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Can a Behavior (Like Viewing Porn) Be an Addiction?


When people hear the word addiction, their typical first thought involves the use of alcohol or drugs. Many 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 porn addiction. However, this is largely unnecessary when one understands the basic neurobiology of addiction.

Stated very simply, addictive substances and addictive behaviors trigger the same neurochemical pleasure response. Over time, some individuals can learn to use this response as a form of emotional escape (as a way to distract themselves from emotional discomfort). Eventually, they can become addicted, meaning they use this neurobiological reaction as their go-to coping mechanism for stress, boredom, loneliness, shame, and anything else they’d prefer to not feel. So the only real difference between substance and behavioral addictions is that substance addicts ingest alcohol, nicotine, or some other drug to create a pleasurable and therefore emotionally escapist neurochemical reaction, while behavioral addicts rely on a fantasy or behavior (like viewing porn).

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 so completely focused on cocaine that the day-to-day world, with all of its problems and obligations, has temporarily receded. From a neurochemical perspective, this individual is high already. It doesn’t matter that there are no actual drugs in his system because his brain is behaving as if there are. He is experiencing an anticipatory high.

This escapist neurobiological state, no matter how it is induced, is the goal with all addictions. Addictions of all types are about the neurobiological manipulation of feelings and emotions, and this can occur with or without an addictive substance. Porn addicts in particular ‘get high’ based more on anticipation and fantasy than anything else. In fact, porn addicts experience a greater sense of emotional escape while searching for the perfect image or video than they get by masturbating to that image or video. Clinicians and addicts even have a name for this escapist dissociation, referring to it as either the bubble or the trance.

This means that porn addiction is not, as most people might expect, about masturbation and orgasm, even though most porn addicts do masturbate and reach orgasm. Instead, porn addiction is about losing touch with reality for an extended period of time. For porn addicts, masturbating and 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.

Porn is not the only behavioral addiction, of course. Others include:

  • Gambling: Gambling addiction, also called gambling disorder and compulsive gambling, is an uncontrollable urge to gamble. Typically, gambling addicts will play whatever game is available, though their preference is fast-paced games like video poker, slots, blackjack, and roulette, where rounds end quickly and there is an immediate opportunity to play again.
  • Shopping/Spending: Spending addiction, also called oniomania, compulsive spending, shopping addiction, and compulsive buying disorder, occurs when people shop/spend obsessively despite the damage this does to their finances and their relationships.
  • Gaming: Video game addiction is the extreme use of computer and video games. Typically, gaming addicts play for at least two hours daily. Sometimes they play four or five times that amount. They often neglect sleep, personal hygiene, diet, relationships, jobs, exercise, financial obligations, and life in general.
  • Love/Romance: Love/romance addiction is the compulsive search for the neurobiological rush of early romance (clinically referred to as limerence). Love addicts sacrifice time, health, money, self-esteem, and more in their pursuit of this escapist high.
  • Sex: Sex addiction and porn addiction are similar. The primary difference is that sex addicts tend to search for and engage in real-world sexual activity as well as online sexual activity, while porn addicts engage primarily (sometimes exclusively) with porn.
  • Social Media: Social media addiction is the obsessive quest to have the most friends or followers on sites/apps like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, to have one’s lovingly constructed posts and tweets responded to in positive ways, and to ‘look good’ through an endless series of narcissistic posts. Social media addicts sometimes choose to bypass real-world relationships, recreation, and social engagement for their online life.

Compulsions vs. Addictions

It may seem from the preceding discussion that almost anything can be addictive – substances and behaviors alike. This is not in fact the case. For a substance or a behavior to be addictive, it needs to trigger the experience of pleasure and emotional escape. Without these elements, a behavior may be compulsive, but it does not qualify as an addiction. For instance, compulsive handwashing, though out of control and possibly creating negative consequences, causes neither pleasure nor emotional escape. As such, it is not an addiction. Instead, this behavior is classified as a form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Sobriety Can Look Different for Behavioral Addictions

With substance addictions, sobriety is easily defined – total abstinence. And for some behavioral addictions, like gambling addiction, it’s the same. However, with other behavioral addictions, sobriety may be more about harm reduction than total abstinence. This is the same basic approach that we see with eating disorders. Individuals with an eating disorder don’t stop eating altogether; they just work to eat in healthy ways. This is the approach with sex addiction, as well, though sex addicts who struggle with pornography will generally aim for total abstinence from porn. And porn addicts certainly shoot for total abstinence. Either way, the goal is to eliminate behaviors that create problems while still engaging in healthy ways in naturally occurring human functions.

Behavioral Addictions Can Be Difficult to Identify

Even though porn addiction and other behavioral addictions are in many respects similar to substance addictions, they can be more difficult to identify. After all, they’re easier to hide, they’re (usually) more socially acceptable, and outside observers (even some therapists) don’t always recognize certain behaviors as potentially addictive. As such, behavioral addicts typically must experience serious directly related consequences before anyone is willing to confront them and help them admit they have a problem.

Occasionally, behavioral addictions are uncovered during treatment for substance addiction, depression, or some other psychiatric condition. For instance, a man trying to get sober from alcohol and drugs may find himself compulsively using pornography as a replacement for drinking and drugging, leading to the realization that, for him, the compulsive use of porn is a cross-addiction. More often, however, individuals with behavioral addictions must ‘hit bottom’ before the addiction is uncovered.

Another major obstacle in the identification and treatment of porn and other behavioral addictions is the fact that most people view these issues as being less serious than ‘real’ addictions (i.e., substance addictions). In actuality, nothing could be further from the truth. Porn addiction and other behavioral addictions create the same types and degrees of havoc as substance addictions – relationship trouble, issues at work or in school, declining physical and/or emotional health, isolation, financial woes, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, legal trouble, and more.

For more information about the identification and treatment of porn addiction, visit the free resource website SexandRelationshipHealing.com, or the treatment-focused website SeekingIntegrity.com.

 

Can a Behavior (Like Viewing Porn) Be an Addiction?


Robert Weiss PhD, LCSW

Robert Weiss PhD, LCSW is Chief Clinical Officer of Seeking Integrity Treatment Centers. He is an expert in the treatment of adult intimacy disorders and related addictions, most notably sex/porn/relationship addictions along with co-occurring drug/sex addiction. A clinical sexologist and practicing psychotherapist, Dr. Rob frequently serves as a subject matter expert for major media outlets including CNN, HLN, MSNBC, OWN, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and NPR, among others.Dr. Rob is the author of Prodependence: Moving Beyond Codependency, Out of the Doghouse, Sex Addiction 101, and Cruise Control, among other books. He blogs regularly for Psychology Today and Psych Central. His podcast, Sex, Love, & Addiction, is rated as a Top 10 Addiction Podcast for 2019. He also hosts a weekly live no-cost Webinar with Q&A on SexandRelationshipHealing.com. A skilled clinical educator, Dr. Rob routinely provides training to therapists, hospitals, psychiatric organizations, and even the US military. Over the years, he has created and overseen nearly a dozen high-end addiction and mental health treatment facilities across the globe. For more information or to reach Dr. Rob, visit SeekingIntegrity.com. You can also follow him on Twitter (@RobWeissMSW), LinkedIn (Robert Weiss LCSW), and Facebook (Rob Weiss MSW).


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APA Reference
Weiss PhD, R. (2020). Can a Behavior (Like Viewing Porn) Be an Addiction?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/sex/2020/02/can-a-behavior-like-viewing-porn-be-an-addiction/

 

Last updated: 17 Feb 2020
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