addicted 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, compulsive/addicted porn users have a tendency 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 compulsive/addicted 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, compulsive/addicted porn users who are riding the 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, there is no need for relapse, and nothing is amiss with recovery. Instead, this is a normal part of the process and the porn user is simply experiencing a delayed form of withdrawal.

Any compulsive/addicted porn user who recognizes that he or she is experiencing symptoms of withdrawal should talk about those feelings with a supportive person who is knowledgeable about the porn use cycle. Most often, this person will be a therapist, a 12-step sponsor, or a friend in recovery. Close friends not in recovery and family members can also be helpful. If symptoms of withdrawal are extreme (especially depression, dissociation, and/or anxiety), a therapist should be consulted as soon as possible. Severe unchecked withdrawal symptoms can lead not only to continued porn use but other forms of serious self-harm.

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If you or someone you care about is struggling with compulsive/addictive porn use, Seeking Integrity can help with both inpatient treatment for men and low-cost online workgroups for both men and women. Additionally, our sister website, SexandRelationshipHealing.com, offers numerous free resources, including webinars, discussion groups, blogs, podcasts, daily inspirations, and more.