Two of the common factors of any addiction are tolerance (needing more of a substance or behavior to get a high) and withdrawal symptoms after stopping use of the addictive substance or behavior. Withdrawal involves a set of physical and emotional symptoms. With drug and alcohol addiction, withdrawal often involves changes in the body that lead to physical symptoms, often the opposite of what the substance provided. For example, if you used a stimulants like nicotine, withdrawal might involve feeling down, depressed, or lethargic. If you were addicted to depressants like alcohol, you may feel anxious and revved up. If you are able to maintain sobriety over a prolonged period of time, withdrawal symptoms will dissipate.
With process addictions, including sex and love addiction, there is no intake of a substance involved. But sex and love addiction involves dopamine production that affects the brain similarly to that of a cocaine addict, meaning you may experience both physical and emotional symptoms similar to that of withdrawing from substances.
Maintaining sobriety through withdrawal from sex and love addiction can be especially complicated. Access to your drug of choice can be as simple as calling up a memory of a time when you acted out or fantasizing about sexual behaviors. These thoughts and mental images cause mirror neurons to fire in your brain, giving you a similar dopamine rush as the addictive behavior itself.
Symptoms of Withdrawal in Sex and Love Addiction
Here are some common symptoms in withdrawal from sex and love addiction:
Emotional upheaval and mood swings
Anger and irritability
Dreams of acting out behaviors
Intense loneliness and distress
Forgetting the bad and remembering the good
Good news: withdrawal doesn’t last forever. It can often feel endless to someone who is in the midst of intense symptoms or who hasn’t successfully maintained sobriety until the symptoms begin to dissipate. But knowing that withdrawal will come to an end can help you sustain your commitment to recovery.
How to Cope with Withdrawal
Get clear about why you’re ending your relationship to the addiction.
Write a letter to your addiction outlining why you’re leaving it behind. List the destructive behaviors the addiction has led you to do, how it has limited you, and what is motivating you to change. If your addiction involves other people, cut off all communication with them with a clear conversation about your commitment to recovery. You’ll be able to look back on this decision and list when you are later facing withdrawal symptoms.
Set yourself up for success with boundaries.
Place roadblocks in the areas of your life that may lead you back to addiction. Set up internet blocks against pornography or explicit content. Cut off toxic relationships, even if that means you have to block or delete numbers or change your own number. Ambiguity or lack of boundaries can set you up for failure. Be clear about what needs to happen for you to get better.
Ramp up your social support.
Be honest and open with others about your addiction recovery. Choose safe people with whom you can go more in-depth. Present the authentic and real portrait of your addiction to your 12 Step group members. Go public within your Twelve Step group and attend more regularly. As you remain present at meetings, listening to and sharing stories of recovery, you will increase your support.
Get rid of distorted and obsessive thoughts.
Identify how you lie to yourself or distort the truth to serve your addictive behaviors. Do you tell yourself it’s not a big deal? Minimize its impact? Remember everything through rose-colored glasses? Identify these distortions and replace them with adaptive thoughts demonstrating the truth of how your addiction has negatively impacted your life. Know that it’s normal to have thoughts pop into your head that urge you to return to your addiction. Prepare yourself with a game plan to combat those unhelpful thoughts.
Journal about your feelings when they come up.
When the urge to act out in your sex and love addiction comes up, ask yourself: what do you truly need? What deeper desire are you longing to fulfill? When you journal, you can experience the catharsis of letting out painful emotions, or you can productively tackle your Twelve Step work. Keep a list of observations about your feelings to increase awareness of moments that lead you to want to escape into your addictive behaviors.
Explore attachment injuries.
Often, experiences of abuse, abandonment, or other injuries related to how we interacted with our primary caregivers in childhood can fuel our desires to act out. Explore how you may have responded to feelings of abandonment or desire for control by acting out in your addiction. Examine how you might be seeking to right wrongs from the trauma of your past through your addiction, such as experiences of sexual abuse or emotional neglect. Read books on adult attachment and attachment injuries, such as Attached* by Amir Levine.
Create a safety plan for the trigger minefield.
Know that you will be triggered in withdrawal. Triggers involve any situation or environment that gives you a strong desire to act out. Anticipate that you will be tempted by expected situations, but also by those that are unexpected. Have a plan in place ahead of time so you know how to respond when you are triggered.
Avoiding triggers is not the solution: in fact, it may backfire by making you more sensitive to the triggering situation. At the same time, don’t intentionally seek out situations in which you will be triggered in order to “build up your resistance”. Instead, anticipate triggers with a plan. Know that holidays, family time, or anniversaries of traumatic events may be difficult for you. When you notice triggers, respond to them proactively. You might not be feeling any strong emotions in the immediate aftermath, but respond as if you were to train yourself to follow your plan.
Explore your hobbies.
Have you ever wanted to learn an instrument, or take up cooking, or play a new sport? What hobbies have been in the back of your mind as potential options, but you just haven’t had the time or energy to try them? Engaging in a new, enjoyable hobby can create a new way for your brain to provide dopamine. These behaviors can help you to distract yourself from your cravings or urges. They won’t necessarily feel as good as the addiction at first, but over time you’ll come to enjoy them more.
Be kind to yourself.
Withdrawal is a difficult process. Since sex and love addiction is a shame-based disorder, you likely have some messages of shame surrounding your inability to control the addiction or the loneliness that you feel. Practice kindness by staying away from those shame-driven patterns that drew you into the addiction: trying to prove yourself, staying overly busy, you name it. Be gentle and seek to meet your own needs for safety and self-care. Notice if you’re feeling hungry, angry, lonely, or tired and care for yourself in a way that meets those needs.
Are you struggling to make it through withdrawal? Have you tried to stop your behavior in sex and love addiction repeated times with no success? Are you feeling lonely and exhausted by your failures? At Restored Hope, you’ll be given a safe place to work through the beliefs, behaviors, and emotions that are limiting your ability to survive withdrawal from sex and love addiction. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment at my Novi or Ann Arbor therapy office.