A Neuroscientist Explains How to Quit Porn

how to quit porn
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The psychology of porn addiction

The average age of first exposure to porn used to be twelve to thirteen years, now it’s eight, with the youngest exposure as early as five.

All thanks to the internet, an unassuming child finds pornography way too early, and it floods his or her brain with the pleasure-seeking neurotransmitter, dopamine.

According to Dr. Trish Leigh, a cognitive neuroscientist and sexual addiction recovery coach, most men often confess to her in her practice that the first time they were exposed to porn, they found it repulsive. But they continued watching it because it lit their brain up in a good way. As Dr. Trish put it,

“The way porn gets addictive in the first place is the floods of dopamine in the system. The system then tries to calibrate this flood of dopamine so that it can get back to its normal state ― homeostasis. But when the person goes back to porn, they’ll need more dopamine to get the same rush as the first time ― habituation. From here on, the brain is always recalibrating.”

When a person frequents porn too much, the frontal lobe gets deactivated. At the same time, the reward center is getting flooded and this gradually affects the receptors in the reward center. This means you’ll need to go back for more and more to continue to attempt to get that good feeling. And this will lead to more frequency and intensity. This is how the brain gets hijacked by porn.

Why do people easily get addicted to porn?

According to Dr. Trish, the number one reason people consume porn isn’t for sexual satisfaction. It’s for mood regulation, usually to decrease anxiety or take the edge off of boredom.

Once you get hooked on porn, a deliberate cycle occurs within you in terms of your neurochemicals. This cycle then plays out externally as behavior or addiction. The cycle goes as follows:

At the top of the stressful cycle, there’s a trigger. And this trigger is typically a stressor. As Dr. Trish explained, “When something stressful either emotionally or physically happens, the addict’s brain goes ‘That’s stressful. I don’t like this feeling. I don’t want to have to deal with this addiction right now, so let’s watch porn.’”

And the minute you have the thought that you’re going to watch porn, dopamine already starts dripping into your system. This is often why it’s almost impossible to resist watching porn once the thought of doing it drops in your mind.

The habits get ritualized. As time goes on, conditions like the time of the day, the weather, physical location, etc., will easily trigger your mood and get the dopamine flowing in your system even before you consume porn.

When you now go ahead to start a porn session, dopamine flows in large quantities in your system, numbing whichever uncomfortable feeling you’re trying to escape. This lights your brain up and makes you feel good at the moment, a situation Dr. Trish called escapism — an addict’s attempt to self-soothe themselves from a world they’ve come to see as painful, or even stressful.

Porn addicts use porn as “the easy button”

When a healthy person goes to work, whether personal hobbies or big projects, they get excited because there’s a sense of meaning that comes with knowing that they are useful. This gives them dopamine.

As projects culminate and they see the reward of the small steps towards a big goal, they get more dopamine. This is healthy dopamine. Then they go out to dinner with friends and have a good time, more dopamine. They go out to a party with their loved ones where they dance and probably end the evening with great sex, more dopamine. This is how we were designed to get dopamine. It’s supposed to motivate us to go after great experiences.

But according to Dr. Trish, there can never be enough dopamine spike in these normal activities as there is in porn. Furthermore, you don’t need any effort to watch porn. Going out with friends, on the other hand, requires effort from you. Starting and completing important projects takes time and hard work. Porn doesn’t.

With porn, all you need is your gadget and yourself. As Dr. Trish put it, “It’s an easy button.” You get all of the rewards without doing any of the work.

The after-effects of watching porn

Most people feel bad about watching too much porn not necessarily for religious reasons. It’s because of the after-effect, which they are most likely not aware of.

After a porn session, your dopamine levels fall low, while cortisol (the stress neurotransmitter) goes up. This makes you feel good during the session, but terrible afterward. And according to Dr. Trish, the terrible feeling may come immediately after, or even days later. They may feel anxious, depressed, guilty, shameful, angry, irritable, mood swings, etc.

The first step to quitting porn

One of the major problems people face with quitting porn is denial. They tell themselves they have it under control. And because society doesn’t put a big label on porn, as it does for drugs, alcohol, or cocaine, porn addicts can find comfort in this lie.

Hence, the first step to quitting porn, as Dr. Trish put it, is to move from Denial to acceptance. You must admit that you have a habit that you no longer want in your life. And you need to admit that it is destroying your brain.

Cut out all the excuses you’re giving yourself to watch porn. This is the most important step.

People usually have problems breaking bad habits and forming new ones because of all the excuses they have for not doing the right thing, right now all appear valid.

Can’t go for a run? Well, it’s easy to just tell yourself “I had a rough day yesterday, so I can’t run today.” Or “The weather is too cold this morning, I can’t run.” Some people will tell themselves they just have to watch porn because of their high libido. And the truth is, it all sounds rational and valid.

But just because you can get an excuse for doing the wrong thing doesn’t make it right.

You’re not attracted to porn because you have a high libido. According to Dr. Trish, people who like watching porn usually have a brain pattern that has lower activation, making it need constant stimulation. They also have an anxious brain pattern that often needs calming.

The hardest part of porn recovery is accepting that you need help. Most people will rather rationalize and justify the habit.

Find other ways to decompress

One of the reasons people watch porn, as Dr. Trish said, is for mood regulation. When people are stressed or going through any form of emotional pain, they tend to turn to external sources to regulate their mood. Some turn to alcohol, others drugs. Porn is just one of them.

You can learn to counter the effect of stress on you by learning to be conscious of how you feel in the moment. Pay attention and take action when you feel you’re getting to your threshold with whatever you’re doing. Take breaks in between tasks. Eat good food that you enjoy.

The key here is to find a healthy way to regulate your mood. Practice self-awareness. Know when to pull the breaks with a task when it begins to take a toll on your mental state. If you regulate your mood before it becomes a case of emergency for your brain, you’re less likely to turn to porn for mood regulation.

Elimination

If you’ve accepted the harmful impact of porn in your life, this shouldn’t be difficult for you to do. Look at everything that’s on your gadgets right now. Are you saving files or subscriptions that can easily trigger you? Eliminate them. Of course, this may be easier said than done, but it’s really this simple. Eliminate them.

Identify and get rid of triggers

Go through some thorough introspection and identify those things around you that always make you want to watch porn. Maybe whenever you see an attractive woman at the gym, you can’t stop staring and fantasizing until you finally get home and watch porn. That’s a trigger.

Perhaps you’re looking at certain things on social media, following influencers who have undergone butt and boob surgery, and whenever you have a session on Instagram or TikTok, it usually ends up with you watching porn.

Maybe you’re more prone to porn whenever you’re alone at home, go out to a public spot. Or, if you can, go out with your friends when they go out. Or you can decide to keep the door open whenever you’re alone studying or watching a movie.

Whatever the trigger maybe, once you spot it, get rid of it. Once you identify the fact that

Get addicted to something else

Positive addiction is a term advanced by the psychologist and therapist William Glasser in 1976 in his book Positive Addiction. And one of the major points that Glasser tried to put across was that it takes strength and deliberateness to live a happy and fulfilled life.

In other words, if we don’t deliberately work hard in building the right habits, things naturally go downhill. It’s that Murphy’s law: “Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.”

Some painters find it difficult to stop painting. There are music lovers who want to go on singing for hours with or without food. They can’t go a few hours without thinking of or singing a note, or even trying to compose a song in their heads. That’s an addiction. But we will rather call it talent or passion.

When you have something you love so much that your mind is naturally engrossed in most parts of the day, it will be much easier to forget about porn for good.

Before you leave…

Beyond routines and identifying triggers, one of the most important steps necessary to quit porn is your mindset towards it. The problem is, there’s so much casualism in the way most people see porn.

Jordan Peterson once said that if you want to quit porn, the right way to think about it is this:

You know you want to have a better life, and porn is one of the things keeping you from having it.

Porn is no doubt extremely gratifying in the short term. But almost everyone who uses it suffers the medium to long term consequences of its use. Think of who you could be without porn in your life. As Jordan Peterson recommends,

“You need a deeply thought-through story that you can tell yourself about how porn’s hurting you, minimizing you, and how it’s making you embarrassed, ashamed, and socially isolated.”

In other words, you’re not just trying to quit porn, you’re trying to clean up your life.

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