Sex addiction is a complex disorder. It is defined as an uncontrollable obsession with sexual acts and fantasies despite adverse consequences.
Many individuals compulsively use sex to achieve a ‘high’ similar to what would be achieved through alcohol or illicit substances. The ‘high’ provides a fleeting wave of satisfaction, which becomes addictive. The addict seeks out the ‘high’ over and over again, often escalating their sexual behavior in frequency or recklessness.
Sometimes, it can be difficult to recognize and accept the signs of sex addiction. When sex addicts do confront reality, however, they often feel a sense of hopelessness. They feel that recovering from their addiction is impossible, but that is not the case.
KeyStone Center ECU believes that managing sex addiction can be possible. In this article, we outline the potential paths to recovery. While the journey looks different from person to person, these are the common factors we have identified in sex addiction recovery.
The Path to Sex Addiction Recovery
Recovering from sex addiction is an emotionally challenging process. The pathway to recovery of an addiction may be clearer to some, and run deeper in others. Sex addiction, like gambling and exercise, is a process addiction, as opposed to a substance addiction, which can involve drugs or alcohol. Despite this, when learning how to manage sex addiction you may notice similarities with substance addiction recovery strategies.
When considering how to manage sex addiction, consider the following: What does this compulsive sexual behavior give me? What does it take away from me? For instance, does it give me affirmation? Does it take away anxiety or depression, albeit only temporarily?
Acknowledge the Problem
The very first step in the path to sex addiction recovery is acknowledging that there is a problem. This step is fundamental, and often the most difficult one to take. Without a proper foundation, the subsequent steps are likely to crumble. After all, if you can’t admit the problem, are you going to be open to implementing the solution?
For some, acknowledging that there is a problem can be frightening. They may believe that admitting to having an addiction makes them fundamentally ‘flawed’, ‘unworthy’ or that they haven’t tried hard enough to stop the behavior.
Remember, anyone can develop addictive behaviors. They are not a reflection of one’s character or value. By taking this first step and breaking through denial, you are opening yourself up to the possibility of a healthier, happier future with less chaos and unmanageability.
Seek out a Mental Health Professional
The next step in the path to managing sex addiction is admitting you can not do this alone and seeking professional help. Mental health professionals can help you figure out what treatment best suits your needs and point you in the right direction. Treatment options often include a combination of medication, therapy and support groups.
Sometimes sex addiction may be caused by a chemical imbalance in the body. In other cases, there may be underlying mental health conditions that cause increased sexual appetite. In either case, the appropriate medication can help mitigate sex addiction or help ‘fix’ the issues you are ‘medicating’ through your sexual acting out. For example, studies have shown that Naltrexone is effective in treating sex addiction and other impulsive-compulsive behaviors.
However, patients should also be aware that some meds may exacerbate the issue. This is why it is important to consult a professional to determine whether medication is appropriate for your disorder.
Certified sex addiction therapists (CSATs) provide specialized sex addiction treatment thanks to their supplemental training in compulsive sexual behaviors. They may also encourage additional treatments such as:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help you identify negative thoughts and behavioral patterns and learn how to replace them with positive ones.
- KeyStone Center ECU utilizes the 30 Step Model For Sex Addiction Recovery, developed by prominent sex addiction researcher Patrick Carnes, Ph.D. It consists of a multiphase process that gives you support and guidance. It gradually teaches you appropriate coping tools and goals to achieve your path to recovery. It can help with sex addiction and the anxiety, depression, shame and other negative feelings that typically accompany it.
- Psychodrama Group Therapy uses enactment methods to help people examine their problematic behavior, explore and experience real emotions and express their truths in a safe and supportive environment. As our psychodramatist Nancy Willis, M.S.W., LSW, CP, explains, “people often turn to addictive behavior to numb emotions or as protection from being vulnerable in intimate relationships, a functional coping skill until it causes more problems than it solves or causes negative consequences”.
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR) is a trauma-focused treatment that utilizes bilateral stimulation to help a person work through a traumatic memory by using both hemispheres of the brain. It involves making specific eye movements, similar to those observed in the REM (rapid eye movement) phase of sleep. The emphasis is not on changing the patient’s responses to negative thoughts. Instead, EMDR therapy focuses on the traumatic memory itself. The goal is to change the way the memory is stored in the brain, which in turn would eliminate the negative symptoms the patient is experiencing. It typically yields faster results than other methods.
Another treatment recommendation is to join support groups similar to alcoholics anonymous (AA) but for those with sex addictions. Here are some resources to consider:
- Sexaholics Anonymous
- Sex Addicts Anonymous
- Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous
- Sexual Compulsives Anonymous
- KeyStone Center ECU’s Sex Addiction Treatment (available in Chester, PA)
Treat Underlying Mental Health or Co-Occurring Conditions
Understanding the relationship between mental health and sex addiction is important when managing sex addiction. For some, sexual behavior may be triggered by underlying mental health or co-occurring disorders, including:
- Trauma: Those who have experienced trauma in childhood or adulthood may turn to sexual behavior as a coping mechanism.
- Anxiety: Sometimes, those with extreme anxiety may turn to sex to provide a sense of temporary comfort.
- Autism: The connections between autism and behavioral health issues (such as sex addiction) have also been observed. Although the causes are not always clear, they may be related to common autism spectrum disorder (ASD) symptoms such as a propensity for repetitive behaviors and hyperfixation.
- Depression: When faced with an overwhelming sense of sadness, those with depression may use sex as a means to provide a fleeting moment of happiness (in the form of increased dopamine release during sex). Afterward, however, they typically feel a sense of guilt, shame or remorse that exacerbates issues of depression.
- Bipolar Disorder (Mania): Sometimes, when someone enters a manic state they may feel increased sexual urges, which can manifest as compulsive sexual behavior.
- Co-occurring disorders: An example of this may be someone who is addicted to illicit substances such as cocaine or amphetamines. Addicts may use substances as a means to remove feelings of shame or guilt in order to feel more comfortable acting out sexually or to heighten the experience.
In many cases, treating the former can help alleviate or solve the latter or vice versa.
Overall, it is important to consider what you feel sex addiction gives you and what it takes away from you. Compulsive sexual behaviors can temporarily take away feelings of anxiety, loneliness, anger, depression and more. However, we find that the results are typically temporary and superficial. Without treating those mental health issues, they often return and cause the person to engage in inappropriate sexual behaviors over and over again. For some, sexual acting out behavior gives them affirmation or a false sense of intimacy.
Get a Sponsor
As with alcohol or substance abuse addiction, those with sex addiction are typically encouraged to pair with a sponsor. Getting a sponsor provides yo with support, helps you develop accountability and shows you that recovery is possible. In many cases, your sponsor will have gone through the same recovery process as you, or you may share a similar background.
It is also beneficial to have a sponsor you can turn to in moments of need when relapsing or turning back to problematic sexual behavior seem tempting.
Patients often find temporary sponsors through KeyStone ECU Alumni or through 12-step meetings they attend each night. When seeking a sponsor or Higher Power, some find it helpful to write a “want ad” listing what they need and expect from each.
Learn Your Triggers
Unwanted sexual urges, fantasies and behaviors often occur because of certain triggers.
Triggers may be linked to underlying mental health conditions, as previously explored. However, a trigger may also be a certain place, person, time of day, trauma recollection, mood or more.
Learning what triggers your sex addiction can be key in identifying opportunities to prevent it and maintain long-term recovery. It can provide a roadmap for what situations to avoid and what to do if the trigger arises. KeyStone Center ECU patients are encouraged to keep an “arousal log” to help monitor triggers and learn tools to utilize to help them when triggers arise.
Once you have identified your triggers, consider sharing them with someone you trust. This is typically a sponsor or member of your recovery community, but may also be a close family member or friend. Sharing your triggers can help promote accountability and give you someone to turn to in moments of need.
Find Healthy Distractions
After you have identified what triggers your unwanted sexual behavior, consider brainstorming new healthy alternatives or distractions. Patients at KeyStone Center ECU are taught and encouraged to use tools including mindfulness, CBT, medication, breathing exercises and more.
When broken down, sex addiction often comes back to a need for satisfaction, however fleeting that may be. Finding an alternative outlet that is emotionally, physically or spiritually rewarding can have a similar effect – without the subsequent feelings of guilt, remorse or shame associated with sex addiction. KeyStone Center ECU patients, for example, are often encouraged to explore what they believe their behavior gives them (e.g. affirmation, sense of control, sense of intimacy or more) or takes away (depression, anxiety, etc.).
Examples of healthy alternatives include:
- Making a list of your goals, desired achievements and things you are grateful for
- Enjoying a healthy snack/ cooking
- Reading a good book or listening to a podcast
- Engaging in a hobby
- Attending a meeting
- Completing a task or ‘to do’ list
- Calling a recovery friend
Note that you should avoid replacing one unhealthy habit with another. For example, you should avoid using alcohol, drugs, binge eating, or other unhealthy practices as a coping mechanism for your sex addiction.
Overall, If you are struggling to find healthy distractions, consider reaching out to your sponsor or a mental health professional for advice. Plan ahead. As they say, “failing to plan is planning to fail”.
There is power in learning.
Educate yourself about the causes and symptoms of sexual addiction. By doing so, you will empower yourself to recognize the signs of sex addiction and learn how to better cope.
Listen to the stories of former sex addicts and the wisdom provided by your sponsor: They are real-life examples of how managing a sex addiction is possible.
As you gain more knowledge, you may notice that your perspective on your addiction begins to shift. What once seemed like an insurmountable mountain now appears as a manageable hill. With time, you are likely to realize that you are not alone, that recovery is achievable and there is hope.
Gaining recovery knowledge can also help you educate others. There are still a great deal of stigma associated with the term ‘sex addiction’. By letting those in your inner circle understand what you are going through, you are also arming them with the tools to help you.
Recovery Is Possible
In this article, we have shared with you the necessary steps to manage a sex addiction.
The path to recovery may not be as straightforward or smooth for all but do not get discouraged. Be kind to yourself. Be honest. Realize that you are not alone. By using the tools and resources, seeking professional help and working one day at a time, you will indeed make progress toward successful long-term recovery. Before you know it, you’ll turn around and realize just how much progress you’ve made.