Those who debate against the existence of sex and love addiction use the claim that because there is no substance taken in, there is no clear physiological basis for addiction. But interestingly enough, research on brain scans of self-identified sex and love addicts show similar damage to those of cocaine addicts.
Our brains change over time based on what they are exposed to and what self-rewarding patterns they form. In order to understand sex and love addiction more fully, it is important to know more about what particular neurochemicals are at play.
Have you ever gotten the rush of joy when you hear your favorite song on the radio? How about when you eat a delicious meal? The chemical that creates that reaction in your brain is dopamine. Dopamine is the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, causing a rush of good feelings when you do something exciting or rewarding. This rush can be intoxicating, leading to a desire to continue whatever activities caused it.
Sex is one of the greatest generators of dopamine, giving a boost of euphoria. Dopamine increases the sex drive, is released during orgasm, and activates the brain’s pleasure centers. During sexual activity, dopamine floods the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain involved in impulse control and decision-making. When the dopamine system is active, pain and displeasure are numbed.
According to Stefanie Carnes, dopamine plays a role in the escalation of addiction. As the addict engages in more risky sexual behavior, tolerance for dopamine begins to grow. It takes more risky behavior to continue feeling the same effects. This flood of dopamine can impair judgment, particularly in young adults under the age of 25, whose prefrontal cortex is not fully developed.
Chronic exposure to compulsive sexual activities can reduce natural levels of dopamine, and non-sexual ways of receiving dopamine become less effective. At the same time, the addict gets a more intense “high” from their behaviors because his or her brains is highly sensitized to the neurotransmitter. The more often the addict turns to compulsive sexual behaviors, the more that pattern of getting dopamine gets engraved into the neural connections in their brain.
Oxytocin and Vasopressin
The hormone oxytocin works as a neurotransmitter in the brain. It is produced by skin-to-skin physical contact, which means it abounds during sexual activity. It is also present in the early stages of relationships and falling in love. It promotes bonding in relationships and feelings of associated with long-term commitment. It can increase empathy and provides an antidote to depressive feelings.
With all the benefits of oxytocin, no wonder it is a powerful stress reliever and can add to the addictive pull. When compulsive sexual behaviors happen, this rise in levels of oxytocin can cause the sex and love addict to continually seek out that rush of closeness felt in the early stages of a relationship. As a new physical relationship starts, oxytocin leads to forgetfulness of previous bonding experiences.
Vasopressin is a neurochemical similar to oxytocin released in order to create greater experiences of bonding in romantic relationships. This fosters protectiveness and pair bonding.
When the rush of dopamine and oxytocin hits, the brain begins to change. Researchers have noticed greater sensitivity in the addict to triggers and cravings, which intensifies the response to the addictive substance. The reason for his may be ∆ Fos-B, a protein that accumulates after compulsive use of sexual behaviors. This protein accumulates each time the addictive behavior is practiced, and it can cause changes to the dopamine system. The buildup of this protein affects lack of enjoyment of the addictive sexual activities, as well as cravings that linger even after years after maintaining sobriety.
How Do I Change my Brain?
Fortunately, the same neuroplasticity that caused the brain to adapt to the changes brought about by an addict’s behavior contradicts the idea that once an individual becomes an addict, he or she is always an addict. In the same way that neuronal connections were made in the first place, those same neuronal connections can be changed as you begin to practice new behaviors and stop using the old patterns. There is hope for those who are willing to work to change their compulsive behaviors and obsessive thoughts.
The first step involves identifying non-addictive sources of dopamine or oxytocin. As Paula Hall discusses in her video about sex addiction recovery, you can think of your brain like a map, where the road to addictive behaviors is deeply carved into the landscape. You need to begin looking to take other roads to receive the emotional boost that dopamine brings, like practicing self-care or engaging in hobbies you enjoy. Oxytocin comes from physical touch, so increasing amounts of physical touch in your life through your spouse, children, family, or friends may be a helpful way to receive that oxytocin.
Have you felt stuck in addictive behavior for a long time, and are feeling hopeless about ever changing? Does it feel like your brain is working against itself? Are you tired of feeling like your compulsive sexual behaviors are ruling over you? At Restored Hope, I offer counseling services tailored to your specific recovery journey. I love to walk alongside my clients to help them find hope and encouragement as they seek to life fulfilled, addiction-free lives. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment.