How Loneliness Fuels the Cycle of Porn Use (Part 3)

In the previous two posts of this series, we discussed the epidemic of loneliness, and how social isolation affects millions in America. We looked at the mounting body of research demonstrating how our isolation can have serious emotional and physical consequences and, in some extreme cases, can even be deadly. We also examined some of the key causes of our loneliness, including the rise of isolating technologies, commuter culture, and lack of community involvement.

Loneliness and the cycle of addiction

But by now, you may be wondering what loneliness has to do with pornography—and more specifically how social isolation fuels porn use. It’s a fair question, since the connection may not be immediately obvious. Today, we’ll examine how loneliness fuels the cycle of porn use. 

Loneliness and the Cycle of Craving

At its worst, loneliness can be an acutely painful and stressful feeling. When I was in high school, a popular song by the band Linkin Park captured the anxiety that loneliness can cause:

I want to let go of the pain I felt so long
(erase all the pain ’til it’s gone)
I want to heal, I want to feel
Like I’m close to something real
I want to find something I’ve wanted all along
Somewhere I belong

It’s easy to write off these lyrics as simply articulating the chaotic emotions of angst-ridden teenagers, except for the fact that academic research is confirming that loneliness really can be that painful for everyone. In his book Lost Connections, Johann Hari cites research conducted by Professor John Cacioppo of Chicago University revealing that being lonely can be as stressful as being punched in the face by a stranger. That’s right, to your body, there is no difference between being lonely and being assaulted by a random stranger. The stress response is the same.

This isn’t entirely surprising. Philosophers and theologians have long asserted that humans are relational beings. Now, sociological and scientific research confirms that fact. We are communal creatures designed for relationship, and we don’t function well when we are cut off from human contact.

Unfortunately, however, it is this very anxiety, stress, and emotional pain of social isolation that can lead to unhealthy patterns of compulsive behavior and even addiction. For looked at in its simplest form, addiction of any kind follows a predictable pattern: negative emotions → negative thoughts → negative behaviors. The negative behaviors then fuel negative emotions (such as guilt or shame), and the cycle begins over again.

Keep in mind, this cycle need not involve hardcore drugs or a professional diagnosis to qualify. In fact, it rarely does. Our addictions are usually more harmless. For example, problems at work can cause feelings of frustration or irritation or even boredom. These feelings lead to anxious, negative thoughts about ourselves, others, or the futility of our situation. To numb the pain of these thoughts, we turn to something that can alter our mood in a positive direction, however momentarily. And so we stress-eat the donuts in the breakroom or browse social media endlessly (the things we choose are rarely good for us).

It works—temporarily. But soon, the high wears off and we feel less guilty for our cravings and no closer to being free of our negative emotions. Before we know it, we have again turned to a reliable quick-fix to alter our mood, and the cycle begins again.

Porn and the Craving Cycle

When it comes to loneliness and pornography use, the cycle is the same. The very real pain of loneliness leads to any number of negative emotions and thought patterns, from depression to anxiety to feelings of worthlessness. To escape these emotions, a lonely person will often turn to the pleasurable, mood-altering experience of pornography. And it works—for on the scale of mood-altering behaviors, pornography is near the top of the list. Lost in the endorphin rush of porn and masturbation, the user forgets his loneliness for a brief time and is immersed in the experience.

But as any porn user knows, the high doesn’t last. There is an inevitable “crash” that follows, in which he feels worse than when he started. Feelings of shame and a hollow emptiness creep in, and the loneliness, far from being satisfied, is intensified and magnified. It isn’t long before he desperately wants to escape these feelings, and the rush of easily accessible porn begins to beckon. The cycle begins all over, except this time, it takes even more extreme pornography to create the same pleasurable experience. Before long, the brain’s reward circuitry is hijacked, and a compulsive dependency—an addiction—is developed.

Related: Neuroscience Speaks–How Using Porn Destroys Your Willpower

The more one is immersed in pornography, the more one’s isolation grows, and the more anxious about social contact one becomes, reinforcing the dependence on porn. The tragic paradox is that many seek out pornography because they desperately crave relationship, intimacy, and genuine love. Yet, pornography ensures they never experience those things. Instead, it traps users in a cycle of dependency, isolation, depression, and shame. It is the ultimate betrayer.

The Cycle Can Be Broken

To this point in our series, we’ve mostly focused on the negative impact of loneliness and its relation to pornography, and it hasn’t always been pleasant reading. Don’t lose heart. The truly good news is that the cycle of porn can be broken.

In the final post of this series, we will look at how loneliness can be overcome and how the cycle of dependence on porn can be ended. And we’ll look at how to cultivate real relationships that can help you heal from the pain of isolation, so you can begin living with freedom and joy.

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