Defeat Lust & Pornography Closing a laptop after a porn relapse.
Defeat Lust & Pornography 7 minute read

Porn and Stress: How to Relieve Stress Without Relapsing

Last Updated: September 28, 2022

How do you handle stress? Is it possible that stress is causing you to relapse back into watching porn? This past summer, I went through one of the more stressful seasons of my life as my family relocated from one end of the United States to the other.

In that time, I noticed a couple of my bad habits were exacerbated:

  1. “Doomscrolling” (compulsively checking Twitter for bad news)
  2. Eating junk food

On the flip side, I found myself unable to make time for positive stress-relieving activities, like reading and exercise. I realized the pressures and instability of my situation were motivating these unhealthy behaviors—I was seeking relief, and I turned to the quickest solution I could find, rather than the things I knew would be good for me.

Something very similar often happens with porn relapses. Even if you know it’s a bad habit and ultimately destructive, on a deeper level you know that it’s a quick form of relief from whatever stress you’re facing at the moment—even if it will bring you more stress later on.

What Is Stress, Anyway?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “Stress is the physical or mental response to an external cause, such as having a lot of homework or having an illness. A stressor may be a one-time or short-term occurrence, or it can happen repeatedly over a long time.”1

Stress and Addiction

Addiction researchers have long understood the connection between stress and drug or alcohol abuse.

Evidence suggests that the neural circuits involved in stress and emotions overlap substantially with the brain systems involved in drug reward. Chronic alcohol use can result in neuroadaptive changes in stress and reward pathways. Such changes may alter an alcohol-dependent person’s response to stress, particularly with respect to stress and emotion regulation and motivation for alcohol, which in turn may increase the risk of relapse.2

In other words, if you train your brain with drugs and alcohol, it will automatically respond to stressful situations with cravings that can feel impossible to resist.

We’ve written before about how porn affects your brain like a drug. We’ve heard plenty of stories from people to support the argument that watching porn works similarly to other kinds of substance abuse. But let’s look more closely at this.

How Porn Interacts With Stress

You can probably all think of bad habits that have been triggered or exacerbated by stress. And just because you binge Netflix, eat junk food, or scroll social media when you should be doing other work doesn’t mean you’re addicted! However, the more frequently you turn to these soothing behaviors, the more you train your brain to “need” them when you’re facing stress.

Not surprisingly then, many people report stress reduction as a motivator for looking at porn.3 Like a sugary snack or a mind-numbing TV series, porn can provide quick temporary relief from stress hormones.

Pandemic Stress and Porn

Big porn companies understand that stress motivates people to look at porn, and during the 2020 pandemic they capitalized on this tendency. Porn websites reported a surge in activity during March and April of 2020.

Not surprisingly, researchers examining trends of internet use during and after 2020 found that many people had turned to porn as a form of stress relief.4

Stress and Super-Stimulus

When you bring porn into the equation, the chemical makeup of sexual pleasure has a POWERFUL interaction with the stress hormone. New research from the Journal of Behavioral Addictions concluded that the cortisol released by stress enhances the chemical rewards of sex. In other words, if you’re dealing with a lot of stress, it can actually increase the pleasure of watching porn and masturbating.

Why is this a problem? Because porn is already what neurosurgeon Dr. Donald Hilton has called a “super-stimulus.”6 Like a synthetic drug, it artificially stimulates the brain’s chemical receptors and overloads them. It’s too much of a good thing and it triggers addictive cravings. If you throw the intensification of stress into the mix, it will only increase the chemical overload.

Porn offers a powerful stress relief. And this makes people suffering from stress more vulnerable to porn addiction and relapse.

How to Destress (While Avoiding Porn!)

So, if stressful situations put you at risk of relapsing into porn, what can you do? Here are two approaches. The first is to work on eliminating stress from your life. To whatever extent you can, cut out things that are contributing to stress, and this will make the path away from porn much smoother.

Second, we all face unavoidable stress, so this is where the real strategy comes into play. How do you deal with stressful situations when they arise?

Pray

If you’re battling porn, then you probably pray that God would help you in times of temptation—or like many, you pray after repeatedly falling into temptation! But you may need to shift the focus of your prayers from overcoming temptation to the stressful circumstances that are making you vulnerable.

1 Peter 5:7 instructs “cast all your cares on him, because he cares about you.” Prayer is a discipline, especially in times of stress. It may feel ineffective or pointless at times, but God is working all things together for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28). Develop the habit of turning to God in prayer as soon as you begin to feel the stress hormones rising.

Sleep

When dealing with high-stress situations, we often lose sleep. And when you’re tired, that’s only going to increase your level of stress.

As much as you can, put a priority on getting a good night of sleep, and you’ll be in a much better position to resist the temptation to look at porn.

In Bible college, one of my professors once said, “Sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is rest.” If you’re tired and stressed, don’t wait until the temptation to look at porn gets overwhelming. Take a nap!

Eat

Making healthy food choices goes a long way to reducing stress. I mentioned my stress-induced eating from this summer—that’s very different! Eating junk food might temporarily relieve stress, but it’s only going to make it worse in the long run.

We’re not nutrition experts, so I’m not going to try to spell out specifics. But finding the right diet can help physically equip you to deal with stress. As you reduce stress through a healthy diet, you’ll find you’re not as tempted to look at porn.

Breathe

Our body does a lot of things automatically—experts call this the “autonomic system.” And our body reacts physically to the stresses around us. The butterflies in your stomach, racing heart, the sweaty palms, the shakiness—these are largely automatic responses bodily responses that we can’t control. And unfortunately, these responses can easily control us.

But there’s a loophole. Your breath is one part of the autonomic system that you can manually override. And when you take control of your breathing, you can reign in your autonomic responses to stress.

That’s why taking slow, deep breaths has such a calming effect. In almost any situation, stopping to take a few slow, deep breaths will make you feel more peaceful. No, it doesn’t change the stressful circumstances around you. But it can change your body’s automatic response to it, and it can help you control urges to look at porn.

Talk

All these other tips can help, but they’ll only get you so far. You need an ally to talk to—someone who can encourage you, pat you on the back, and help get you through the stressful time you’re in.

When I faced a stressful season earlier this year, I realized I need to talk through the situation and my feelings with trusted friends. While it didn’t change the situation, it equipped me to deal with it much better than my bad habits. It also helped me find the motivation to pursue better stress-relieving activities, such as a healthy diet and exercise.

This is even MORE true when you’re dealing with stress and the temptation to relapse into porn. You can’t substitute ANYTHING for the power of a real-life relationship. It helps relieve stress and restore your motivation to keep fighting against porn.


1National Institute of Mental Health, “I’m So Stressed Out! Fact Sheet,” accessed September 12, 2022 at https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/so-stressed-out-fact-sheet.

2 Rajita Sinha, “How does stress lead to risk of alcohol relapse?” Alcohol Research 34 (2012):432-40. PMID: 23584109; PMCID: PMC3788822.

3 Beáta Bőthe, István Tóth-Király, Nóra Bella, Marc Potenza, Zsolt Demetrovics, and Gábor Orosz, “Why do people watch pornography? The motivational basis of pornography use,” Psychology of Addict Behaviors 35 (2021):172-186. doi: 10.1037/adb0000603.

4 Xiaoliu Jiang, Yingfei Lu, Youjuan Hong, Ying Zhang, and Lijun Chen, “A Network Comparison of Motives behind Online Sexual Activities and Problematic Pornography Use during the COVID-19 Outbreak and the Post-Pandemic Period,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 19 (2022). doi: 10.3390/ijerph19105870.

5 Rudolf Stark, Charlotte Markert, Onno Kruse, Bertram Walter, Jana Strahler, and Sanja Klein, “Individual cortisol response to acute stress influences neural processing of sexual cues,” Journal of Behavioral Addictions 11 (2022): 506–519. doi: 10.1556/2006.2022.00037.

6 Donald Hilton Jr., “How Pornography & Drugs Changes Your Brain,” Salvo (2010), accessed August 23, 2021. https://salvomag.com/article/salvo13/slave-master

  1. Keith

    These are good recommendations. Thinking that I will try deep breathing as I kneel.

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