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How Porn Can Contribute to an Unhealthy Cycle of Stress

When a person is suffering from an addiction or compulsion, their stress response and their addiction can become intertwined in unhealthy ways, thus creating an unhealthy coping cycle.

By May 10, 2021June 9th, 2021No Comments

Most of us are familiar with Hercules, the ancient mythological hero known for his remarkable strength, beast-slaying aptitude, and starring role on Disney+. But the ancient stoic philosopher Epictetus had something interesting to say about Hercules that you may not have considered:

“What would have become of Hercules, do you think, if there had been no lion, hydra, stag, or boar—and no savage criminals to rid the world of? What would he have done in the absence of such challenges? Obviously he would have just rolled over in bed and gone back to sleep. So by snoring his life away in luxury and comfort, he never would have developed into the mighty Hercules.”Epictetus. Discourses and selected writings (R. Dobbin Trans.). Penguin Group.COPY 

Even if you’ve never heard that quote, you’ve probably heard similar expressions, like “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” “strength is in the struggle,” or any number of similar quotes plastered on the wall of your local gym. At some level, we all understand the timeless value of adversity—that sometimes stress, anxiety, and even pain, can ultimately leave us better and stronger than we were before. As one psychologist, Dr. Lisa Damour put it, “If a client shares that she’s worried about an upcoming test for which she has yet to study, I am quick to reassure her that she is having the right reaction and that she’ll feel better as soon as she hits the books.”American Psychological Association. (2019, August 10). Why stress and anxiety aren't always bad: Expecting to always feel happy and relaxed a recipe for disappointment. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 31, 2021 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/08/190810151933.htmCOPY 

In a world that is often over-stressed and sells ways to avoid it entirely, it’s important to remember that stress can be healthy in moderation.

Stress and anxiety can activate neural and chemical processes inside your body, which are designed to help you respond appropriately to challenges. Stress researcher Daniela Kaufer explains that “some amounts of stress are good to push you just to the level of optimal alertness for behavioral and cognitive performance.”May, K. T. (Jul 16, 2014). 7 ways stress does your mind and body good. Retrieved from https://ideas.ted.com/7-ways-stress-does-your-mind-and-body-good/COPY  In fact, her research on stress in rats has even demonstrated that intermittent stressful events can create new brain cells in the rats that actually improve their future mental performances.Kirby, E. D., Muroy, S. E., Sun, W. G., Covarrubias, D., Leong, M. J., Barchas, L. A., & Kaufer, D. (2013). Acute stress enhances adult rat hippocampal neurogenesis and activation of newborn neurons via secreted astrocytic FGF2. Elife, 2, e00362. doi:10.7554/eLife.00362COPY 

Stress and addiction

So, in moderation, stress can actually help us. However, when it comes to addiction, stress can carry with it a series of very different responses to stress. Researchers have begun to note the ways that various forms of addiction seem to consistently accompany a malfunctioning stress system.Stephens, M. A., & Wand, G. (2012). Stress and the HPA axis: role of glucocorticoids in alcohol dependence. Alcohol research: Current reviews, 34(4), 468–483.COPY 

In short, when a person is suffering from addiction, their stress response and their addiction become intertwined in unhealthy ways. Instead of driving them to respond appropriately to life’s challenges, stress and anxiety will instead drive them to their addiction. Likewise, anytime they’re cut off from their addiction, they will experience intense feelings of stress and anxiety (also known as withdrawal), creating an unhealthy cycle in which all roads seem to lead to the same addictive substance or behavior.Koob G. F. (2013). Addiction is a Reward Deficit and Stress Surfeit Disorder. Frontiers in psychiatry, 4, 72. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2013.00072COPY 

Related: How Porn Can Affect The Brain Like A Drug

In other words, for those suffering from addiction, stress and anxiety don’t spur growth or positive action—they just fuel the addictive cycle. In fact, a malfunctioning stress system is so common in addiction that two of the world’s leading addiction researchers, Nora Volkow and George Koob, list it as one of the four brain changes shared by all forms of addiction,Volkow, N. D., Koob, G. F., & McLellan, A. T. (2016). Neurobiologic advances from the brain disease model of addiction. N Engl J Med, 374(4), 363-371. doi:10.1056/NEJMra1511480COPY  the other three being sensitization, desensitization, and hypofrontality.

Related: Let’s Talk About Porn. Is It As Harmless As Society Says It Is?

Stress and porn

The question, then, is whether a malfunctioning stress system is also present in compulsive pornography consumers. Well, based on the research, the answer is yes. Recent academic studies on the topic looked at individuals experiencing some form of hypersexuality, including compulsive porn consumption, and looked for signs of a malfunctioning stress system. In each case, the results were compared with those of a control group.

For example, one study showed evidence of higher inflammatory signals in patients with hypersexual disorder, indicating abnormally high levels of stress. In fact, the level of inflammation appeared to correspond to the level of hypersexuality.Jokinen, J., Chatzittofis, A., Nordström, P., & Arver, S. (2016). The role of neuroinflammation in the pathophysiology of hypersexual disorder. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 71, 55. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2016.07.144COPY  Another study looked at areas of DNA and higher oxytocin levels, which have been observed in those with other forms of addiction. Researchers found that abnormal oxytocin levels were present with hypersexuality as well.Jokinen, J., Flanagan, J., Chatzittofis, A., Öberg, K., & Arver, S. (2019). High Plasma Oxytocin Levels in Men With Hypersexual Disorder. Neuropsychopharmacology, 44, 114–114. Retrieved from http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:umu:diva-168967COPY  Yet another study gave participants large doses of cortisol, the body’s natural steroid. Under normal circumstances, this would trigger their bodies to stop producing cortisol, recognizing that it’s already receiving more than enough artificially. But for addicted individuals with malfunctioning stress systems, their bodies are unable to stop producing the steroid. Once again, this phenomenon was present in the hypersexualized individuals but not in the control group.Chatzittofis, A., Arver, S., Öberg, K., Hallberg, J., Nordström, P., & Jokinen, J. (2016). HPA axis dysregulation in men with hypersexual disorder. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 63, 247–253. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2015.10.002COPY  Several additional studies identified alterations in genes of patients with hypersexuality that are believed to be important in the body’s stress reaction, which genetic alterations have previously been shown to be abnormal in alcohol-dependent patients.Boström, A. E., Chatzittofis, A., Ciuculete, D., Flanagan, J. N., Krattinger, R., Bandstein, M., . . . Jokinen, J. (2020). Hypermethylation-associated downregulation of microRNA-4456 in hypersexual disorder with putative influence on oxytocin signalling: A DNA methylation analysis of miRNA genes.15(1-2), 145-160. doi:10.1080/15592294.2019.1656157COPY Jokinen, J., Boström, A. E., Chatzittofis, A., Ciuculete, D. M., Öberg, K. G., Flanagan, J. N., . . . Schiöth, H. B. (2017). Methylation of HPA axis related genes in men with hypersexual disorder. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 80, 67-73. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2017.03.007COPY 

Two things are important to remember when considering porn and stress. The first is that, of the four addiction-related brain changes, a malfunctioning stress system has received the least scholarly attention. A huge wave of studies over the last ten years have demonstrated sensitization, desensitization, and hypofrontality in porn consumers, while only a handful have begun to explore porn’s potential effects on the stress system.

Related: Why Porn Can Be Difficult To Quit

Secondly, as with many porn studies, it’s essential to keep in mind the old adage that “correlation does not equal causation.” None of these studies has shown that hypersexuality, including compulsive porn consumption, causes or creates a malfunctioning stress system. The studies have only demonstrated that a malfunctioning stress system is present in hypersexual individuals. At this point, it is just as likely that the issue of a broken stress response answers the age-old question, “Why do some people become addicted while others do not?” Perhaps an inability to cope with stress and anxiety in productive ways is exactly the reason that sexual behaviors like porn consumption become compulsive for some individuals.

Whatever the case, it’s worthwhile to note the correlation between compulsive sexual behavior like porn consumption and the presence of a malfunctioning stress system. For one thing, it means that compulsive porn consumption meets all four of the addictive criteria outlined above. More importantly, it may be helpful for those who struggle to consider the role of stress in their own porn consumption. Even if a consumer never develops an addiction or a compulsive behavior, it’s important to recognize that consuming porn can still have serious negative consequences.

Related: Get the Facts—How Porn Impacts the Brain, Relationships, and Society

The good news is, change is possible! Research and the experiences of thousands of people have demonstrated that over time, pornography’s negative effects can be managed and largely reversed.Young K. S. (2013). Treatment outcomes using CBT-IA with Internet-addicted patients. Journal of behavioral addictions, 2(4), 209–215. https://doi.org/10.1556/JBA.2.2013.4.3COPY  In fact, even in cases of serious substance or other addictions, research shows that the brain can heal with sustained effort over time.Pfefferbaum, A., Rosenbloom, M. J., Chu, W., Sassoon, S. A., Rohlfing, T., Pohl, K. M., Zahr, N. M., & Sullivan, E. V. (2014). White matter microstructural recovery with abstinence and decline with relapse in alcohol dependence interacts with normal ageing: a controlled longitudinal DTI study. The lancet. Psychiatry, 1(3), 202–212. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(14)70301-3COPY Yau, Y. H., & Potenza, M. N. (2015). Gambling disorder and other behavioral addictions: recognition and treatment. Harvard review of psychiatry, 23(2), 134–146. https://doi.org/10.1097/HRP.0000000000000051COPY Rullmann, M., Preusser, S., Poppitz, S., Heba, S., Gousias, K., Hoyer, J., Schütz, T., Dietrich, A., Müller, K., Hankir, M. K., & Pleger, B. (2019). Adiposity Related Brain Plasticity Induced by Bariatric Surgery. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 13, 290. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2019.00290COPY  Research also indicates that, while guilt can motivate healthy change, shame actually fuels problematic porn habits.Gilliland, R., South, M., Carpenter, B. N., & Hardy, S. A. (2011). The roles of shame and guilt in hypersexual behavior.18(1), 12-29. doi:10.1080/10720162.2011.551182COPY  So if you’re trying to give up porn, be kind to yourself and be patient with your progress. Like anything, it takes time for the brain to recover, but daily efforts make a big difference in the long run. Think of it like a muscle that gets bigger and stronger the more you use it—the longer you stay away from porn, the easier it is to do so. All it takes is practice.

Need help?

For those reading this who feel they are struggling with pornography, you are not alone. Check out Fortify, a science-based recovery platform dedicated to helping you find lasting freedom from pornography. Fortify now offers a free experience for both teens and adults. Connect with others, learn about your compulsive behavior, and track your recovery journey. There is hope—sign up today.

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