Brain Disease and Sex Addiction Treatment
By: Gordon S. Bruin M.A., L.P.C
Edited by Jacob Kastleman
“One ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them. One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them. In the Land of Mordor where the shadows lie.” -J.R.R. Tolkien
Pornographers are keenly aware of the content that I am going to share with you. They are trying to do everything possible to keep this addiction treatment information from reaching you. They don’t talk about it, nor will they.
Pornographers understand that millions are addicted to their material and a lot more addicted daily. The pornography industry is the biggest drug cartel in the world! Neuroscience shows us that there is little difference in the physical or chemical changes in the pleasure and control centers of the brain whether the addiction is from a chemical or from an experience.
Neurosurgeon Dr. Donald L. Hilton Jr. states, “It is imperative that we treat pornography and sexual addiction with the respect accorded any drug addiction, for as we shall see, that is precisely what it is.”
Until we, the general public, become more informed about the reality of how pornography reacts with the human brain, it will just be looked at as a moral weakness or some kind of entertainment rather than a true chemical addiction. As a professional counselor working in the addiction treatment field for more than 20 years, I want to make it clear, “sexual addiction issues, like pornography, are a CHEMICAL ADDICTION.”
Pornography or Visual Sex Addiction Treatment is Difficult
Pornography addiction treatment is one of the most difficult addictions to treat because it strikes at the core of our humanity. Interest in sexuality is a primary driving force in human beings. It is pleasurable for a reason and necessary for the human race to exist. If there were ever to be the perfect drug created, pornography would be it. Pornography is the “perfect brain poison.” Therefore pornography addiction treatment is extremely difficult to reverse
The major pornography addiction treatment dilemma with this drug is that it is legal and accessed in almost every home free of charge 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. Simply put, it is one click away. The chemical cocktail that is released in the brain is of the most profound addicting nature. The almost insurmountable challenge we face is the fact that most addicts encounter it very young. Young people throughout the world become addicted before realizing what is happening. The average age exposed to porn is 11-years-old.
How would you feel if you saw a person holding a young child on the ground and injecting them with heroin? Not a pleasing thought, is it? In reality, this is what’s happening with pornography.
Throughout my career I have spent enumerable hours on addiction treatment; treating individuals and couples with chemical dependency addictions like alcohol, heroin/opiates, cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, etc. I feel qualified to speak about addiction treatment and about what I have witnessed and made the claim from a clinical therapeutic perspective that pornography addiction is the primary addiction of them all.
It strikes at the core of humanity and is negatively affecting the world in ways that the majority scarcely imagine. The increasing concern is what will happen with the upcoming generation without education, help, and addiction treatment. The children do not have immunity to it and the young children are the ones being exposed at a shockingly high rate.
The Difference Between The Mind and The Brain
Our brains are made up of chemicals called neurotransmitters. These chemicals control our emotions, feelings, and behaviors. Many, unfortunately, do not realize how powerful these tiny chemicals are and how they affect our lives, behavior, and happiness. At this microscopic level, there’s constant interplay between a chemical and electrical interaction. In his insightful book, entitled “The Mind and the Brain”, Dr. Jeffery Schwartz explains the differences between the mind and the brain.
There is a continuous interplay between both parts and each may have a powerful influence on the other. The mind and the brain work simultaneously to bring meaning to life. My interpretation of this is that the mind, or spirit, is the electrical intelligence that lives in this physical-chemical body and brain. Addiction occurs when the physical brain has taken control of the mind. The mind is the intelligent part of us that gets frustrated at the loss of control. It is in the mind that the conscience exists. This is the part that generates feelings of right or wrong. The physical brain has no concept of right or wrong. Its primary function is to keep us alive, and it does this by driving us to avoid pain and to seek pleasure.
The physical-chemical brain has a tremendous capacity to gain control of the mind. It can subject it and trap it. In other words, it can take over the human will and influence how a person thinks, feels and acts. This state is known as addiction. It is a state where the physical-chemical brain demands or compels one towards a certain behavior regardless of what the mind or conscience says. There appears to be something inherent in the human family that feels it is wrong to view the private sexual acts of others. In other words, the mind, the electrical intelligent part of us, simply cannot feel good about participating in it. I make this claim after listening to hundreds of addiction treatment stories of clients who have viewed pornography.
The results are always the same.
I have never had a client come in and tell me that they had a slip during the past week and they felt good about it. NEVER! Viewing pornography leaves in its wake feelings of frustration, irritation, depression, emptiness, and debilitating shame. These feelings are the direct result of chemical disruptions in the brain that are unnatural and unsustainable for any type of healthy or satisfying life. Also, the mind and the spirit suffer when caught up in these acts that hold a complete disregard for the importance and meaning of sexuality. Sex is not meant to be a frivolous pastime nor a recreational activity, it is meant to be shared between two people who have deep feelings of love and commitment to one another. This conflict between mind, spirit, and brain is felt within addicts. When these behaviors come, addiction treatment should be sought, and not delayed due to unrealistic justifications and rationalizations.
In essence, the only difference between a heroin addict and a cocaine addict is the way the drug enters the system. The brain responds from information received from the eye quicker than from any other source.
Visual information is processed in the limbic system in microseconds.
This is why pornography is such a big deal. Visual information is processed faster than any of our others senses. Even the ingestion of heroin or cocaine is much slower in comparison. The brain responds to visual sexual images in microseconds, and the chemical reactions take place instantly and automatically.
Because of the power of the chemical brain and its capacity to shut out the conscience, there are many who claim that this behavior is normal or mere entertainment and they don’t look for addiction treatment because they feel there is no addiction.
The rationalizations and justifications that can come from the survival part of the brain are very alluring and convincing for sure. When one participates in these behaviors long enough it is as though they can no longer hear that voice inside of themselves telling them to stop.
Many clients have asked me “how do people participating in these behaviors feel afterward?” My experience is that they will do whatever they can to avoid that question. They avoid at all costs quiet and reflective time because that is when the mind or conscience seems to prick them.
It is my opinion that those who produce and participate in the making of any form of pornography are so deep into rationalizing and justifying their behaviors that they can no longer hear, feel or see clearly the truth about what they are doing. There is no other way they could do this work unless they have these psychological defenses firmly in place. They will have to come to this awareness on their own because the more one tells them how destructive this behavior is, the more defensive and justified they will become.
Those who have made it out of this industry will tell you that they always knew it was destructive and unhealthy, but in order for them to admit it they have to get out of it first.
Many who have become involved in the porn world may feel that they are too far gone to get out of it. This simply isn’t true. They can also get into addiction treatment and recovery and with the proper education and support, they can find the peace that they have been searching for. Thousands have done it already.
Sex Addiction Treatment is Necessary
To those who have trouble accepting the fact that pornography addiction treatment is difficult and necessary, listen to the following email that I recently received.
As you read this email ask yourself the following question: Is this individual seeking pornography as a mere form of healthy entertainment or is he driven and compelled to have it? This email comes from a man who is highly respected in his community, loves his family and is committed to providing for them and caring for them.
“I am sick to my core by virtue of my indulgence in pornography. To be honest, my appetite for porn accounted for why I got the internet in the very first place and now that I am down in a horrendous pit I seriously wonder whether there is hope of recovery for me, for whenever I log onto the internet I must view porn.
What is wrong with me? Why can’t I change who I am present? Why doesn’t addiction treatment work for me? Is there any change possible in the future for me?”
The feeling expressed in this letter is common to what I am seeing in my clinical practice day in and day out when dealing with addiction treatment. Pornography eats away at the inner soul.
After one views it (usually in secrecy and isolation), it leaves them with feelings of absolute determination never to look at it again, frustration with self, depression, discouragement and a very powerful feeling of all consuming hopelessness.
Pay particular attention to the above email when this individual uses the words, “I am sick to my core.” That doesn’t sound like a very fun form of entertainment to me.
Nothing can be more frustrating to a strong-willed man or woman with high values in addiction treatment to face the reality that they cannot control their behavior in regard to viewing pornography or sexually acting out behaviors. Again, pay attention to the words in the above email when he says, “whenever I log onto the internet I must view porn.”
In the simplest terms, we, in essence, have two brains that work in concert with each other. The higher functioning brain, the neocortex, sits on the top of the more primitive brain known as the limbic system.
The Most Important Psychological Discoveries of the Twentieth Century
To aid addiction treatment and understand more about how these two different parts of the brain work, I refer to the work of James Olds. James Olds was one of the most important psychologists of the twentieth century. Indeed, many feel that his discovery of the “reward” system in the brain is the most important single discovery yet made in the field concerned with how the brain works and affects behavior. His discovery has given us a much-increased understanding of addiction.
What Olds discovered that is so significant to the understanding of addiction and addiction treatment is that our pleasure centers (where the addiction lives) are housed in the Midbrain or Limbic System, which is not under the direct control of the conscious mind or the Frontal Cortex. The Midbrain’s prime directive above all others is survival. This part of the brain has the task of keeping us alive. It is the part that monitors our basic survival needs. This part of the brain generates survival appetites that drive the rest of the body toward what it demands, such as oxygen, water, food, sleep, sex, etc.
James Olds discovered the power of the Midbrain when doing experiments with mice. When mapping out how the brain responded to pleasurable stimuli by placing electrodes on different areas of the brain, he was astounded when he saw what happened to the mice when he connected to the Midbrain. He found that when the mice had the capacity to tap into the pleasure centers of the Midbrain and receive continual pleasure they would do so at the expense of all other functions until they died. These mice would keep pressing a certain lever that delivered a stimulus, equal to that of cocaine until they died of exhaustion or starvation. These pleasure centers simply overwhelmed the other functions of the brain. Our own pleasure centers work in a similar manner.
Now we are beginning to get a clearer glimpse of the challenging nature of addiction treatment. It is also important to note that the limbic system functions at the subconscious level. A good metaphor to describe this is by a picture of an iceberg. Eighty-five to ninety percent of an iceberg is underwater. We cannot see it with our eyes from the surface. Many now believe that eighty-five to ninety percent of our behaviors are driven from this subconscious limbic region. The ten to fifteen percent of the iceberg we see with our eyes can be likened to the conscious mind.
When one views pornography there is a whole cocktail of pleasure chemicals released in the limbic regions of the brain. Such chemicals as Dopamine, Norepinephrine, Oxytocin, and Serotonin bind the brain to seek certain behaviors that will produce a euphoric feeling state.
Addiction Treatment Reverses Neuroscience
Scientific evidence now strongly supports an organic basis for all addiction. Neuroscience has shown that all addictions, both drug and natural, are caused by a deficit of dopamine in the reward system. This deficit produces a very powerful craving which underlies all addiction. The power or driving force behind these cravings and obsessions can literally disconnect the prefrontal/rational brain and drive one to behaviors that are emotionally and psychologically destructive.
The very definition of addiction is that one continues to participate in behaviors where there are negative consequences despite their best efforts to stop. What we are now seeing is that if the limbic system is constantly unrestrained it grows stronger and the pre-frontal cortex shrinks. In other words, the part of our brain that is able to put the brakes on our primitive drives begins to malfunction. It simply loses the strength to restrain unwanted behavior. Fortunately, with abstinence and counseling support–with addiction treatment–the brain can heal itself. What a miracle it is.
This reality about addiction and addiction treatment was hypothesized almost a century ago before we had the evidence to support it. William James made the following statement in the 1800’s:
“I believe that we are subject to the law of habit in consequence of the fact that we have bodies. The plasticity of the living matter of our nervous system, in short, is the reason why we do a thing with difficulty the first time, but soon do it more and more easily, and finally, with sufficient practice, do it semi-mechanically, or with hardly any consciousness at all. Our nervous systems have grown to the way in which they have been exercised, just as a sheet of paper or a coat, once creased or folded, tends to fall forever afterward into the same identical folds.”
But with the building of new habits and the creation of a new life that includes the right support and the right application of education, these folds and creases can indeed be made less and less and new ones can be made in their place.
The Hope of Sex Addiction Treatment and Recovery
I know all the above information can sound discouraging, but we must not lose hope about addiction treatment. With the proper education and addiction treatment, I have seen miracles happen and people change their behaviors and their lives. If one has a deep desire to change, it is not only possible but probable. Yes, it will take time and persistent application of certain principles of behavior change, and yes there will most likely be some slips along the way, but the desired change CAN absolutely be realized.
The words of Thomas Paine are meaningful when considering addiction treatment:
“These are the times that try men’s souls. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods, and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.” – Thomas Paine
One of the greatest challenges of addiction treatment is that most are looking to do it alone and they are looking for the quick cure. Addiction cannot be “hoped”, “willed”, or even “sentenced” away, it requires addiction treatment therapy based on established scientific principles.” -Dr. Glen Hansen
Pornography addiction is a disorder of pathological decision making. The limbic hijacks the rational brain. It is important to understand that the limbic system develops long before our cognitive ability does. This is why pornography is a crime for the rising generation. The young have no addiction treatment or defenses that are capable of dealing with it. Almost every client that I have seen in the clinical setting began their addiction to pornography as a young child or adolescent. When they came across the material they simply had no cognitive defenses to deal with it.
When one comes to understand that this addiction is a brain disease, they are more likely to accept that addiction treatment is necessary. In recovery, the focus is on accepting the addiction for what it is and then strengthening the pre-frontal cortex to manage it and build new habits to overcome it. There are assignments and tools that are able to teach one how to do this. This is what is working with the addiction treatment clients that I have been treating for the past 6 years. Therapy by a qualified therapist along with 12 Step Program meetings can prove invaluable in the healing process. These principles require that you don’t try to do addiction treatment alone. Regardless of your resistance to doing so, it is strongly suggested that you reach out for help and break the isolation barrier. There are safe places to go where your anonymity will be preserved. We all need support and we all need accountability; this is the case for everybody, addicts and non-addicts alike. Relationships and connection empower this process in a way that nothing else can.
Donald L. Hilton Jr. MD outlines the following metaphor in his excellent book, “He Restoreth My Soul” (Forward Press Publishing, LLC. April 2009, 209-210). I find this metaphor very useful for the addiction treatment topic at hand. “In his masterpiece The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien tells the story of how one powerful ring must be destroyed to save the land from destruction. “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them. One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them. In the Land of Mordor where the shadows lie.” Pornography addiction can be likened unto this One captivating Ring, trying to find and bring all it can to the mental and spiritual land of Mordor where the shadows lie.
This story provides a powerful metaphor for the plight of those who struggle with pornography addiction. In this story, Frodo, a hobbit, is the one chosen to carry this ring to the dark land of Mordor and cast the ring into the Fires of Mount Doom where it would finally be destroyed. It is interesting to note that Frodo hates the burden of carrying the ring but also doesn’t want to part with it. In fact, he becomes frustrated, irritated and angry when anyone tries to take the Ring away. By nature, Frodo is kind and thoughtful, but he becomes cruel and selfish when this happens. It is also noteworthy that when he puts the Ring on, he becomes invisible while wearing it.
How similar to the isolation of pornography addiction is this? When one is acting out, it is usually in isolation, apart from loved ones. Note the similarities of the Ring – the power to isolate, to make invisible and produce feelings of lust. Remember with pornography these feelings of lust are caused by very real biochemicals within the brain.
One of the most poignant parts of this classic story is that when Frodo comes closer to Mordor he describes the great burden that he carries. He loses strength and finds that he cannot do it alone. He needs the help of his friend Sam. Sam says to Frodo, “Come, Mr. Frodo! I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you. So up you get! Come on, Mr. Frodo, Dear!” (The Return of the King, The Easton Press, 1984, 217-218).
Even at the end of this long and arduous journey, he cannot throw the Ring away by himself. Those who have faced this addiction themselves, or who have struggled with another’s addiction treatment to help their loved one, will be able to recognize the similarities. Those addicted can feel like they are in an endless battle and struggle. They may lose all hope of ever being free. With great effort they will fight the continual obsessions and compulsions, only to slip and fall again and again. They must come to the conclusion that they cannot do this on their own.
Sometimes the “Sams” in their lives will have to carry them. Although the Sams cannot carry the addiction for them, they can give them enormous strength and support to continue forward, until they come out on the other side of a struggle triumphant and clean. Journeys like this must sometimes be made again and again, but in those difficult times, having somebody you trust can make every bit of difference.
One of the main keys with especially rough times is that eventually, the one who has suffered from addiction is able to go through challenges and hard times and yet continue to be clean even in those incredibly difficult times. Another person being there during this process can change everything, as the sufferer knows they can count on them to truly be there and they can tell them what they are going through without judgment and without assumptions. Also, they can feel accountable to this person or these people.
There is scientific evidence that with abstinence, addiction treatment, and recovery support, the brain can heal and rewire itself. Consider the words of Henry David Thoreau regarding this process. “As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a single pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.” This is where the commitment to treatment and recovery come in. Addiction treatment hope is increased when one finally decides to reach out and seek the help that they need. It is an ongoing process of committing to live a certain way 24 hours at a time! With the proper help, support and commitment this strongly desired change do occur! It can be done!