As a clinical psychologist, I’ve worked with many individuals struggling with “pornography addiction” in an attempt to quit porn. What I’ve learned over the years may surprise you. Often I find that individuals spend more time trying to overcome their “pornography addiction” than time spent actually viewing sexual images. For many, the battle to overcome “pornography addiction” has actually become the “addiction.”
What Is Unwanted Pornography Viewing?
Instead of focusing on pornography as an “addiction,” I have found it more helpful to think about unwanted pornography viewing as the “cough” or the symptom of an underlying “cold.” The “cold” is often stress, depression, anxiety, loneliness, limited awareness of emotions, or shame. Fixating on getting rid of the “porn cough” doesn’t treat the cold. For many, pornography is simply an ineffective coping strategy for dealing with emotions and suffering that resembles a “compulsion” more than an “addiction.”
This is how compulsive behaviors work: we experience a negative emotion such as stress, anxiety, guilt, loneliness, or shame, then engage in a behavior to reduce the negative feeling by viewing pornography, or eating, shopping, gaming, etc, which helps us feel better temporarily, but then leads to more negative emotions, such as feelings of guilt or shame. In order to cope with these increased feelings, we return to the behavior that temporarily worked in the first place, but also caused the ongoing problem. We view more pornography, or shop, eat, game, etc., again and again, and again. Viewing pornography helps you feel better temporarily because it stimulates physical pleasure which masks distress, but worse in the long run, because you feel ashamed of yourself for viewing porn.
Who Tends To Struggle With Unwanted Pornography Viewing?
Over the last few years, researchers and clinicians have discovered traits individuals struggling with pornography often have in common. Individuals who struggle with pornography viewing tend to be less aware of their emotions and attempt to avoid or suppress uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations like sexual urges. They also experience higher rates of shame, low self-esteem, loneliness, self-contempt, and are less likely to engage in self-forgiveness and self-compassion. Importantly, individuals who are religious are more likely to perceive themselves as “addicted” to pornography even when they are not viewing at higher rates than less religious individuals. This perception may lead to increased pornography viewing over time.
How Can We Help Others Who Are Struggling With Pornography?
In an effort to address the complexities of unwanted pornography viewing from limited sexual education, emotional awareness, and unhelpful beliefs about the impact of pornography, I shared my research and counseling experiences in a recent TEDx talk, Changing the Narrative Around the Addiction Story. I hope what I shared will be helpful in fostering more open and understanding conversations around sexuality and with those who struggle with unwanted pornography viewing.
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How Do I Overcome Pornography?
Although compulsive behaviors like unwanted pornography viewing can go on for years, there is good news! Effective treatments for compulsive behaviors have been around for decades. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT, is a mindfulness-based treatment helpful in treating many disorders including, depression, PTSD, chronic pain, and anxiety. Importantly, ACT has already been found to be effective in treating other compulsive disorders such as OCD. If unwanted pornography viewing operated more like a compulsion than an addiction, it made sense that ACT would be effective, and it was!
In 2016, researchers from Utah State University and McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School published the first randomized clinical trial on ACT as a treatment for reducing unwanted pornography viewing. Their participants were able to reduce their pornography viewing on average over 90% after 12 weeks. ACT is the only therapy with published research I have been able to find regarding its effectiveness in reducing pornography viewing. This is exciting news!
What Is Life After Pornography?
In order to reach even more who are feeling shame and struggling with unwanted pornography viewing, I developed an online self-directed program called Life After Pornography, to share helpful educational resources and principles from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy shown effective in research for reducing unwanted pornography viewing. These resources can be helpful for the individual struggling with unwanted pornography viewing or for family members who want to better understand how to support individuals who are struggling with pornography.
I am a big believer in receiving mental health therapy and have witnessed over the years how helpful counseling can be. The Life After Pornography program is NOT intended to replace the potential benefits you would receive by working with a therapist in-person, but instead provide an individual struggling with pornography a framework to begin working from the comfort and privacy of their own home to effectively address unwanted pornography viewing.
We all struggle with something in this life. Some deal with depression, some battle with anxiety, many have experienced abuse, and some struggle with compulsive behaviors around things like eating, pornography, or social media use. I believe all of us can make a difference in the lives of those who are struggling by being a little kinder, a little more understanding, and being open to offering our love and support. I hope we can support one another on this wonderfully challenging journey together!
Cameron Staley is a clinical psychologist at Idaho State University. He completed his psychology residency at Brigham Young University’s Counseling and Psychological Services where he first learned Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) as an effective treatment for unwanted pornography viewing. In his TEDx talk, Changing the Narrative Around the Addiction Story, Cameron shares details from his research and counseling experience regarding helpful ways to talk about sexuality and how to effectively reduce unwanted pornography viewing through mindfulness. In an effort to make these principles more accessible, he developed an online self-directed program called Life After Pornography based on ACT concepts proven effective in research to reduce unwanted pornography viewing in adults. For additional resources including interviews, podcasts, and articles with Dr. Staley, you can visit The Life After Series Facebook page to learn more.