Sexual behavior releases endorphins in the brain that resemble opiates in that they numb pain and produce a feeling of well-being. This endorphin release is compulsively pursued by the sex addict. The reward of this endorphin release is so powerful for the sex addict that he finds himself willing to pursue his activity in spite of the negative consequences he knows he will experience as well.
It also appears that the release of chemicals begins when the addict’s ritual begins. That is, when the sex addict starts to fantasize about his behavior, or even brings to mind some of his past behavior, a chemical process is triggered in the brain which entails the release of those pleasurable endorphins. This is the euphoric recall referred to by so many recovering addicts.
Our brains are organized in complex neuropathway systems. In the brain, the reward pathways associated with compulsive sexual behavior look structurally similar to the reward pathways of those addicted to substances. The more each pathway is utilized, the stronger that pathway becomes. When an individual repeatedly participates in any pleasurable behavior, the corresponding pathway in the brain is strengthened.1
For the sex addict, the power of memory is so great and the addiction pathway so well honed, that the physiological obstacles to developing and maintaining sexual sobriety are experienced as overwhelming.
Repetition is the key to developing new pathways in the brain. The recovering sex addict must create new pathways in the brain through the repetition of positive behaviors. This is why physical exercise and meditation are so important in the development and maintenance of sobriety. Both exercise and meditation release endorphins and create a physical sensation of wellbeing which mitigate the physical sensations of withdrawal and provide alternate mechanisms through which the newly recovering addict can experience pleasure. Mere abstinence from a particular sexual behavior without the development of new behaviors is not maintainable because that alone is experienced as extremely tortuous deprivation. Most assuredly, the recovering addict will not again experience the same intense high experienced through sexual acting-out. That loss must be acknowledged and the addict supported in having his/her grief about that.
Many addicts will be willing to make the changes necessary to maintain a sober life when they experience recovery not as deprivation but as full living which includes a sense of wellbeing undoubtedly deeper, more subtle and less intense than the high of sexual acting-out but without negative, devastating consequences.
Foot Note – i Recent studies of the brain have suggested that something is different in the brain of the alcoholic than in the brain of the person who is able to enjoy alcohol but who does not develop a dependency on it. The chemical processes and neurological functioning and structure of the alcoholic’s brain are qualitatively and quantitatively different than those of the non-alcoholic. Something similar may be at work in the brains of those who are addicted to sex.