3-step recovery model

The Reward Foundation’s three-step recovery model

The team at The Reward Foundation has developed a three-step recovery model to address the issue of problematic use of internet pornography. Recovery is essentially about letting the brain heal from overstimulation that has built up over months or years. It is a simple approach based on research into the way pathological learning and addiction works in the brain. You can try the suggestions here with the help of anonymous online recovery communities such as nofap.com or rebootnation.org. You may decide that you prefer a real life recovery community such as a 12 step programme or a therapist trained in dealing with harmful sexual behaviour. Many therapists are only now beginning to learn about porn-induced erectile dysfunction and other porn-related depression or anxiety, so make sure they check out this website or www.yourbrainonporn.com. Most therapists are trained in psychology without learning about brain function. Rewiring your brain to unlearn a habit and relearn new tricks is not easy but it is doable and will improve your life no end. Many guys talk about “rebooting” their brain, just as we might do with a computer that has jammed up when too many windows are open. These rebooting or Recovery accounts by hundreds of young people show how it can be done.

These are our three simple principles:

1. Stop using porn.

2. Tame the mind.

3. Learn key life skills.

Step 1 – Stop using porn

Recovery can only really begin when a person chooses to stop looking at and stop fantasising about porn.

To have the motivation to try to stop consuming internet porn, a user needs to recognise that it has the potential to cause serious mental and physical health problems as well as social ones. It can even result in getting a criminal record. See How to recognise a problem with porn.

At The Reward Foundation we use the phrase “take the glass out of the wound”. Everyone understands that a wound cannot begin to heal while the piece of glass is still in the flesh, causing injury. So removing the stressor of constant interaction with internet pornography lets the brain reboot, heal and resensitise to normal levels of arousal.

Begin with a decision to give it up. Set yourself a target of 1 day. The aim is to start recognising our own body’s signals and learning better how to respond to them. Notice what times of the day you are most likely to watch porn. What does an ‘urge’ to watch it feel like? This is the tug-of-war feeling in the brain. It is the desire to get a hit of pleasure neurochemicals to avoid the discomfort of being without that competes with a desire to prove that we can control ourselves. That urge is warning of low dopamine or low opioids in the brain. It also signals the start of the stress response with adrenaline-induced arousal pushing us to “do something NOW!” Being able to pause for a few moments to put on the mental brakes and think before acting helps weaken the pathway and starts to break the habit. It is a valuable exercise in trying to break any habit we no longer want. It helps build self-control.That is one of the most important key life skills for long term success. It’s every bit as important as intelligence or talent. Learn how others have coped when they tried it. We all have to choose between two pains, the pain of self control or the pain of regret.

The One Day Screen Fast- this can be used for testing how dependent any person is on gaming, social media as well as porn.

Here is an excerpt from the book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, by N. Postman and A. Postman. (Introduction).

“One professor uses the book in conjunction with an experiment she calls an ‘e-media fast.’ For twenty-four hours, each student must refrain from electronic media. When she announces the assignment, she told me, 90 percent of the student shrug, thinking it’s no big deal. But when they realize all the things they must give up for a whole day—cell phone, computer, Internet, TV, car radio, etc.—”they start to moan and groan.” She tells them they can still read books. She acknowledges it will be a tough day, though for roughly eight of the twenty-four hours they’ll be asleep. She says if they break the fast—if they answer the phone, say, or simply have to check email—they must begin from scratch. “The papers I get back are amazing,” says the professor.

“They have titles like ‘The Worst Day of My Life’ or ‘The Best Experience I Ever Had,’ always extreme. ‘I thought I was going to die,’ they’ll write. ‘I went to turn on the TV but if I did I realized, my God, I’d have to start all over again.’ Each student has his or her own weakness—for some it’s TV, some the cell phone, some the Internet or their PDA. But no matter how much they hate abstaining, or how hard it is to hear the phone ring and not answer it, they take time to do things they haven’t done in years. They actually walk down the street to visit their friend. They have extended conversations. One wrote, ‘I thought to do things I hadn’t thought to do ever.’ The experience changes them. Some are so affected that they determine to fast on their own, one day a month. In that course I take them through the classics—from Plato and Aristotle through today—and years later, when former students write or call to say hello, the thing they remember is the media fast.”

The son of the author of this book now in its twentieth edition says:
“His questions can be asked about all technologies and media. What happens to us when we become infatuated with and then seduced by them? Do they free us or imprison us? Do they improve or degrade democracy? Do they make our leaders more accountable or less so? Are our systems more transparent or less so? Do they make us better citizens or better consumers? Are the trade-offs worth it? If they’re not worth it, yet we still can’t stop ourselves from embracing the next new thing because that’s just how we’re wired, then what strategies can we devise to maintain control? Dignity? Meaning?” See our news story on how a group of sixth form pupils at an Edinburgh school managed when we did a 24 hour screen fast.

Try this to test if a person is using internet pornography compulsively.

If a person you know or you yourself, wants to try this one-day elimination test for internet pornography alone, it is worthwhile. If you succeed, you may want to try extending the elimination for a longer period. It can be reasonably easy to cut out a behaviour for 24 hours, but a week or three weeks is more of a true test of how compulsive a habit has become.

The reboot can begin almost straight away. The first hour, the first day and the first week are when rebooters most often relapse unable to overcome the urge watch some more. If you have trained your brain on porn for a long time, it is going to take some time before living porn-free. A reboot is not an easy process. If you do find it easy, just be thankful. Most folk find it a challenge. However forewarned, is forearmed. Knowing about what the emotional or physical symptoms other rebooters have encountered on their road to recovery is a great help.

Just cutting down (harm reduction) doesn’t work in most compulsive behaviours. Internet porn is no exception. As soon as we get stressed, and get that ‘do something NOW!’ sensation, getting an easy hit of feel-good chemicals from our smartphone or tablet can be just too convenient. Just reducing porn consumption is not enough for most people, it just prolongs the habit. The well-developed pathways are too easily reignited. It can take months, even years in some stubborn cases, to grow new healthier pathways and not be drawn back in. It can also take several attempts of trial and error to keep up the habit of distracting ourselves from watching porn, longer term. So think about these:

• Stop watching internet porn

• Learn to use the internet without porn

• 12 step, SMART recovery and mutual aid programmes can all help

• Learn how the reward system of the brain works. Understanding that this compulsion is a dysregulated brain condition helps make abstinence easier

• Become aware of the triggers and cues that set off your addiction. Find ways to avoid them

Step 2 – Tame the mind

Most abstainers benefit from some sort of psychological support. This can come from friends and family or from professionals working as therapists. This is where love in the form of hugs, cuddles, friendship, trust and bonding can all boost the levels of the neurochemical oxytocin in the brain. Oxytocin has many helpful characteristics to help balance the flow of electricity and neurochemicals:

• Counteracts cortisol (stress and depression) and dopamine (cravings)

• Reduces withdrawal symptoms

• Strengthens relationships and feelings of security

• Soothes feelings of anxiety, fear and worry

One of the best ways to build resilience to the stresses and strains of everyday life is regular, deep mental relaxation. One version that is very popular today is called Mindfulness. It means consciously paying attention to whatever we are feeling or thinking for a short period of time in a non-judgmental way. Rather than suppressing or trying to ignore our stressful thoughts or not make time to deal with them, we allow them to come into our mind and watch them without trying to ignore them or solve them or even judge them in a forceful way.

An effective combination of supportive techniques can help. Most raise our oxytocin levels.

Mindfulness works well in combination with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Where CBT  works at the conscious, rational level to change negative habits of thought and perception, mindfulness meditation works at the deeper unconscious, non verbal level.

Motivational Interviewing (MI) has also proven useful in helping to support teenage drug users to become abstinent by encouraging helpful insights.

Mindfulness stress reduction programme

Thoughts are not who we are. They are changeable and dynamic. We can control them; they do not have to control us. They often become habits of thinking but we can change them  if they are not bringing us peace and contentment when we become aware of them. Thoughts are powerful in that they change the type of neurochemicals we produce in our brain and can, over time with enough repetition, affect its very structure. Mindfulness is a great way of letting us become aware of these subconscious  emotional drivers and how they are influencing our moods and feelings. We can take back control.

A Harvard Medical School study showed the following results where the subjects had been doing an average of 27 minutes mindfulness exercises per day:

• MRI scans showed decreased grey matter (nerve cells) in amygdala (anxiety)

• Increased grey matter in hippocampus – memory and learning

• Produced psychological benefits that persist throughout the day

• Reported reductions in stress

Use our free deep relaxation exercises to help you relax and rewire your brain. By reducing the production of stress neurochemicals, you allow your body to heal and your mind to use the energy for helpful insights and new ideas.

This first one is just under 3 minutes long and will take you away to a sunny beach. It instantly improves the mood.

This second one will help you release tension in your muscles. It takes about 22.37 minutes but can feel like just 5.

This third one is to relax the mind without showing any signs of physical movement so you can do it on the train or when others are around. It lasts 18.13 minutes.

This fourth one is 16.15 minutes long and takes you on a magical trip in a cloud. Very relaxing.

Our final meditation last just over 8 minutes and helps you visualise things you want to achieve in your life.

It is best to do a deep relaxation exercise first thing in the morning or late afternoon. Leave at least an hour after eating or do it before meals so that the process of digestion does not interfere with your relaxation. It is usually best to do it sitting upright on a chair with your spine straight but some people prefer doing it lying down. The only risk then is that you might fall asleep. You want to stay conscious so that you can release the stressful thoughts consciously. It is not hypnosis, you stay in control.

Step 3 – Learn key life skills

Some people have a genetic predisposition or in-born weakness that means they need more of the ‘go get it’ neurochemical, dopamine, to achieve the same level of drive and pleasure as someone without that changed gene state. Those people, a small percentage, are more prone to addiction than others. Generally however, people fall into compulsive behaviour or addiction for two main reasons.

First they start out seeking pleasure and having fun like everyone else but  occasional treats can easily become a regular habit.  We are all easily lured into the promise of ‘fun’ even if the result is lost work, pain, hangovers, missed appointments, broken promises. Over time social pressure and advertising can lead us to bingeing on pleasures that cause physical brain changes to our reward system that make cravings ever harder to resist. FOMO or ‘fear of missing out’ is just a social mind game we need to be aware of. Social media helps develop that particular brain worm.

The second way addiction can develop is from a subconscious desire to avoid a painful situation or  effort in every day life. It can arise because a person has never learned  the life skills to cope with events such as new situations, meeting people, conflict or family feuds. Pleasure seeking may at first relieve the pressure or soothe pain, but ultimately it can become a bigger stressor than the original problem itself. Addictions cause a person to become totally focused on their own needs  and are not emotionally available to others. Stress builds up and life gets on top of them, out of control. Advertisers of stimulating activities like porn, alcohol, gambling, junk food, and gaming to name a few, prey on our desire to seek out fun and ignore painful emotions or situations involving effort.

Learning key life skills can help change this and reduce the risk of falling into depression and addiction. Just removing the addictive behaviour is often not enough. The  trigger response to stress will still be there leaving the person fragile and unable to face criticism or conflict. There are many stories of people who manage to give up alcohol or drugs and find a job only to crumble at the first sign of disagreement, then relapse. There are good stories too of young men and women who find new strength and courage to face difficult situations when they give up porn. Some talk about developing “superpowers”.

People in recovery succeed best and avoid relapse when they  develop life skills to broaden and build their lives and make it more interesting and fulfilling. It means getting their drive and pleasure from healthier sources especially from connecting with others in person and letting go of shame, guilt and feeling unloved, isolated or alone.

There are a lot of different life-skills that are known to help:

Life skills to build physical wellbeing

• Learning to cook and enjoy regular healthy meals

• Getting enough restorative sleep, 8 hours a night for adults, 9 hours for children and teenagers

• Physical exercise, especially spending time in nature

• Mental relaxation exercises- e.g. mindfulness or just letting your mind drift

• Yoga, Tai Chi, Pilates

Life skills to build self-confidence

An untrained mind can achieve nothing. Learning a new skill step-by-step can build confidence.  It takes time. A mind stretched never goes back to what it was before. No one can take a learned skill away from us. The more skills we have, the more we can survive in changing circumstances. These skills reduce the stress of chaotic living

  • Learn to control your thoughts, negativity and sexual fantasies
  • Organisational skills in the home – cleaning and shopping routines; keeping important papers, bills and receipts in order
  • Learn how to apply for a job and prepare well for interviews
  • Financial capability – learning to budget and if possible, save
Life skills to connect with others through better communication 

• Learning to be assertiveness when appropriate as opposed to aggressive, passive aggressive or passive

• Attentive and reflective listening skills

• Conflict management skills

• Courting skills

• Healthy socialising, e.g. intergenerational family connection

Life skills to flourish, broaden and build ourselves as complete human beings

• Being creative to express inner emotion- learning to sing, dance, play an instrument, draw, paint, write stories

• Having fun, playing games, laughing, tell jokes

• Voluntary work, helping others

This web page has only given a simple outline of The Reward Foundation 3-step recovery model. We will produce more materials to support each of the elements in the coming months. You can do classes in these life skills at school, youth clubs or in your community. Check then out at your local library or online.

Here are our three simple principles again:

Step 1 – Stop using porn
Step 2 – Tame the mind
Step 3 – Learn key life skills

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