Pornography Addiction - Understanding the Addictive Cycle

Mixed race businessman working in office
JGI/Tom Grill/Blend Images/Getty Images

Several years ago I had the opportunity to work with a group of men who were struggling with addictions with a primary focus on sexual addiction. These were good men who found themselves trapped in a vicious cycle that pulled them further and further away from loving and intimate relationships in their families and more and more into a selfish and addictive behavior pattern.

During the 12 Step program in which they were involved, the instructors talked to them about the addictive cycle.

This cycle is a common pattern that seems to be found in almost all addictions, whether associated with sex and pornography or with food addiction, drug addiction, or other destructive self-defeating behaviors.

This cycle is, like all cycles, cyclical. It tends to follow a predicted pattern in a downward spiral and continues time after time unless disrupted by a thought and behavior pattern that changes the typical cycle and allows the addict to make a change for the better. Understanding this addictive cycle can help a father come to better understand his own addiction and the behavior associated with it or to help a child or a friend having these struggles to make the changes necessary to break the pattern and begin a recovery effort.

There are ten basic steps in the addictive cycle. These include:

  1. A Vulnerable Time. In this step, the addict has a moment when he or she is vulnerable to the temptation to act out inappropriately. He or she might be home alone, be feeling tired, be under stress, feel lonely or rejected or might simply be bored. When a person in the addictive cycle feels one of these emotions, that person is vulnerable. Often, simply dealing with the issues present at the time in more positive and productive ways can break the cycle.
  1. Stimulus or Trigger When in the vulnerable state, the addict will experience a trigger or some external or internal stimulus. He might replay an old memory, might smell something or see an image in a grocery store or online that might start his unconscious mind heading down a destructive path.
  2. Emotion. In this step, the trigger leads to an emotional response. It might be curiosity, excitement, or just a heightened sense of awareness. The emotion, when connected to the trigger, forms a powerful bond which drags the addict further down the path.
  1. Thought. Following the emotional response, the person in the cycle will begin to think or ponder about the possibilities. Something comes to his mind suggesting "I wonder what it would be like to ...?" or "What if I just did ...?" As the thought comes to mind in the heightened vulnerable state, the person in the pattern tends to only see the solution proposed by the addiction.
  2. Chemical Release. As the trigger, the emotion and the thought merge, the human brain tends to release chemicals that further the process along. These brain chemicals include Dopamine (which focuses the brain and thought patterns intensely) and Norepinephrine (which increases energy and exhilaration). These chemicals increase the tendency to repeat the addictive behavior which leads to sexual acting out.
  3. Physiological Response. With the release of these brain chemicals, the body begins to respond in kind. The person in the addictive cycle finds pupils dilating, heart rate increasing, and muscles tightening. This physical response just reinforces in the addict's body the chemical changes that are occurring.
  4. Rational Thought. In the midst of all of these physical changes, the brain in its addictive pattern gives the person in the cycle a second chance. Just prior to acting out, an addict has an opportunity to have an out. The sense in this stage usually is "I know that I shouldn't go there, but it sure feels good to be going." This is often the point at which an addict can make a change if he takes a break from the pattern by changing positions, turning off the computer, taking a walk, or calling a supportive friend, break the cycle and change directions.
  1. Hypothesis/Belief. In this setting, the addict, depending on what he does with his rational thought, will either feel hopeless to overcome or will successfully stop the process. That choice is impacted by his belief about the future.
  2. Response. Based on that belief and his hypothesis about what will happen next, the addict either acts out or gets out. Most often in the cycle, the addict's response is to act out in ways that follow the pattern.
  3. Remorse. After acting out, the person in the cycle will return to a sense of rationality in which the pattern concludes with a sense of remorse. "Why did I let that happen?" is a common thought. As the cycle concludes, the addict will usually commit to a change in the future, but without some intervention, the pattern will start again and cycle through, digging an even deeper rut for the addict to confront the next time.Coming to an understanding of the common pattern of the addictive cycle can help a person struggling with these addictions better know what is happening as the process plays out and how to find moments to stop the cycle all along the way.