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Mental Effects of Porn

” Your life changes when you have a working knowledge of  your brain. It takes guilt out of the equation when you recognize that there’s a biological basis for certain emotional issues,” says psychiatrist Dr John Ratey, (P6 Introduction to book “Spark!”).

Learning about porn’s effect on the brain has been the single most important factor helping people overcome the wide range of negative mental and physical effects from overuse of porn. These effects range from brain fog and social anxiety through to depression and flashbacks. Even three hours of porn use a week can cause a noticeable reduction in grey matter in key areas of the brain. When brain connections are involved, that means it impacts behaviour and mood. Continual bingeing on hardcore internet porn can cause some users to develop compulsive use, even addiction, that interferes significantly with everyday life and life goals. Users often talk about feeling ‘numb’ towards everyday pleasures. See this 5 minute video where a neurosurgeon explains the brain changes. Here is a link to the main research and studies on poorer mental and emotional health, and poorer cognitive (thinking) outcomes. These outcomes affect a user’s ability to achieve well at school, college or work.

The list below sets out the main effects observed by healthcare professionals and by recovering users on the recovery websites like NoFap and RebootNation. Many symptoms are not noticed until a user quits for a few weeks.

Overview of Porn Risks

A pornography habit has the potential to cause the following problems:

Social Isolation
  • withdrawing from social activity
  • developing a secret life
  • lying to and deceiving others
  • becoming self-centred
  • choosing porn over people
Mood Disorders
  • feeling irritable
  • feeling angry and depressed
  • experiencing mood swings
  • pervasive anxiety and fearfulness
  • feeling powerless in relation to porn
Sexually objectifying other people
  • treating people as sex objects
  • judging people primarily in terms of their body parts
  • experiencing mood swings
  • disrespecting other people’s needs for privacy and safety
  • being insensitive about sexually harmful behaviour
Engaging in risky and dangerous behaviour
  • accessing porn at work or school
  • accessing child abuse imagery
  • participating in degrading, abusive, violent, or criminal sexual activity
  • producing, distributing or selling porn
  • engaging in physically unsafe and harmful sex
Unhappy intimate partner
  • relationship is marred by dishonesty and deception about porn use
  • partner views porn as infidelity i.e. “cheating”
  • partner is increasingly upset and angry
  • relationship deteriorates due to lack of trust and respect
  • partner is concerned about the welfare of the children
  • partner feels sexually inadequate and threatened by the porn
  • loss of emotional closeness and mutual sexual enjoyment
Sexual Problems
  • loss of interest in sex with a real partner
  • difficulty becoming aroused and/or achieving orgasm without porn
  • intrusive thoughts, fantasies, and images of porn during sex
  • becoming sexually demanding and or rough in sex
  • having difficulty connecting love and caring with sex
  • feeling sexually out of control and compulsive
  • increased interest in risky, degrading, abusive, and/or illegal sex
  • growing dissatisfaction with sex
  • sexual dysfunctions – inability to orgasm, delated ejaculation, erectile dysfunction
Self-loathing
  • feeling disconnected from person values, beliefs and goals
  • loss of personal integrity
  • damaged self-esteem
  • persistent feelings of guilt and shame
  • feeling controlled by porn
Neglecting important areas of  life
  • personal health (sleep deprivation, exhaustion, and poor self-care)
  • family life (neglecting partner, children, pets and household responsibilities)
  • work and school pursuits (reduced focus, productivity, and advancement)
  • finances (spending on porn depletes resources)
  • spirituality (alienation from faith and spiritual practice)
Addiction to Porn
  • craving porn intensely and persistently
  • difficulty controlling thoughts, or exposure to, and use of porn
  • inability to discontinue porn use despite negative consequences
  • repeated failures to stop using porn
  • requiring more extreme content or intense exposures to porn to get same effect (habituation symptoms)
  • experiencing discomfort and irritability when deprived of porn (withdrawal symptoms)

The above list is adapted from the book “The Porn Trap” by Wendy Malz. See below for supporting research.

Addiction

The most basic effect of watching too much internet porn or even gaming is how it affects sleep. People end up ‘wired and tired’ and unable to concentrate on work next day. Constant bingeing and seeking that dopamine reward hit, can lead to a deep habit that is hard to kick. It can also cause ‘pathological’ learning in the form of addiction. That is when a user continues to seek a substance or activity despite negative consequences -such as problems at work, home, in relationships etc. A compulsive user experiences negative feelings such as depression or feeling flat when he or she miss the hit or excitement. This drives them back to it again and again to try and restore feelings of arousal. Addiction can start when trying to cope with stress but also causes a user to feel stressed too. It is a vicious cycle.

When our internal biology is out of balance, our rational brain tries to interpret what is going on based on past experience. Low dopamine and depletion of other related neurochemicals can produce unpleasant feelings. They include boredom, hunger, stress, tiredness, low energy, anger, craving, depression, loneliness and anxiety. How we ‘interpret’ our feelings and the possible cause of the distress, affects our behaviour. Not until people quit porn do they realise that their habit has been the cause of so much negativity in their lives.

Self medication

We often seek to self-medicate negative feelings with more of our favourite substance or behaviour. We do this without realising that it was perhaps overindulgence in that behaviour or substance that triggered the low feelings in the first place. The hangover effect is a neurochemical rebound. In Scotland, alcohol drinkers suffering from a hangover next day often use a famous expression. They talk of taking “the hair of the dog that bit you”. That means they have another drink. Unfortunately for some people, this can lead to a vicious cycle of bingeing, depression, bingeing, depression and so on.

Too much porn…

The effect of watching too much, highly stimulating porn can lead to a hangover and depressive symptoms too. It may be hard to see how consuming porn and consuming drugs can have the same general effect on the brain, but it does. The brain responds to stimulation, chemical or otherwise. The effects don’t stop at a hangover however. Constant overexposure to this material can produce brain changes with effects that may include the following:

Romantic Partners

Research shows that consuming pornography correlates with a lack of commitment to one’s romantic partner. Getting used to the constant novelty and increasing levels of arousal provided by porn and the thought that there may be someone ever ‘hotter’  in the next video, means that their brain is no longer aroused by real life partners. It can stop people wanting to invest in developing a real life relationship. This spells misery for almost everyone: men because they are not benefitting from the warmth and interaction a real life relationship brings; and women, because no amount of cosmetic enhancement can keep a man interested whose brain has been conditioned to need constant novelty and unnatural levels of stimulation. It is a no-win situation.

Therapists too are seeing a big increase in people seeking help for an addiction to dating apps. The fake promise of always something better with the next click or swipe, stops people focusing on getting to know just one person.

Social Functioning

In a study of university-age males, difficulties with social functioning increased as pornography consumption rose. This applied to psychosocial problems such as depression, anxiety, stress and reduced social functioning.

• A study of educated Korean men in their 20s found a preference for using pornography to achieve and maintain sexual excitement. They found it more interesting than having sex with a partner.

Academic Achievement

Consumption of pornography was experimentally shown to decrease an individual’s ability to delay gratification for more valuable future rewards. In other words, watching porn makes you less logical and less able to take decisions that are clearly in your own interest such as doing homework and studying first instead of just entertaining yourself. Putting the reward before the effort.

• In a study of 14 year old boys, higher levels of internet pornography consumption led to a risk of decreased academic performance, with the effects visible six-months later.

The more porn a man watches…

The more pornography a man watches, the more likely he was to use it during sex. It can give him the desire to act out porn scripts with his partner, deliberately conjure images of pornography during sex to maintain arousal. This also leads to concerns over his own sexual performance and body image. Further, higher pornography use was negatively associated with enjoying sexually intimate behaviours with a partner.

Low Sexual Desire

In one study, students at the end of high school reported a strong link between high levels of pornography consumption and low sexual desire. A quarter of regular consumers in this group reported an abnormal sexual response.

• The 2008 Study of Sexuality in France found that 20% of men 18-24 “no interest in sex or sexual activity”. This is very much at odds with the French national stereotype.

• In Japan in 2010: an official government survey found that 36% males aged 16-19 “have no interest in sex or have an aversion to it”. They prefer virtual dolls or anime.

Morphing sexual tastes…

In some people, there can be unexpected morphing sexual tastes which reverse when they stop using porn. Here the issue is straight people watching gay porn, gays watching straight porn and lots of variations. Some people also develop fetishes and interests in sexual things away from their natural sexual orientation. It doesn’t matter what our orientation or sexual identity is, chronic overuse of internet pornography can cause serious changes to the brain. It changes both brain structure and functioning. As everyone is unique, it is not easy to say how much porn is enough for just pleasure before starting to cause changes. Changing sexual tastes is an indication, however, of brain changes. Everyone’s brain will react differently.

Getting help

Take a look at our section on Quitting Porn for lots of help and suggestions.

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