I am often asked about the brain chemistry behind sexual addiction. While it would take a book to cover the topic adequately (and there is a great one I’ll mention at the end of the post), we can bring it down to lay terms. Simply said, when we engage sexually we activate the areas of the brain that chemically make us feel love, warmth, acceptance, euphoria and peace. Adrenaline, oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin, etc for all you detail oriented folks. Most men who struggle with sexual integrity issues have connected the guilt and shame of life with the “love and euphoria” chemicals of sexual engagement. Neuropathways in the brain have formed which, when activated, follow this course:
negative emotions——–> sexual engagement (fantasy, masturbation, porn, emotional/physical affairs, sex with spouse)———->chemicals of love and euphoria released
In other words, we’ve learned how to use sex as the needle to deliver a chemical cocktail anesthetic that medicates negative emotions and shameful self concepts.
What begins as a narrow, shallow walking path eventually becomes so engrained and solidified that it is becomes a deep and wide trench. Those neuropathways, or trenches, are easy to access and fall into. Likewise, they are incredibly difficult to get out of.
Thankfully God created our brains with the ability to rewire. This is known as neuroplasticity. One of the simplest ways to begin rewiring the brain is to follow biblical guidance in two ways. First, when sexual temptation hits, we must take each thought captive and make it obedient to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). Then we must replace those thoughts with what the bible says is pure, lovely, excellent, praiseworthy, right, admirable and noble (Phil 4:8). Those thoughts would ideally be vivid memories of times and situations where you felt love and peace. It could be a family vacation photo, an anniversary, grandkids, Jesus, particular verses, etc.
In terms of brain chemistry, what we are doing is interrupting the old neuropathway and replacing the sexual thoughts with memories that tap into the nerve centers of love and euphoria. We’re accomplishing the same goal [releasing the chemical cocktail] only now we are doing so in a way that honors God. We stop using our sexuality as the needle to administer the anesthetic.
I hope you’ll begin practicing this technique. If you’re like I was in the beginning of my recovery journey, you probably have multiple opportunities each day to practice this! If you do, you are faithfully practicing what Paul exhorts us to do; be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:2).
A helpful read regarding pornography and the brain is Wired for Intimacy: Dr. William Struthers.