Sexual Addiction: Brain Disorder

Posted on June 27, 2014


Behavior Disorder

Sexual addiction is a(n)  Brain Disorder

Intimacy Disorder

Profound Boundary Failure

A Family of Origin Disorder

Relationship Disorder

Courtship Disorder

Trauma Response

Way of Managing Shame

Dysfunctional Emotional Regulation Strategy

I know, if we say that sexual addiction is a brain disorder, it sounds like we are giving the addict a pass for his or her behavior.  This is not about giving the addict a pass, it is rather about recognizing what has happened to the addict so that we can build a strong recovery.

There is a science behind this problem.  Brain scans of sex addicts are very similar to those of regular cocaine users.  This makes sense as both have the effect of increasing dopamine in the brain which creates a pleasurable experience.  Thus, the behavior is rewarded and consequently, repeated.  Progressively, this becomes compulsive, often needing more stimulation to achieve the same high and resulting in withdrawal when the drug (e.g. masturbation) is removed.  Over time, areas of the brain will begin to show reduced activity based upon that repeated compulsive behavior.

An analogy might be helpful here (which I will plagiarize from one of the presenter from my CSAT training).  Your brain has roads (neuropathways).  The addictive behavior is the truck that runs along that road.  Life is the rain that falls.  You have a dirt road (your brain) and it rains (life happens).  An 18 wheeler drives through and makes a rut.  As that behavior is repeated over and over, the ruts get deeper.

The good news here is that your brain has neural plasticity.  That is to say, when you quit plowing that truck down that road, the rut begins to fill in.  The landscape begins to return to normal.  By the time a sex addict gets to about 5 months of sobriety, brain scans begin to appear more normal.  The risk of relapse is still there, but the physiological effects of the compulsive behavior have largely abated.

Another consideration in this process is which neuropathway (road) is being driven by that truck.  Milkman & Sunderwirth (1987) identified four neuropathways  involved in addiction.  I do not have the space to do them justice here, but briefly, here they are.  Arousal: this pathway is about pleasure and intensity where high arousal is used (usually unwittingly) to cope with emotional pain.  The mission is to seek out increasingly intense experiences.  Numbing: this is about soothing and calming.  If you need to masturbate so that you can sleep, this is probably the neuropathway over which you continually drive that truck.  Fantasy: this is about escape.  This is often the neuropathway for those who compartmentalize; keeping areas of their lives in separate compartments.  Very often this is characterized by having a secret life.  Deprivation is about control.  Fears are managed by controlling.  This is exhibited by those who are sexually anorexic or have a binge and purge pattern.

The bottom line here is that if your sexual behavior has been compulsive, you probably will need to get professional help to get solid recovery.  Recovery is not just about controlling your behavior (becoming sexually anorexic), but is about getting healthy and reclaiming your life.


Carnes, P. (2010). Facing the shadow. Carefree, AZ: Gentle Path Press.

Milkman, H. & Sunderwirth, S. (1987). Craving for ecstasy: The chemistry and consciousness of escape.  New York: Free Press.

Posted in: Sexual Addiction