Sex Addiction – Signs, Symptoms and Treatment
Love and sex are two of life’s great pleasures. Love is the intangible feeling that, at its best, can fill your every waking moment with joy and happiness. Sex can be love’s most powerful expression, moving up the pleasure scale to full blown ecstasy. Without them, life would be impossible.
So for many people, the idea of sex or love addiction seems implausible. Addiction, they say, is what happens to alcohol or drug abusers – if love and sex can be addictive, then all of us would be addicts.
But for tens of thousands of people in the UK, the beauty and intimacy of love and sex are undermined by a compulsion to experience the rush that the experiences bring, normally as often as possible. For these people, love and sex can come to fill their waking lives as they seek out new opportunities to engage in the experience or develop their fantasies. The obsession can come at the expense of everything else in their life and, over time, cause great damage to themselves, their friends and their family.
These disorders are known as sex and love addiction and, though few reliable statistics exist, they are believed to be increasingly common in the UK and across the western world.
Though there are similarities between sex and love addiction, the two disorders differ in fundamental ways, and are clinically considered as separate from each other:-
- Sex addiction is characterized by the compulsive seeking, observing and engaging in sexual behaviour, despite the negative consequences generated by these activities.
- Love addiction is compulsion towards the feeling of being in love. Different people experience it in different ways; for example, for some people love becomes a dependence on a particular individual, who they rely on to provide unconditional positive regard at all times; for others it is characterized by an obsessive desire to relive the euphoric feeling that accompanies new love.
Signs and Symptoms of Love Addiction
There is no one way in which love addiction manifests itself; indeed, it is often different for every patient. However, at the root of the disorder is often an expression of a particular desire: the desire from the sufferer to control their situation in an attempt to improve the way they feel, and to prevent their worst fears from being realised. This in turn can develop in two main ways:
- A deep fear of losing a relationship and subsequent obsession with controlling their partner
- A drive to experience the rush of new romance, resulting in obsessive attempts to extend and/or repeat this early, intense phase of relationships
These categories are by no means entirely distinctive from each other, and sufferers often display a number of behavioural symptoms relevant to both. These can include:
- Feelings of worthlessness or emptiness when alone
- Tendency to be over pleasing or controlling
- Having multiple online dating profiles
- Constant checking of online dating profiles
- Serial dating or relationships
- Falling in love quickly and often
- Constant search for ‘the perfect person’
- Strong fears of rejection or abandonment
- Periods of depression and/or anxiety
- Obsession with thoughts about an existing relationship or of finding a relationship
- Lacking a strong sense of purpose or direction
- Failing to keep important commitments or obligations
Signs and Symptoms of Sex Addiction
Perhaps more so than love addiction, sex addiction closely resembles other addictive disorders. Sufferers often report irresistible urges, both mental and physical, to act out sexually, without regards to the consequences. As time goes on, other parts of life can fall to the wayside as a preoccupation with sex takes increasing control.
People suffering from sex addiction may:
- Be preoccupied with or consistently crave sex
- Engage in sexual activities more often than intended
- Unsuccessfully attempt to stop or limit sexual activity
- Spend considerable amount of time searching for sexual partners, either online or elsewhere
- Continually engaging in sexual behaviour despite negative consequences, such as divorce, or sexual health issues
- Feelings of irritation and anxiety when unable to engage in sexual behaviour
- Consistent thoughts and fantasies about sex, to the point where it becomes unpleasant
- Escalating frequency of sexual activity to obtain desired effects
How do sex and love become addictions?
Over the years, a debate has raged about whether sex and love addictions really exist. How, the detractors argue, can activities which only bring joy to most people become an unhealthy addiction for a minority? If love and sex are two of evolution’s key tools, how can they ever be bad for us?
The answer to these questions lies in how the brain responds to pleasure. When we have sex, a part of our brain called the ‘reward system’ is activated and a number of chemicals are released into our brains. Among these chemicals are a category called endorphins, which are the most powerful pleasure lever our brains possess – on a molecular level they are almost identical to Heroin. It is these chemicals which make sexual activity feel so good. This was evolution’s plan to ensure us humans keep on making babies. But evolution didn’t stop there; in fact, the pleasure process begins long before we even start to engage in sexual activity. Brain scanning has shown that pleasure chemicals, including endorphins, are released even when we just think about sex. The purpose: to get us excited enough to go out and find the real thing.
If love and sex are two of evolution’s key tools, how can they ever be bad for us?
Like all addictions, the problem comes when sex is consistently used as a quick and easy way to access intense pleasure. When this happens, the brain begins to physically change to make space for the increased amounts of endorphins being released. The result is that the subconscious brain starts to consider sex as its highest priority, while demanding ever stronger and ever increasing amounts of sexual activity or fantasies to keep it satisfied.
Love addiction, too, is all about the brain’s reward system. Many have argued that everyone is a love addict to some extent; that it has over millions of years to ensure we bond and reproduce. Brain imaging reinforces this theory – intense romantic love fires up the reward system, in a similar way to drugs. And as with sex addiction, the more that someone relies on love, and in particular the pleasure rush that comes with intense romance, the more this activity becomes hardwired into the subconscious brain.
In the 1990’s, when internet porn first started becoming widely available, psychiatrists began noticing that the more people watched porn, the more they began to crave it. Almost two decades later, brain imaging helps explain why. When people who describe themselves as ‘porn addicts’ watch pornography, they develop changes in the same area of the brain that changes in drug addicts. The area is called the ‘reward centre’, which normally fires up as we accomplish a goal – including having sex – and makes us feel good. But when it is triggered regularly by a particular activity (or substance), the reward centre changes form, so that that activity is prioritized above all others. Then, a tolerance begins to build, so more and more of that activity, and of increasing extremity, is needed. If you you are struggling with porn addiction, read this porn addiction recovery guide.
Causes of Sex addiction
But why is love and sex a healthy part of life for some, yet unhealthy and unmanageable for others? Although addiction works in a similar way among all sufferers, the roads that lead them there are different for all. And there is still a heated debate among scientists about what factors can actually cause love and sex addiction – some argue that it is predominantly rooted in psychology, often left over from traumatic childhood experiences; others believe it comes from biochemical imbalances or genetic predisposition. However, for most sufferers, it is likely a mixture of a number of different factors. These include:-
A genetic disposition to addiction plays a significant role in all dependencies, be they to drugs, alcohol or behaviour types. Sex and love addiction are no different – the genetic traits you inherit from your parents can greatly influence how vulnerable you are to becoming addicted.
According to some research, a high percentage of people with sex and love addictions experienced sexual, physical or emotional abuse in childhood.
Children brought up in families that are emotionally uncaring, unavailable or rigid are more likely to develop a sex or love addiction in later life. This family dynamic is often, though by no means always, influenced by a family history of drug or substance abuse.
In sex addiction in particular, hormones are believed to play a significant role. Both men and women have hormones known as androgens, which strongly effect the libido. There is some evidence that sex addicts have abnormally high levels of androgens, and medications that effect hormone levels are sometimes used as treatment for sex addiction.
All addictions are closely associated with a category of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. In both sex and love addiction, there are two neurotransmitters that play a particularly important role; dopamine and endorphins. There is some evidence to suggest that people with an addiction to love and/or sex naturally have higher levels of these chemicals than other people, and that this plays an important role in them developing an addiction.
Consequences of Sex Addiction
The consequences of love and sex addiction are too often underestimated, even by people in the medical profession. But just as the brain chemistry of these addictions share much in common with substance abuse, so do the physical and psychological consequences. When cravings for love or sex are not fulfilled, the brain will experience a drop in levels of neurotransmitters that are vital for it to function correctly, resulting in depression, anxiety and even psychosis. The cravings can even manifest as physical pain, as the same areas of the brain are responsible for romantic love, sex and pain perception.
This is often exacerbated by profound effects on family and interpersonal relationships. Sex and love addictions can establish unhealthy and unrealistic expectations of what a satisfying romantic and sexual relationship should be. Sex addiction is often accompanied by deception, denial, and deep seated issues with trust, which can often lead to fractured relationships with romantic partners as well as children, friends and colleagues. As the illness progresses, simple life requirements such as work, caring for children and domestic chores become neglected, as the sufferer focuses increasingly on satisfying cravings.
Love addiction is often characterized by periods of extreme highs and lows. New relationships are often particularly intense, as the love addict becomes infatuated and incapable of seeing any flaws in their partner. Friends and family may be neglected, as well as other of life’s demands such as work and household chores. Once this phase ends, the relationship often becomes very melodramatic and chaotic, as the addict tries to reignite the flame or seeks to constantly ensure that their partner will not leave. When the relationship comes to an end, they might experience deep depression and anxiety.
Health and Heartbreak
The idea of a broken heart seems like a poetic metaphor, useful for romantic novels and not much else. But in 1969, the British Medical Journal published a study in which they followed 4500 widowers for nine years after their wives died. They found that in the first 6 months following the death, the chance of the widower dying increased by 40% and, astonishingly, the most common cause of death was a heart attack. This may well be because of the great physical strain that emotional upheaval can cause on the body and, in particular, the heart. The idea of a broken heart, it seems, is not just for fairy tales.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is used to address the psychological processes that underlie sex and love addictions, and build techniques to help the patient train themselves out of the default reactions caused by their addiction. There is an increasing body of evidence to show that CBT works in part by physically altering the brain for the better [link to neuroplasticity blog piece] and literally undoing the damage caused by addiction. A very active type of therapy, CBT uses a range of techniques from role playing to story-telling and homework. It is a key method of building up coping strategies that can be used whenever addictive patterns start to reassert themselves.
Group Therapy helps provide peer support. It can be extremely effective in helping the patient come to understand some of the essential truths about their addiction, as members of the group work together to overcome the same issues. In group therapy, members exchange stories, coping strategies, hopes and difficulties. With the structure of the 12 steps program, these groups can help patients work through the process of recovery in an atmosphere of mutual respect and support.
Individual Therapy, where the patient works one on one with a therapist, helps to build the addict’s understanding of their addiction and guide them through their recovery. Specialized therapists work with the patient to identify and develop strategies to deal with the key triggers associated with their addiction. Together, the therapist and patient address methods of dealing with stresses and psychological issues in productive and positive ways. This type of therapy is also very useful for helping work with the patient in building up relationships that may have been damaged by their addiction, and for developing coping strategies.
Families or couples counselling can be a necessary step in building a nurturing and supportive environment for the addict’s recovery. Lying, deceit and abuse are common issues inflicted on the friends and families of sex and love addicts, and this can make it difficult for them to support them in their recovery. Furthermore, these issues may have cause psychological difficulties in those close to the sex or love addict, which counselling can help to address.