How Sex and Love Addiction Impacts Your Brain

What do you believe influences your brain’s functioning?  Maybe it’s by the nutrients you take into your body, such as the food you eat or the water you drink.  Maybe it’s the amount of sleep you get on any given night.  Perhaps what we view, read, or listen to affects our minds and our thoughts.  While we might notice some immediate effects (like trying to handle daily life after being awake with your kids every 2 hours through the night), our brains can often change in subtle ways over time.

When we look more specifically at addiction, we can see changes to the neurochemistry of the brain that occur over time and continued use of substances.  Brain scans of individuals addicted to drugs have shown that addictive behaviors provide a rush of dopamine, a “feel-good” hormone in the brain that encourages repetition of behaviors and leads to craving and dependence.

In the case of sex and love addiction, it might be assumed that these brain changes are different, because the addict isn’t taking in a substance.  However, brain scans show that there are similar effects on the brain’s neuropathways in sex and love addiction as there are in drug use.

So how does exactly does addiction affect the brain?  Watch this short video created by psychotherapist Paula Hall to see a practical metaphor for how your brain can be influenced by addiction:

Here’s the good news: we can take focused action to change and rewire our brains!  If you struggle with compulsive sexual behaviors, know that your brain can become dependent on that flood of dopamine.  Healing and freedom from these behaviors includes increasing alternative ways of experiencing a dopamine rush, as well as limiting the tendency to return to the addictive behavior.  But how can you change these neuropathways of addiction?  Here’s some ideas.

Recovery Work

Find yourself a therapist or a therapy group to join to start doing the work of recovery.  This focused work will direct your energy and your mind’s focus to the work of healing, rather than driving you back into addictive behaviors.  You’ll also learn tools to fight back against your brain’s tendency to travel down familiar roads toward addictive behavior.


Find a group of people you can come alongside to support your healing.  This could look like attending a 12-Step group like SAA or SLAA, joining a church support group, or finding a therapy group.  It is so important for you to have people you can talk to about your struggles who can empathize with you and hold you accountable to change.


Establishing sobriety can be one of the toughest tasks in early recovery.  A general rule of thumb is to experience 90 days of abstinence in order to reset the brain’s dependence on the behavior.  Set yourself up well for sobriety by creating a three circle plan, as outlined in this article.


In general, if addiction is part of your story, you may struggle to be kind to yourself or even to be aware of what you need.  Addicts often live in extremes of deprivation or indulgence. Typically, compulsive behaviors are what we turn to when we’re stressed, lonely, angry, or tired.  Instead of constantly turning to deprivation, replace compulsive behaviors with good self-care.  As Paula mentions about in the video above, these self-care activities likely won’t feel as good as the compulsive behavior at first.  With time, however, they will become roads for you to get that same dopamine rush in a healthy way.

Vision for the Future

In Jim Collins’ book Good to Great, he talks at length about Admiral Stockdale, a naval officer who became a prisoner-of-war for several years during the Vietnam War.  When asked how he survived the prison camps, he was quoted as saying that he needed face the present reality of how bad his circumstances were, as well as keep faith and a vision for the future after the prison camps.  As you face the reality of your struggles with sex and love addiction, keep in mind the end goal, the vision for the future.  Knowing why you’re working your recovery will motivate you to continue doing this healing work.


If you struggle with sex and love addiction and you’re realizing the effects it has had on your brain, we’d love to talk with you and be a support to you in your healing and recovery.  Restored Hope is a Novi and Ann Arbor based counseling office specializing in treatment of sex and love addiction.  If you’d like to hear more about our services and how we can help you, give us a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out our form here.