Porn addiction and the brain

  • A brain based process addiction

130702_SCI_BrainScanDopamine.jpg.CROP.rectangle-mobilelargeIf you are battling sexually you need to know that your struggle is not just a moral problem. It is a brain problem. That really helps explain “why we keep doing the things we don’t want to do.” And this is why trying harder simply by praying more, reading the Bible more, fasting, confessing, promising to not do it again or renouncing generational curses to stop the addictive behaviour will not work.

It’s not just a moral problem – it’s a brain problem, so you have to renew the mind

There has to be a new journey to relate to God in terms of his grace and an ongoing process of renewing of the mind – all within the context of a support group.

It really won’t help telling people to “stop it” and “try harder” when their brain is habituated. That will simply create more pressure and lead to binging.

Neuroscience is now demonstrating that what Paul said in Romans 12: 1 – 2 about the renewal of the mind is absolutely spot on. You can either restrain (and fail again when the pressure builds), or you can do what the Bible says: retrain your mind. However, the reason a key component for renewing the mind is a support group of fellow strugglers, is because porn addiction is basically an intimacy disorder.

The ability to trust needs to be reactivated in the mind, and that can happen as a first step with a counselor and finally in a safe support group

In the bonding process of a healthy support group, the brain begins to rewire and reset back to health as you experience the combination of the grace and truth of Jesus Christ from the other group members. It’s something of a mystery: confess your sins to God for forgiveness (1 John 1:19). Confess your sins to one another for healing (James 5:17).

Healing comes from God through the body of Christ.

Addiction and Neurochemistry

Research has shown that Sexual behavior releases endorphins in the brain that resemble opiates. These endorphins numb the pain and produce a feeling of well-being.

Sexual behavior releases endorphins in the brain that resemble opiates

Because life always involves pain, and because we all at one level or another have personal trauma and family dysfunction, the endorphin release can be compulsively pursued to numb the pain in our lives. A German study from the Max Planck Institute, published in May 2014, has shown that “men who report watching a lot of pornography tend to have less volume and activity in regions of the brain linked to rewards and motivation.”


Some researchers believe that Sexual addiction can in addition closely resemble an impulse control or obsessive compulsive disorder. What is clear is that the presence of sexual addiction in a person’s life shows that there is a habit of self medicating emotional hurt. This has created trails or pathways in the brain, which then fire on an automatic sequence when there is a buildup of stress and pain. The reward of this continual endorphin release is so powerful that the sex addict finds himself willing to pursue this euphoric activity in spite of the negative consequences.

Sexual addiction is following well worn neuro-pathways in the brain

A team of researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to observe the changes in brain activity caused by watching pornographic videos. They compared the brains of people with compulsive sexual behaviour and healthy people and the results, published in the journal PLoS One, showed higher levels of brain activity in the three parts of the the brain: the ventral striatum, dorsal anterior cingulate and the amygdala. These are all areas that become excited in addicts when they see their drug of choice. The release of chemicals take place when an addict starts to fantasize about his sexual behaviour. He is following well worn neuro-pathways in the brain which become stronger and stronger because of the repeated behaviours. The brain starts to devote more and more parts of itself to those repeated behaviours.

Another aspect to this involves the binding chemical called Oxytocin. God designed oxytocin as the glue for human bonding.  During a sexual release, oxytocin, along with other neurochemicals, are released and cause us to emotionally bond with our partner. When you watch porn these neurochemicals are also released, which bond you to those images.

The repeated viewing of porn has literally changed the structure of their brain

The things that you do and look at to give you the greatest sexual highs, are the behaviours and images that you literally glue to. You hunger for again, crave and desire those images when you are aroused. God’s original design was that we would crave the sexual intimacy of our spouse because we had sexually and visually bonded with them. But because of the fall and it’s distortions, we ended up craving other images or people and behaviors that we sought out in our fallen state.

Bonding with a real human being is not only satisfying, but its also painful, whereas interacting with pornography or with other humans through quick sexual encounters means you can bond without intimacy.

In addition, many of the experiences we had were also fueled by sexual and emotional abuse that we may have endured in our formative years. The end result was that intimacy with our spouse would be damaged or much harder.

Because of this Satan attacks our sexuality so much through porn, since it actually interferes with human bonding and creates an ‘intimacy disorder.’ The powerful images and emotions which attached a value to those images and sexual highs at the time we experienced them, became ingrained in our memories. This is how 60% of Christian men can say they love the Lord with all their heart, but be trapped in sexual bondage. The repeated viewing of porn has literally changed the structure of their brains and they have ended up stuck in a complex denial system.

Renewing the Mind by resetting the brain

If we focus on performance and teach that once a person is saved all the old is immediately healed and gone, we will never be able to effectively help these men and women who are struggling. They will keep their struggles secret because of the shame and never feel safe enough to be open and transparent about their struggles, because they will feel judged. They will keep hearing that they shouldn’t be even experiencing those struggles. Alternatively, if we interpret “renewing the mind” as simply having positive thoughts, trying to keep negative thoughts out and memorising Scripture we can energise the inward struggle and in the long term end up helping no one. Renewing the mind is not just another way of white knuckling it all on my own when I am feeling under pressure. The reason for this is clear. We are created for intimacy and relationship. The opposite of addiction is not just sobriety, it is connection. We renew the mind when we connect with God and others in ways we never did before.

Renewing the mind is more than just thinking positive thoughts and memorising Scripture. It will include those, but new knowledge is not the focus. Renewing the mind to create new pathways must include breaking the silence, coming out of isolation and bonding with others on the same journey.

Consider the following scenario: Have you ever noticed that when you drive to work or a regular place that you always go the same way even if there are alternate ways you could go? This is because you have created a neural pathway in your brain that has created this routine. Sometimes we even drive to this destination on “remote control” as such. Often if I am driving somewhere routinely I might try going a different way, and then when I have made this change a few times, a new pattern occurs and I drive that way all the time. This has become the new neural pathway.

To biblically renew the mind will be to action the teachings of grace so that new pathways are created in the brain. This is why:

  • seeing a counsellor,
  • attending a recovery based discipleship group,
  • confessing to a safe person,
  • picking up the phone and calling a friend to pray for me when I am struggling,
  • focusing on God’s grace,
  • making my house and environment clean / safe by putting blockers on my iphone and computer etc

All these actions are new discipleship steps that I take to break my habit of isolation and to walk with Jesus in newness of life. The core of addiction is isolation and hiding. I overcome that by experiencing grace from other men or women on the same journey. I begin to experience connection and my brain begins to develop new pathways in this process.

In this way a mindset change in ourselves takes place, because denial and lies are broken, the reality of the addiction is ‘accepted’ and grace is experienced and practiced as an emotional spiritual reality and not just taught as a theory. As mentioned, this happens through counselling and connection as strugglers express their emotional pain and secrets to a group of co-strugglers and a mentor who has had enough victory to help guide them to victory. New pathways are established in the face of sexual temptation and healing begins to take place. (PS: If you don’t have this in your church and there is no one safe, then start a group). 

“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16)

It will be a fine line between Grace and Truth. 

The group and the group mentor will be your greatest support by walking with you each step of the way. The leader will also speak the truth when you are avoiding, blaming or in denial.  When we share our stories with others who understand, and without fear of condemnation God begins to heal our wounds. We also gain valuable insights which enable us to renew our minds. We will learn that God loves us, even as he breaks through our complex denial structures. He wants us to get out of isolation and give others accountability as we seek emotional support and relationship.

In a relational support group we can implement biblical clinical tools and experience ongoing healing

The Christian struggling with sexual addiction can renew the mind by creating new pathways in the brain through repetition of positive behaviours, thoughts and through intimacy with God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Paul was right when he wrote over 2000 years ago in Romans chapter 12:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

In this passage the word translated “transformed” is in the Greek present passive indicative tense, which implies an on-going activity, rather than a one time act. Paul, then, exhorts believers to actively and consciously engage in an on-going process of separation from their old sinful way of life and to increasingly set themselves apart to God through a continual renewal of their minds. There has to be a holistic approach to ‘walking in newness of life,’ because the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. To offer your body as a living sacrifice and to renew the mind means to create new pathways in the brain.

“Transformed” is in the Greek present passive indicative tense, which implies an on-going activity, rather than a one time act

Old addictive pathways can shrink and die off

The old addictive pathways can shrink and die off and new trails of coping and reacting can be developed. This is known as neuroplasticity and neurogenesis. We can experience powerful healing as we offer our bodies and renew our minds in the following spiritual-physical disciplines:

1) diaphragmatic breathing and mindfulness based stress reduction

2) conscious meditation on God’s promises and commitments to you in his word

3) physical exercise

4) further education

5) social contact, confession in a body of Christ support group and personal therapy (these are essential)

6) a healthy diet

7) The proper amount of sleep

8) Work – life balance

This will not only moderate the physical sensations of withdrawal, but will reset the brain and bring about a release of endorphins through natural God designed pleasures, rather than old (synthetic) illicit pleasures which hijacked the brain. We will be able to discern God’s will again as we enjoy fellowship with him. We will experience new levels of intimacy with the Lord, with our spouse and family and with other people. We will have the mind of peace.