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Free Resources for Sex and Porn Addiction - Module 6.2

Common Triggers for Sex Addiction and Porn Addiction - Part B - Emotions and their role in the addiction spiral

Emotions and their role in the addiction spiral

You may remember from module 2 and 3 that in the V2V model of sex and porn addiction that the addiction spiral is powered by triggers including emotions.  So its worth exploring the role of emotions and in particular trying to understand your own version of experiencing them as a core strategy in managing sex and porn addiction and attaining sustained recovery.

Related video: Causes of Sex and Porn Addictions and How to Stop

What do we know about emotions? Well we know that they are probably unique to humans and are often categorised into 8 groups each of which is a constellation of similar emotions or feeling states including; joy, sadness, love, anger, disgust, embarassment, shock and fear.  Within each we can expand out of course so anger will be associated with irritation, frustration, agression and hate whilst embarassment will link with shame, guilt and humility.  Why is this important to know?  Well, I am always surprised (links to shock!) at how many of my addict clients either do not recognise some of these or can equate with experiencing them.  THis is not to say they haven't - its just that they don't notice or acknowledge them, or perhaps quickly deny them - an unconscious device that somehow protects them from feeling them or being affected by them.  So it is good work for an addict to firstly recognise their own relationship with emotions and feelings so that any discrepancy can be addressed as part of the work of recovery.  For example, recognising that you don't experience shame or guilt related to acting out with porn or for example, escorts, is an important step in breaking through denial so 'normal' protective emotional responses can be re-introduced as healthy defences. Another example might be an addict who doesnt experience joy, contentment or happiness enough can beging to understand what part in their causal factors for addiction this expreience plays.  Such work might point to someone who has normalised their lack of fulfillment or inability to enjoy life's experiences so that a low mood is the prevailing state.  New ways of understanding a different way of experiencing life by challenging the normalisation could be the key route to recovery for someone in this scenario.

Looking at the role of our emotional experiences also helps us to understand why we might need to act out - sex and porn addictions are often considered as methids of 'affect regulation'.  A clever way of saying that escapism-type experiences help us to avoid the spikes of emotions so we can manage on a day to day basis.  Clearly, acting out by say playing computer games or going to the gym a lot is a lot healtheir than acting out with porn, escorts and sex webcams.  The challenge here is getting in touch with your emotions, feelings and mood states so that two things can be done; a) you can begin to notice and then manage the influence of these on driving your addictive behaviours, and b) put in place startegies to make emotional responses to life's experiences more normalised.  It's okay to get frustrated, even angry, as that is a normal response to life's challenges and disappointments.  However, too much of this type of response can push us over our tolerance level where the anger becomes unbearable and we find ways to disown it through dysfunctional acting out.

Emotions Galaxy

Culturally, some of us are de-entitled from feeling and expressing emotions.  remember being told to 'stop crying, that's for babies' or 'don't make a fuss and get on with it'.  It's a feature of the British culture in particular to have a 'stiff upper lip' and carry on regardless.  In short, our parents, teachers, vicars and priests, the media and others try to condition the natural emotions we need to feel out of us. This is more true for some segments of our species, such as boys and men for example, and so its perhaps not so surprising that these turn to acting out more often than others to keep them at bay. But they can't of course, it's a primal bit of encoding or evolution that we feel them, perhaps for reasons of survival or superiority over other species.  Ultimately it's not healthy to deny, avoid and otherwise circumvent emotional states - its what makes us human.  Equally, its also not healthy to allow emotional responses to experiences to be what defines us and drive us.  Some one who is unhappy all the time, or angry or sad all the time is likely to experience a compromised quality of life.

Within the complexity and diversity of emotional experience, each addict will have their own thresholds of discomfort where they might be pushed over or under the line into some form of instability.  Knowing where these lines are for each group of emotions unlocks an important understanding for addicts about their unique tolerances for different situations and responses to them.  For example, to identify the emotional response of fear underlying anxiety and stress can be a turning point for addicts.  Work on re-framing the perceived fear will alleviate the dependence on addictive behaviours as the anxiety diminishes.

Freud, the grandad of psychotherapy, held the belief that life was a constant pull between two unconscious drive states, Eros, the energised, creative striving for self-actualising, and Thanatos, the opposing pull backwards into inactivity, dormancy and ultimately death.  Setting aside hiw sue of the classical names, we can see this push-pull playing out in the human experience as we move between motivation and lethargy either in a generalised sense or in relation to more defined areas such as interests, work or mundane activities.  I've always felkt that as a species which has now evolved into a modern creature-comfort saturated world that we are more inclined to be lazy than motivated.  Apart from the necessity of an income which pulls us out of bed every morning for 40 years, we have a preference for doing nothing at all which benefits mankind and the planet - watching TV, eating and drinking more than is good for us or watching others work (sport, cinema, theatre etc) do little in terms of sustaining existence except to recover perhaps from the work we were dragged out of bed to do under duress.

I teach all my clients to understand their emotional ups and downs, mood states (a more enduring and permanent version of an emtion) and feelings. Sometimes a timeline is used to plot out the highs and lows over a week, month or lifetime to make the impact of these highly visual and conspicuous. Sometimes, periods of acting out with sex and porn can be over-layed with these swings of emotional states so a pattern of the addiction emerges into a clear target for work.

Related video: Causes of Sex and Porn Addiction and How to Stop

Some Theories About the Brain

Three theories help us understand better why emotions are so key to sex and porn addiction.  Firstly, there is the biological science about the structure of the brain and how this plays out in our everyday lives.  In essence our triune, or 3-part brain, consists of a brain stem (storing our most basic functions like breathing), our limbic system (where our emotions are processed) and the neo-cortex (where we do all out thinking).  This is useful to know because this leads us into understanding that emotions can be driving us quite independently of cognitive processing, the second set of theories. 

Our early childhood experiences and later traumas are closely associated with our basic survival instincts which are also located in non-cognitive parts of the brain, and can mean for some that survival systems are being activated more often than for others. For excample, a adult who as a child experienced neglect might have developed a more acute sense of vigilance underpinned by a lack of trust and fear of others.  Constantly activated survival responses mean that these adults are always on edge and prone to levels of anxiety.  This is enough to trigger a need for self-medicating addictive behaviours such as sex and porn use. 

In these types of situations adults' are not able to quickly interpose cognitive processing of their experiences (for example, by reminding themselves that are no longer a vulnerable child and as an adult now have coping mechanisms and other rescue factors to call on) so that their responses very rapidly appraise danger via the so-called 'quick and dirty route'* in the brain which leads into panic mode.  Here, such adults adopt a range of safety behaviours such as avoidance, including distracting behaviours such as sex and porn.  Therapeutic work in this case would help clients to slow down their survival system enough to divert the sense experience via the 'slow and careful'* route into the cognitive neo-cortex where it can be appraised realistically, rather than just being felt.

* terms taken from Glyn Hudson-Allez; Child Losses Adult Searches.

The thrird theory helpful here is proposed by Daniel Kahneman in his book 'Thinking Fast and Slow' which echoes tha above. This idea is particularly helpful for those experiencing addiction and compulsive behaviours.  In this our thinking is divided into two sorts, System 1 and System 2.  Automated thinking is system 1 and this is where our habituated cogntive activites sit.  Such things as our daily routines are automated so that our thinking is barely detectable due to its rapidity.  We all know how this works when we consider some regular daily actitivites such as driving.  It is reasonable to consider that the outcomes of the survival and panic response explained above, suich as a self-soothing few hours of looking at pornography are also in the system 1 category of thinking.  We can say this because this response is fully automated after a short period of habitual use which as we saw in module 2 and 3 is reinforced by the effect of dopamine.  In his book Kahneman says that we can shift this sort of thinking into system 2, slow it down and manage it rationally.  We have to do this when we stretch our mental capacity to work out more complex calculations as opposed to automated simple ones.  When we calculate 2+2 we don't need to figure it out because our brain has learned it over and over. Whereas calculating 789x34 would take most of some considerable mental effort.  

A big chunk of the work in overcoming a habituated addiction is in slowing down the thinking and apllying progressively more and more rational processing, such as considering the adverse consequences as we did in the MIDAS toolkit in module 4.  Another way of thinking about this is that we are shifting from an emotive, survival and panic response to situations into a cognitive one to regain control.  To use Kahneman's ideas again, we also have to expend some 'cognitive effort' in making this switch.  Will power, as in simply telling yourself over and over not to do something, is by itself not enough as we can see in this context.  Slowed down thinking about the brain re-training and the dis-benefits of acting out are far more pwerful agents of abstinence.  As we saw earlier, we are inclined to be lazy as a species, and denial and helplessness are part of that condition as they justify non-action and staying in what is often an illusory comfort zone where sex and porn give a false sense of pleasure and well-being. 

To consolidate where these 3 theories take us then with regard to emotions we can work on limiting the effect of often instinctive survival-type episodes of emotional states or the more learned and habituated reactions to threatening situations.  Aiming to convert these into the slow and careful or system 2 thinking parts of the brain is powerful ammunition in winning the battle with addiction which thrives on emotional processing of experince.  This is not to say we should all become non-emotional automatons but it is saying we need to keep things within an acceptable band of tolerance so we can maintain balance in out lives; not robotic or perfect, but good enough.

Next steps

Look at the emotions 'galaxy' diagram above and identify which emotions you:

1) don't remember experiencing - make a note of these

2) experience all the time - make a note of these

Consider in relation to 1) if the lack of these emotions in your experience ie if you can't remember feeling happy or excited for example, what effect might the lack of these have had on your life - would this gap be a potential,causal factor in your addictive patterns?

For 2) you can be exploring if there has been an over-abundance of one or several emotions that has dominated your life and experiences.  It is widely accepted that emotions very often drive our behaviours - we feel angry so we lash out or we feel sad so we look for ways to lift ourselves such as alcohol - so finding your influencing emotions can indicate a possible recovery strategy.

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