Why do porn cues still trigger a rush (sensitization)?

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Sensitization is believed to be the core brain change for addiction (and porn-induced sexual dysfunctions), as it makes you crave it, whatever "it" is, and involves nearly the same mechanisms as early sexual conditioning, as explained in several of the YBOP videos. More than a dozen studies on porn users report sensitization, and (often) the brain changes that accompany it, in compulsive porn uses.

To fully understand sensitization and cravings see this page and our article - Why Do I Find Porn More Exciting Than A Partner? It has an in-depth explanation of why porn can be more exciting than the real deal. For suggestions in dealing with triggers and cravings listen to my radio show - Brett explains how to cope with porn cues and sexual tension (show #21) This short video also offers tips - How To Stop Porn Addiction By Managing Cravings And Urges, by Truth of Addiction.

An example of sensitization:

It all makes sense. In summer 2011 I developed a new fetish and oh god I could feel the dopamine in my brain. I was so happy and excited when watching this new type of porn my body would shake. Since then I have been a lot less happy and have never gone back to normal.

Early in the reboot process:

I caught a glimpse of some porn pics the other day and there was a distinct buzz in my brain, almost like a hot flash, fortunately it freaked me out enough to get away fast. My dopamine must be like a see-saw right now as my day can turn from a great one to a near suicidal one in the space of a few hours, it's difficult to endure but it reassures me that something is trying to correct itself.

Down the road of recovery:

I'm now about 4 months without any p/m/o and I'm noticing that when I see a suggestive image online or in a TV show or whatever, I'm still extremely conscious of a rush.

Forgetting what pornstars look like.

I was reminded of a somewhat popular porn star's name, and when my brain tried to conjure up her face, I found that I couldn't accurately do that. I then realized that a lot of the things that I thought were burned into my memory permanently are now starting to fade away. I could probably access them if I put some effort into it, but why would I do that?

Three months ago, if I had thought of her name, I would have immediately pictured, whether I liked it or not, clear as day, a dozen different sex scenes. Now I can't even clearly remember her face without trying, and I'm not inclined to try.

This made me happy and I thought I'd share.

382 days and I still have to fight it.

Hi all, I'm about to get off the internet for the evening because even after more than a year of not masturbating, being home alone and sitting on the computer still brings up urges.I have 2 different porn blockers set up on this computer, and I know that when my wife gets home, she's going to ask me if I had any trouble, but none of that completely keeps the desire at bay. The lesson here is that while it definitely gets easier, it never totally goes away.

And part of being successful is recognizing your rituals and avoiding them. Being alone on a computer is where 95% of my PMO events start. Rarely do I go to a computer with the intent of looking at porn or other arousing stuff, but once I'm sitting here, getting bored, I start looking for it.So I'm saying goodnight, NoFap, and going to read a good book in another room instead. If anyone else out there is struggling at all tonight, I suggest you shut this thing off and find something else to do as well. :)

Porn doesn't turn me on anymore

Interestingly, porn doesn't turn me on one bit. I get shaky out of excitement but I have no other response. I think my girlfriend is the only one who can do that now and I am very happy about that. I suspect my brain has changed a bit and for the better!

First of all it's normal to be attracted to sexy images. Your dopamine would spike even if you had never been a porn addict. That said, it's likely that if you've been using porn for a while, the images are acting as strong cues that turn on sensitized neural pathways. You are feeling a reward circuitry buzz as your brain quickly anticipates possible porn use. One guy said,

 My cues are:

* This is the strongest one - it's insane how deep this is. Every time I am alone in my apartment, I automatically think "porn!!" It's so deeply rooted it's really mind-blowing. I don't even think about it; it's just is there. I had a friend over yesterday, and we he left, and closed the door..instantly my brain thought "porn!!".

* When I am bored in front of the computer

* When I see something remotely tempting on the computer, can be a girl that is smiling.

* If I'm in front of the computer and it's bed time.

* If I had have a hard discussion with someone, when I'm stressed out.

* When I'm feeling sad, or low

Here's a technical explanation of sensitization, taken from substance addiction:

"Drug sensitization occurs in drug addiction, and is defined as an increased effect of drug following repeated doses (the opposite of drug tolerance). Addiction may also be related to increased (sensitized) drug craving when environmental stimuli associated with drug taking, or drug cues, are encountered. This process may contribute to the risk for relapse in addicts attempting to quit. Such sensitization involves changes in brain mesolimbic dopamine transmission, as well as a molecule inside mesolimbic neurons called Delta FosB."

In other words, the addiction has created strong neural pathways in your brain, Pavlovian-based memories, that are easily activated by anything associated with prior use (images, computer use, etc.). These sensitized pathways causes an abnormally high spike in electrical activity (the "buzz" is literal) caused by dopamine, glutamate, or both - which induces cravings. In long-term cocaine addicts, the cue-induced spike in dopamine can be as high as the spike from taking the drug.

You may have rebooted your brain and returned your dopamine signaling to what's normal for you, but the sensitized pathways may never disappear. However, they will weaken. For example, an alcoholic who has been sober for 20 years may no longer get triggered by beer commercials. Yet if he drank a beer, his sensitized pathways would light up, and he could lose control and binge. Same thing can happen to former porn users. They need to be mindful of cues for a long time, especially powerful ones.

As one recovering porn users explained,

it is possible that once you've been hooked on porn, even if you then stop for an extended period, the risk of getting caught up again in it all is pretty much always going to be there.

That's not to say a full recovery isn't possible, but as an ex-smoker I can tell you that even though I haven't smoked for about 10 years I still get occasional cravings. I guess I am slowly realising the lure of porn will always be there too. Be prepared that the rationalization of "If I can quit for this long I'm obviously not addicted" IS THE PORN TALKING. We are repeat customers.

Another man explaining how triggers are everywhere:

Thanks guys for your support. PMO is unlike any addiction I've had to overcome. I've stopped drinking and smoking for a long time now. With the smoking, it took me like 7 tries. The cravings were brutal and one after another for about 14 days. It seemed that things got better after 14 days.

PMO on the other hand is far more difficult than the smoking addiction. There's nice looking woman around to look at all the time. Then comes the fantasizing about the women, which leads to MO or possibly PMO. If I could only stay focused and not fantasize about women, I'd have a much better shot at this thing.

And another:

Mate, I keep saying exactly that to other people on this forum. I think one of the reasons PMO is so hard to give up is because we have all these preconceived notions that somehow it should be easier to kick than things we may have given up in the past (alcohol, cigarettes, drugs...). In my experience as well, it most definitely is not - it's far more insidious. The effects can be subtle for periods, and then suddenly just jump out and take you by surprise. That's why vigilance is key.

You have to keep an eye on your own mind. Become aware of your thoughts...see yourself "going there" and put a stop to it before the reptilian part of your brain takes over the show. That's the one thing that has really worked for me well this time around. I see the patterns. I KNOW when I'm starting to go there, and I immediately jump into action to do something else to take my mind away from it. It is becoming more and more effortless over time; the thoughts come up and I just gently let them go. But in the early days, I would literally bite down on my tongue - not enough to do any real damage, of course; just enough to feel the pain and snap myself out of the hypnotic thought process that I could feel myself slipping into. Simple as it sounds, I found that to be really effective for me. I mean, you always have it at your disposal wherever you are. No one can even see you doing it.

Realizations from searching for porn and feeling the rush:

Now see what happened yesterday. I somehow started to look at beautiful girls in google, then went from that to girls in bikinis, then to naked girls, and then to softcore pictures and finally to pornographic pictures and gifs.

I had not done or seen this in 42 days (although during my summer holiday in Greece, I saw everyday extremely hot women on the streets and clubs) and when I got to see all these perfect looking girls on the Internet... Well, I used to surf hours just to find a perfect porn movie/girl to arouse me and fap to it, and now literally every single picture of a women aroused me. They were looking perfect and extremely hot. Pretty natural reaction though, I thought to myself.

But then, when I took the last damn step and saw pornographic pictures on Google, something incredible happened.

I felt dopamine rushing into my head, my heart started to pound, blood rushing to my penis and I felt like I would go off right now and then without even touching my dick.

I saw the picture of a couple doing intercourse, and I felt like I was looking at it for the first time in my life. Wait.. so this is sex? I could not believe what I was seeing. Never ever in my life had I been so aroused by looking at a simple picture. Like, the most primal evolutionary areas of my brain had just been activated. It felt like being on drugs.

I then continuted to look at some pictures of my favourite pornstars and, while being incredibly aroused, felt also some sort of disgust. It was surreal. How can they look like that? I thought they were some sort of virtual dolls or something. No women looks like that in real life. And how can they let themselves be treated like that? Just as a sex object, nothing else.

I had the urge to look at porn for more than 40 days and it was constantly in my head, as a fantasy. Pictures of old porn scenes coming back and vanishing. Yesterday, I gave in to this curiosity and cleared my head of all the porn and sex-related things I was thinking off all day.

I closed everything and had a revelation. That, in order to reboot properly, I would have to stop thinking about sex and porn every single day, completely. That the only sexual energy that was on my mind and body, I would have to use to either meet/talk to/date women etc, or to work on my self and live my life properly.

What about accidental exposure?

Accidental exposure to something arousing is not always a problem. In fact, I seriously doubt any incidental images of anything, including hardcore porn, could set one back. Sensitization occurs when an addict starts fantasizing about using and purposely pursues his addiction. Animal experiments show that actively choosing to take a drug wires up the brain differently from having it injected with no conditioned stimulus. Pursuing or working for the addictive drug causes sensitization - which is THE core addiction brain change. The animal associates taking the drug with its own deliberate action, and the brain wires accordingly.

Thus, actively searching Facebook for hotties is activating sensitized addiction pathways and reinforcing your addiction. Bumping into hard-core images, then immediately closing the page is actually strengthening the willpower parts of your brain. If an alcoholic could easily stop after 1/2 glass of wine...he would have no problems...right? (See Exposure Response Prevention Therapy (extinction) for more). Avoid linking deliberate seeking with arousal. An accidental glimpse isn't chosen. However, dwelling on the image you glimpse, fantasizing about it later, or seeking other images because of it can be counterproductive.

Also see Does porn addiction cause irreversible damage to the brain?