Addiction

Addicted to Porn? How to Get Back in Control

Like other addictions, porn addiction is hard to break.

Posted Feb 27, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan

 grzegor walczak/Unsplash
Source: grzegor walczak/Unsplash

Jack was a few-times-a-week guy who would troll porn sites when he had a stressful day on his job, when he was horny, when he was curious. But over the months, and now years, what started as something he could dip into and control is now controlling him: he’s spending several hours a day on porn sites.

Jack’s brain has taken over, he’s going on autopilot; he gets within 10 feet of his computer and it’s all over. And it’s dribbling into work, where breaks and lunches are filled with much the same. Jack is addicted.

And Jack is not alone. An estimated 200,000 folks are considered officially diagnosed with porn addiction, but surveys suggest that 84% of 18-49-year-olds are viewing porn with some frequency. Of course, the internet has fueled the problem—gone are the days where you needed to discretely slide into some adult bookstore. It’s right there on your computer, for free, with a simple click of a button; in fact, it’s 12% of all the web pages on the internet.

Dysregulation of your brain

Like most addictions, it's only partly about the powerful pull of habits; it's also about your brain. Excessive porn use rewires your midbrain—your brain's pleasure centers. You can find lots of research online about porn and sexual problems. There are now plenty of 20-year-olds with a porn addiction who are needing to take Viagra on a regular basis. It’s not because they are jaded—that their girlfriends aren’t as hot as the women on the porn sites—but because their midbrains are chemically dysregulated, affecting their ability to get aroused. 

A bad solution to an underlying problem

While some are more prone to addiction—binge eating, gambling, substances—than others due to genetics and brain chemistry, the initial driver for most folks is situational—the addiction serving as a bad solution to another problem, such as depression, PTSD, or anxiety. Unfortunately, the addiction works: As soon as Jack clicks onto his favorite websites, he feels better. So, starts the downward spiral. 

Impact on relationships

There are several. Obviously, sexual dysregulation is one; the addictive behavior essentially running your day. But again like other addictions, there is also secrecy, a withdrawal from real relationships when the ones on the screen take priority. I’ve met folks married for years where they thought their partners were down in the basement doing woodworking or crafts when they were actually down in the basement on the computer. Yes, finding out about the porn was a shock, but they also suffered for years living with someone who wasn’t an equal partner, who was always preoccupied that left them feeling lonely.

Breaking the pattern

The starting point here is you controlling your brain rather than your brain controlling you. Stopping the automatic behavior. How to start:

Track your moods

For some pull of the computer goes up and down, stronger on some days than others. If it does, this is about tracking your moods. Check in with yourself every hour and see how you are emotionally doing. Can you tell when you wake up in the morning or as your leaving work that today is one of those days, that you are feeling vulnerable and stressed and at risk of going on autopilot? 

By checking in with yourself, you are stepping back from your emotions; by catching it early, you can act before your cravings take over and can’t be reined in.

Have a plan

Computers are triggers, as is feeling tired and stressed at 6 p.m. But often the triggers are more subtle: simply walking in the front door of your house or apartment and your brain shifts gears. For Jack, it's the computer calling his name, but for someone else, it might be the refrigerator or liquor cabinet. The antidote here is Jack having a plan to offset the triggers—deciding at 9 a.m. to leave his laptop at work or stay out of the basement and practice his guitar till bedtime. 

The key here is about being deliberate, proactive, but also about substitution. The goal is not white-knuckle stopping but replacing the porn with something else—here's where folks trying to quit smoking are replacing cigarettes with candies. Is the candy as good as a cigarette, playing the guitar as good as the porn? No. Again it's about rewiring your brain. It is going to take months for those brain circuits to stop firing and more new pathways to take hold.

Expect the struggle, get support

Anticipating what's to come—the hard days, the better days, the gradual change, the possible relapses—can actually help: help you to be kinder to yourself, help you avoid that all-or-nothing thinking that leads to frustration and quitting, help you pat yourself on the back when you are able to do what you set out to do.

But you also don't want to do it all alone. Here you find a check-in buddy to help you be accountable, or you find a porn addiction support group.

Deal with the underlying problem

Again, the addiction is a bad solution gone wild. You also want to fix the underlying problem. It may be depression or generalized anxiety that has been there forever. Or it is situational—you’re struggling with a job or relationship where you feel stressed and trapped or overwhelmed. Time to fix the underlying problem—individual therapy, couple therapy, talk to your supervisor about what's not working or start looking for a new job, talk to your doc about medication

What’s important is taking action 

Dealing with any addiction is not a quick fix and the intent here is to not make it seem so. If you are struggling you may need professional support through therapy or an intensive community program or residential treatment. You need help to change your habits and have support while you learn to rewire your brain. But the starting point is always about realization—that the way I’m running my life isn’t working, that there are parts of my life where what I do is controlling me rather than me controlling it. 

If you can do that, you’re always halfway toward success.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.