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Vicious to Virtuous V2V Free Recovery Programme Resources - Module 3 Image Banner

Vicious to Virtuous V2V Free Recovery Programme Resources - Module 3

This is the 3rd module in the Esteem Therapy Yorkshire free resources for porn and sex addiction to be used by clients and others needing support.

The Grip of Dopamine-Led Addiction; Regaining Power over Cravings – 5 Essential Simple Steps

In the previous module of V2V we looked at 2 types of patterns in sex and porn addiction; type 1 (behavioural spiral of addiction) and type 2 (dopamine-led neurological spiral of addiction – see figure 2 below).  You also began your self-assessment to understand better, and to take more control over, your type 1 behavioural pattern.  Here in module 3 we will look at how the type 1 behavioural spiral mutates into an all-consuming, all-controlling, automated dopamine-led spiral.  We look at why this is so powerful and, without the right techniques, very problematic to break.

This module ends with 5 essential yet simple do-right-now steps you can take to begin winding back the automated dopamine effect and resume manual control.

Dopamine-led cycle of addiction

Persistent repetition of sexual and porn behaviours constantly fires up so-called neural pathways to the point where the behaviours become learned and automatic.  These pathways become charged up so much that they transform into a sort of high-velocity travellator racing straight to your brain’s reward and pleasure centres.  Once on this there is only one place to go and no getting off! Dopamine, one of the ‘happy’ chemicals in the brain, is mostly responsible for this ‘learning’.  Unfortunately, dopamine has a built-in quality that makes it progressively more and more addictive.  This devious quality is part of our primitive genetic encoding.   As hunter-gatherers, dopamine served us as a primal motivator to make us seek out things we needed for survival such as food, warmth and opportunities for procreation. 

Dopamine made essential survival activities pleasurable so we would make the effort required to battle against the forces of nature, other tribes and low expectations of reward. In the modern world where all our basic needs are easily met, our primitive dopamine-led circuitry can easily become misdirected. It can hijack us into new forms of hunting-type behaviours, such as seeking out the perfect porn clip or sexual experience.  So we might say that our primitive dopamine programming is a liability in the modern human experience where there are endless opportunities for instant gratification.  It can sadly make some of us spiral out of control as self-gratification is used to ease the problems of modern life. 

Dopamine-led addictive behaviours have both sensitising and de-sensitising effects.  Initially, a sex or porn addict’s brain will become sensitised to sexualised cues which act as the on-switch for the high-velocity travellator to acting out and pleasure rewards.  Steadily, de-sensitisation of the cues and acting out experiences settles in and new sources of novelty and excitement are needed to satisfy the ever-growing dopamine dependence.  Addicts’ dopamine pathways lead to higher and higher expectations of reward as the novelty that once was fails to deliver.

Addiction as a Learned Behaviour

Being enticed constantly by the need for a dopamine high is a form of unintentional rote learning. Eventually this repetition installs ‘second nature’.  It takes us many lessons and rote practice of multiplication tables or driving manoeuvres to get to the point of automation.  Learned behaviours driven by a dopamine ‘dependency’ are like driving or working out 7 x 5 - they  need little or no cognitive effort.  This is the scary part of sex and porn addiction.  After persistent repetition acting out behaviours are actually on auto-pilot, travelling at break-neck speeds.  The addicted brain’s rational cognitive pathways are by-passed and thoughts about the negative consequences barely glimmer.

In other words, sex and porn addictions are actually forms of dependency on at least one powerful chemical in the brain.

Figure 2

Dopamine-driven behaviours soon become an entity in their own right; they develop their own self-reinforcing downward spiral of demand and fulfilment. (see Figure 2) Actual content of porn clips and the nature of sexual experiences become second cousins to seeking and pursuing ever more novel activities that generate dopamine (the chase),. This explains several things which confound sex and pornography addicts all the time:

1)      The often complete lack of conscious control and feeling of powerlessness when the sensitised brain triggers off and cravings tug – a sort of euphoric impulsiveness shuts off any rational decision-making

2)      The deceptive feeling that addiction is genetic or a given – therefore incurable; the ‘automated’ pathways feel more like an in-built trait rather than a learned behaviour

3)      The obsessive searching for the perfect image, chat-room exchange or sexual encounter to meet the escalating dopamine expectations becomes more important than climax and explains long durations of acting out, edging and delaying climax to maintain pain-numbing euphoria

4)      Escalation of the behaviours into more and more risky and sometimes illegal activities as the de-sensitisation sets in and extreme acting out stealthily takes hold, over-riding an addict’s personal values and ethics.

Recovery Journey Map

There are 3 key stages in the journey from the dopamine-fuelled spiral of addiction back to a virtuous cycle of self-support. (see Figure 3:  V2V Route Map)

1)      Disrupting and then switching off the automated, pre-conscious dependency on dopamine (this returns you to the type 1 behavioural spiral) – sometimes referred to as over-learning, the re-boot or rewiring period

2)      Resolution of any underlying pre-conditioning, crunch-point experiences and chronic factors (see Module 2 – Causal Patterns) that give dysfunctional responses to life events (this is done at the same time as 1 and may involve psychotherapy, EMDR, coaching etc.)

3)      Installation of a virtuous cycle of self-support to maintain well-being and ward-off any need for acting out as an escape – usually done using coaching support or self-help techniques (see Module 5).

While these are the 3 stages, the actual route and time taken will depend on your learning style, level of commitment and capacity to make changes to your routines.  Reflective learners need time to absorb new ideas before committing to them fully.  Whereas active learners just like to jump in and get on with it.  If you are a reflector you are probably more suited to a slower, de-escalation of your acting out rituals whereas if you are more of an activist learner you will probably want to stop straightaway and ‘white-knuckle’ your recovery.  Either way is legitimate – what works for you works.

Figure 3: Recovery Journey Map

Virtuous Cycle of Self-Support – the Final Destination

Within 3-6 months sex and porn addicts can re-learn their patterns of addiction so that a healthy virtuous cycle of self-support is installed.  (see Figure 4: Virtuous Cycle of Self-Support) Sustained management of the virtuous cycle will seriously diminish any future need for addictive behaviours.  Former addicts will manage life events effectively, keeping themselves within their tolerance zone and removing the need for acting out behaviours as an escape or self-soother.

Figure 4: Virtuous Cycle of Self-Support

Get Started on Stage 1 – Disrupting and Switching off the Spiral of Dopamine Dependency

Getting off the dopamine dependency and re-balancing your neurochemical thermostat is easier than you think.  Improvements will accrue on the way to a recommended 90-day, unblemished period of abstinence – the point at which research tells us re-wiring is well-established.  Your dopamine spiral will stay closed off whilst you install your new virtuous lifestyle aimed at healthier forms of self-support and self-fulfilment. If you are committed to change (see Module 1 for techniques to strengthen this) and can find your preferred way with it you will succeed more easily than you imagine. 

Your aim is to disrupt, shake up and gradually dismantle the automated pathways in your brain by re-learning new lifestyle patterns – however symmetrical or random.  Constant disruption will work like a war of attrition on stubborn dopamine-pathways and eventually force them into a state of surrender.

Your brain is genetically-designed to learn new ways and behaviours – it just takes time, patience and persistence.  The following 5-steps are essential tools to help the re-learning and re-wiring. You will experience some early gains, such as more hope, energy and time, which will boost your trust in your efforts and self-confidence.  Very soon you will feel good about yourself for making even small, incremental steps - every one represents progress!

Step 1 – Re-wiring – decide your personalised approach

Select either

a)      I am starting right now with complete abstinence from acting out OR

b)      I will de-escalate acting out

Now set a Timeframe

Complete – “I am committing to total abstinence from acting out from today (date _________) or following a period of de-escalation I will begin total abstinence from (date __________)”

I am aiming at achieving 90 days total abstinence from acting out on the (date) _________________

Step 2 – Traffic Lights Re-Wiring Plan

In the red STOP light HIGH RISK zone write down all of those acting out behaviours you aim to end for good and from now on are classed as totally prohibited ‘No Go’ activities. (see Figure 5: Traffic Light Re-Wiring Plan)

In the red STOP light LOW RISK zone write down any activities that are potential gateways and slippery slopes leading to the high risk STOP behaviours.  These may possibly be resumed once the re-wiring has completed but present a current risk whilst in early abstinence. (examples include places, social media, adult TV and films, alcohol use, events associated with the addictive rituals and so on)

In the green GO light MORE OF zone write down any healthy sexual activities important to your well-being (such as sex with partner) and in the green GO NEEDS WORK zone write down any sexual or relational activities that you need to resurrect, increase or improve (intimacy/talking more, more romance or spontaneous sexual fun with partner, for example).

In the amber CAUTION light write down any activities or triggers where the risk to abstinence is as yet untested.  For example, solo masturbation, fantasy or being with a particular person. For some addicts these are manageable so that they are not gateways whereas for others they are too risky and best avoided. Sometimes couple sex and solo masturbation can be risk factors due to the ‘chaser’ effect when the dopamine spiral triggers you into wanting more.  Exert caution and monitor your reactions carefully!

Figure 5: Traffic Light Re-Wiring Plan

Step 3 – Manage Technology

Instant disruption to the dopamine auto-dependency can be achieved by stripping out access to the internet and phone-based apps so that people, porn or escort pages for example can’t be accessed.  List here how you will control devices, apps and internet access (i.e. pass codes, parental settings, blocking apps etc.).






Now write down any other environmental controls that will disrupt your habituated acting out ritual (changes to daily routine to avoid time alone, changing the route/transportation to and from work, going to bed earlier, using down-time to exercise and so on are good example)






Step 4 – Mindfulness Change

Practice more self-monitoring of your mind states so that you can become aware of when your dopamine thermostat is switching on.  Notice how effective you are and the progress you make as you disrupt the automated ritual of acting out.  Keep one step ahead of the auto-pilot and stay mentally in control by constantly planning ahead and prioritising your goals, traffic lights, and controls. 

Acknowledge cravings and roll with them, continuing your new routines, rather than fight head-on. Focus on, and become dedicated to, making changes to your routines to disrupt the habituated pathways in your brain.  Avoid fixating on stopping so that feelings of powerlessness are kept at bay.

Step 5 – Treats

Reward accomplishment. Your brain needs to learn new and healthy automated routines by linking your wins with pleasurable pay-offs and benefits.  Find ways to positively reinforce periods of daily or weekly abstinence such as meals out, socialising, indulging your healthy pursuits, relaxation, cinema trips or buying new books/DVDs/music etc.

Here are two tips I have learned from clients that work really effectively for them.  When struggling, quickly put on your jacket and go for a walk.  To help re-train the brain do what I call the 5,000 step challenge – walk 2,500 paces then turn round and count back from 2,500 reaching 0 when you get home!  You will be amazed at the level of concentration this takes and also benefit from healthy doses of happy chemicals.  Secondly, begin learning a challenging new hobby or skill which you can immerse yourself in such as juggling, cycling/running, playing the keyboard, model-making or wood-turning.  Creativity and challenge are perfect ways to re-direct your neural pathways and feel good by achieving a sense of ‘flow’. (see Module 5 for more on this)

In the next module, V2V 4 we will be looking at a highly effective toolkit for managing cravings and urges.


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