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Why You Can’t Stop Thinking About Watching Porn

Even if someone feels lonelier after watching porn, they still might feel like they can’t stop watching porn. Why does this happen?

Life can be tough. And porn, so readily available, always stands as a mindless escape to delay facing challenges.

That doesn’t mean it’s healthy for viewers to log on whenever they want to get distracted from or escape reality. In the process of looking for an escape, you might be wondering, “Is porn bad?”  You might also be wondering how you can stop watching porn.

To answer that question, it’s first important to understand why porn might interest someone in the first place.

One of the most attractive promises of porn is that there’s never rejection, there’s always pleasure, and there’s always someone willing to say “yes” to sex, no matter how impossible or humiliating the sex might be.

Related: Would Porn Be Harmful if it Didn’t Have Habit-Forming Potential?

Porn never says no, porn is always accessible, and porn sells itself as being sexier, kinkier, and better than sexual experiences with a real person. At the end of the day, it’s all a complete fantasy, and will often leave the viewer feeling emptier and lonelier than before.

But even if someone feels lonelier, they still might feel like they can’t stop watching porn.

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An escape from negative reality

Having an interest in porn is actually a pretty human response—it just means the consumer has a biologically natural interest in sex. Often, a viewing habit can start from being exposed to a single image by accident. Then, looking for it can turn into a habit.

Then, the consumer can become dependent on that routine for an escape from reality. And the cycle continues, until the viewer is watching videos that would have previously been disgusted or horrified by, but they can’t seem to stop.

The fact is, pornography doesn’t just physically change and rewire the pathways in the brain, it can also become a mental crutch that keeps the viewer coming back for more.

The worse people feel about themselves, the more they seek comfort wherever they can get it. Normally, they would be able to rely on the people closest to them to help them through their difficult times—a partner, friend, or family member. But many porn consumers aren’t exactly excited to tell anyone about their porn habits, least of all their partner.

So they turn to the easiest source of “comfort” available: more porn.

Related: If You’re Stressed, Bored, or Lonely, is Watching Porn a Healthy Escape?

As some porn consumers find themselves further down this cycle, an isolating porn habit can lead them to skip out on interacting with friends, participating in hobbies, or connecting with the people in their lives.Volkow, N. D., Koob, G. F., & Mclellan, A. T. (2016). Neurobiological Advances From The Brain Disease Model Of Addiction. New England Journal Of Medicine, 374, 363-371. doi:10.1056/Nejmra1511480COPY Park, B. Y., Wilson, G., Berger, J., Christman, M., Reina, B., Bishop, F., Klam, W. P., & Doan, A. P. (2016). Is Internet Pornography Causing Sexual Dysfunctions? A Review with Clinical Reports. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 6(3), 17. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs6030017COPY 

Some consumers can become so emotionally and physically reliant on porn that they may start to prefer watching porn to participating in real-life sexual experiences, which can understandably seriously harm their relationships.Sun, C., Miezan, E., Lee, N., & Shim, J. W. (2015). Korean Men’s pornography use, their interest in extreme pornography, and dyadic sexual relationships.27(1), 16-35. doi:10.1080/19317611.2014.927048COPY Rasmussen, K. (2016). A historical and empirical review of pornography and romantic relationships: Implications for family researchers. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 8(2), 173-191. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/jftr.12141COPY 

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The effects of keeping your porn habit a secret

Studies have found that when people engage in an ongoing pattern of “self-concealment,” which is when they do things they’re not proud of and keep them a secret, it can not only hurt their relationships and leave them feeling lonely, but can also make them more vulnerable to mental health issues.Laird, R. D., Marrero, M. D., Melching, J. A., and Kuhn, E. S. (2013). Information Management Strategies in Early Adolescence: Developmental Change in Use and Transactional Associations with Psychological Adjustment. Developmental Psychology, 49(5), 928–937. doi:10.1037/a0028845COPY Luoma, J. B., et. al. (2013). Self-Stigma in Substance Abuse: Development of a New Measure. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 35, 223–234. doi:10.1007/s10862-012-9323-4COPY Rotenberg, K. J., Bharathi, C., Davies, H., and Finch, T. (2013). Bulimic Symptoms and the Social Withdrawal Syndrome. Eating Behaviors, 14, 281–284. doi:10.1016/j.eatbeh.2013.05.003COPY 

In fact, a number of peer-reviewed studies have found a link between pornography consumption and mental health outcomes like depression,Harper, C., & Hodgins, D. C. (2016). Examining Correlates of Problematic Internet Pornography Use Among University Students. Journal of behavioral addictions, 5(2), 179–191. https://doi.org/10.1556/2006.5.2016.022COPY  anxiety,Wordecha, M., Wilk, M., Kowalewska, E., Skorko, M., Łapiński, A., & Gola, M. (2018). 'Pornographic binges' as a key characteristic of males seeking treatment for compulsive sexual behaviors: Qualitative and quantitative 10-week-long diary assessment. Journal of behavioral addictions, 7(2), 433–444. https://doi.org/10.1556/2006.7.2018.33COPY  loneliness,Butler, M. H., Pereyra, S. A., Draper, T. W., Leonhardt, N. D., & Skinner, K. B. (2018). Pornography Use and Loneliness: A Bidirectional Recursive Model and Pilot Investigation. Journal of sex & marital therapy, 44(2), 127–137. https://doi.org/10.1080/0092623X.2017.1321601COPY  lower life satisfaction,Willoughby, B. J., Young-Petersen, B., & Leonhardt, N. D. (2018). Exploring trajectories of pornography use through adolescence and emerging adulthood.55(3), 297-309. doi:10.1080/00224499.2017.1368977COPY  and poorer self-esteem and overall mental health.Koletić G. (2017). Longitudinal associations between the use of sexually explicit material and adolescents' attitudes and behaviors: A narrative review of studies. Journal of adolescence, 57, 119–133. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2017.04.006COPY 

Related: Porn Sites Have Endless Options, So Why Are Millennials and Zoomers Sexually Bored?

These studies have found that these links are particularly strong when pornography is consumed to try to escape negative emotions, and also when pornography consumption becomes heavy and compulsive.Levin, M. E., Lillis, J., & Hayes, S. C. (2012). When is online pornography viewing problematic among college males? Examining the moderating role of experiential avoidance.19(3), 168-180. doi:10.1080/10720162.2012.657150COPY 

This video gives a pretty good illustration of what it’s like to have the high of porn come crashing down again and again, needing more porn to achieve the same level of escape or relief from negative emotions.

Watching porn to avoid negative emotions

Although it’s fairly common for consumers to use porn as an escape mechanism or self-soothing technique, research indicates that those who consumed pornography to avoid uncomfortable emotions had some of the lowest reports of emotional and mental wellbeing.Brown, C. C., Durtschi, J. A., Carroll, J. S., & Willoughby, B. J. (2017). Understanding and predicting classes of college students who use pornography. Computers in Human Behavior, 66, 114-121.COPY 

Another study examined the relationship between the frequency of online pornography consumption and mental health problems, particularly in the context of “experiential avoidance” or trying to avoid negative emotions. The study found that frequent pornography consumption was significantly related to greater depression, anxiety, and stress as well as poorer social functioning.Levin, M. E., Lillis, J., & Hayes, S. C. (2012) When is Online Pornography Viewing Problematic Among College Males? Examining the Moderating Role of Experiential Avoidance. Journal Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment & Prevention, 19 (3), 168-180.COPY 

Related: Can Watching Porn Negatively Impact Mental Health?

And in yet another study, researchers at Columbia University, Yale University, and UCLA, found a link between compulsive pornography consumption and poorer mental health, low self-esteem, and poor attachment in relationships. The authors concluded,

“In this paper, we propose that pornography use has the potential to become addictive and might be conceptualized as a behavioral addiction… individuals who scored higher on the Problematic Pornography Use Scale reported poorer mental health and self-esteem, and more insecure close relationships than those who scored lower, illustrating the negative emotional correlates of problematic pornography use.”Kor, A., Zilcha-Mano, S., Fogel, Y. A., Mikulincer, M., Reid, R. C., & Potenza, M. N. (2014). Psychometric development of the Problematic Pornography Use Scale. Addictive behaviors, 39(5), 861–868. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2014.01.027COPY 

It’s not just negative emotions that make porn viewers turn to their fix—boredom can be a factor, too.

One commenterr on a Reddit group dedicated to helping people overcome porn addiction, says that “boredom is often the surprising cause of watching porn. Why? Because boredom is uncomfortable. So we try to fix it with porn. The problem is, the boredom will keep coming back because porn is not a sustainable way to combat uncomfortable feelings.”

No matter the temporary feelings of escape, watching isn’t worth it.

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How you can quit watching porn

If you have been struggling to quit an unwanted porn habit, know that you’re not alone. It can feel really lonely and frustrating, but there is hope.

Related: 5 Ways Porn Can Negatively Affect Your Brain, Body, and Quality of Life

While research shows that consuming porn can fuel the cycle of loneliness, research also shows that it is possible to overcome a porn habit and its negative effects.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 Nathanson, A. (2021). Psychotherapy with young people addicted to internet pornography. Psychoanal.Study Child, 74(1), 160-173. doi:10.1080/00797308.2020.1859286COPY  According to one study of individuals trying to quit porn, researchers found that shame actually predicted increased pornography consumption while guilt predicted sustainable change.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.

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 unwanted porn habit, and track your recovery journey. There is hope—sign up today.

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