What Do Porn and Snickers Have in Common? By Sherry Pagoto, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Medicine

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Are we becoming a nation of pleasure junkies? 

As a nation, we are becoming increasingly indulgent, whether in our consumption of food, sex, alcohol or drugs. At present, 1 in 3 adults are obese and 1 in 10 adults has a substance use (alcohol or drugs) disorder. Not to mention that junk food, alcohol, tobacco, and porn are each multi-billion dollar industries. These bullets are hard to dodge.

Why are we all becoming junkies? Three factors are converging on us. First, our brains naturally drive us to seek out pleasurable experiences. There is no changing that. Second, our stress levels are higher than ever, which weakens our self-control. Third, our environment is presenting an increasing variety and availability of pleasurable options. This represents a lethal combination of forces that are driving pleasure-seeking behavior to unprecedented levels. With primed brains weakened by stress, we succumb in a sea of instant gratification.

 

The unfortunate consequence is that overindulging in “extreme” pleasure is changing our brains, thereby robbing us of our ability to enjoy aspects of life that are not rocket-fueled. Our desires become increasingly insatiable and our lives increasingly unhappy. Let's take the porn addict for instance. By frequently seeking extreme forms of sexual stimulation, the porn addict will eventually develop an inability to experience sexual pleasure from normal sexual activity; and if the habit goes long enough, an inability to experience pleasure from anything except porn. This pattern of behavior actually changes the brain’s “baseline” of what turns them on. As you can imagine, serious problems develop. First sexual problems, then relationship problems, and then work problems. Like most addicts, extreme consequences (i.e., the “rock bottom” experience) are often necessary for them to stop the behavior permanently, and then it takes a long time of consistently avoiding the stimuli for the brain to return to normal. Even small episodes of the behavior can rekindle the addiction, which is why abstinence is typically more effective than moderation

You may think that this is an unusual case but in many ways we have become a nation of "porn" addicts when it comes to food. Junk food is the porn of our diets. The mass production of food that is high in salt, fat, and sugar is resetting our brain’s baseline for what is satisfying. One who consumes a diet high in pizza, Snickers bars, and French fries is eventually going to find natural foods such as fruit, vegetables, and whole grains, bland and unsatisfying in comparison. The landscape of their diet will gradually change in favor of the high-pleasure foods and against natural foods. Even worse, by heavily relying on highly pleasurable food as a way to deal with stress, we risk building an emotional dependence, where nothing in life feels as good as sinking your teeth into a slice of chocolate cake. Essentially we paint ourselves into a pleasure corner that seems impossible to escape.Everyone has their vice of choice, and the irony is that we belittle others who happened to settle on a different vice, as if we are "above" the same vulnerability. The overeater looks at the porn addict in disgust, while the binge drinker looks at the binge eater in disgust. The truth is the vice itself is inconsequential. The pattern of behavior is what matters. Pleasure seeking is pleasure seeking. Do I sound like a wet blanket? Anti-porn, anti-Snickers, and anti-booze? None of these activities is all bad, it is when we develop a relationship with life's treats that things go bad. When they become necessary, a "go to", preferred over normal life experiences, and most importantly, when we give them jobs, like stress management, boredom management, or avoidance assistant—that is when things go awry.

How do we find calm and balance in life when around every corner something is waiting to pleasure hijack us? Here are 6 strategies to protect yourself.What's Your Pleasure? - Know what trips your pleasure system, everyone is different but we are all vulnerable. Some people can live without ever smoking or drinking, but crumble at the sight of fried food. Keep in mind though that it is all too common that successful vice ditchers often unintentionally convert to a brand new vice. Tons of ex-smokers become overeaters, and lots of gastric bypass patients take up gambling or alcohol long after their weight came off. Keep a close eye on forces that may be tugging your sleeve. Been to the casino more lately than ever? Stop. Distress tolerance – Distress tolerance is your ability to deal with, accept and get through distressing events. I don’t mean distract from them, but to really take the hit, feel it and be able to deal with it. Low distress tolerance can lead to poor self-control when it comes to pleasure-seeking behaviors like overeating because overeating becomes part of your distress coping. On the other hand, poor self-control can lead to reduced distress tolerance because the more you seek pleasures to deal with stress, the more that pattern is reinforced. Eventually you will come to believe that you cannot handle distress without a drink or a binge. Practice experiencing distress without engaging in unhealthy behaviors. If this is difficult, it may be important to seek help to learn new healthy ways to deal with the stress in your life.

Control Availability – At any hour of the day, we can drive up to a window and order a bacon ice cream sundae, a steak and egg sandwich made with pancakes, or a Fried Snickers rolled in powdered sugar. Surely we have parallel examples in the porn world too, pick your fantasy combo. I've used this line before--we are all self control pros on a desert island. Create a personal environment in which you do not feel your self-control is threatened. Think of it this way: If you don’t control what you have access to, what you have access to will control you. Variety is the Spice of...Trouble – Studies on appetite show that variety is strongly associated with overconsumption. You will eat more at a buffet than you will when meatloaf is the only thing on the table. In neither scenario will you leave hungry but in one you will leave regretful. In other words, avoid the buffets of life. Don’t create one at home and don’t visit them outside of the home.

Find Your Calm – Mindfulness meditation, exercise, knitting, reading, your best friend, the great outdoors…could be anything. Experiment with a variety of natural sources of calm to find the ones that work for you. By having a vast arsenal of healthy calming strategies in your pocket, you avoid becoming enslaved by the unhealthy ones. If you’ve been at the mercy of some powerful but unhealthy “calmers” it may take some time for natural calms to feel like enough. No Time Like Now- I spent several years working in a smoking cessation program, and smokers who would join but seemed reticent, would often say, “I’m not ready to quit now, maybe I’ll come back in a few months.” The longer your vice holds you captive, the tighter its grip. It will never be easier to quit as it will be today.

Comments

Thank you very much for nice post. I analyzed the article with my personal life experience. I have found that it is an amazing post for whom are struggling to quit some un-healthy habit. I like the following observation.
...........Even small episodes of the behavior can rekindle the addiction, which is why abstinence is typically more effective than moderation.
I am now in rebooting stage of porn addiction (at least i think). i cannot remember the exact starting date of my journey to quit porn addiction. But two nights ago, due to some environmental change in my apartment, i could not help controlling myself to watch the creepy shit again.
Due to this mishap, today, my brain has been forcing me to relapse in the vicious loop again for two days (including today).
Wish me luck, that i will not fall in the loop again.