It’s probably because of an Obsessive Compulsive Cycle that you have had difficulty overcoming your porn addiction. Understanding this cycle can help you understand why the more you try to avoid pornography and other sexual addiction behavio
rs, the more difficult it is. The advice to “just quit thinking about it,” or “get it out of your mind” actually makes it worse! This is the worst advice there is! After you understand obsessions, compulsions, fear, and how the mind works you will know why you have failed in the past and why this “seemingly common sense advice” is so destructive. Understanding obsessions, compulsions and fear is one of the most powerful keys in helping you overcome pornography addiction. It is the obsessive-compulsive dynamic coupled with fear that has most likely kept you trapped.
Fear can be very powerful in our lives. Understanding how to effectively deal with fear is absolutely necessary in order to free you from a lifestyle that has been destructive, limiting, and seemingly beyond your control. In order to understand fear let me show you different types of fear that all have the same foundation.
Phobias, Obsessions, and Compulsions
A Phobia is “a persistent, irrational fear of a specific object, activity, or situation that results in a compelling desire to avoid it” (DSM IV). Common phobias include things such as spiders, snakes, heights (that’s my favorite), people, dogs, dentists, storms, flying, tests, enclosed places, etc. The numbers of phobias are limitless because a person can develop a phobia towards anything in their environment. At the heart of a phobia is irrational or exaggerated fear. These phobias are produced by negatively predicting the future concerning something, and exaggerating the negative, or “making mountains out of molehills.” People who experience phobias actually believe that they are vulnerable in some way. They are also created and maintained through Classical Conditioning or neurological conditioning that is reinforced through avoidance.
A hallmark of a phobia is the process of avoidance. People who have phobias generally tend to avoid those things that they are afraid of. For example, if you are afraid of elevators, you would prefer to take the stairs. This is good for your health, but not so great emotionally. It is this avoidance that helps keep phobias alive.
An Obsession is closely related to a phobia. However, instead of being afraid of some “thing,” a person is afraid of a “thought, concept, impulse or image that is seen as intrusive and inappropriate” (DSM IV). A common obsession is the fear of becoming ill, which manifests itself in the fear of germs. Other common obsessions include fear of being alone; fear of hurting or killing self or others; fear of separation; fear of being unworthy; the fear that some natural disaster may occur; or the fear of being out-of-control.
Similar dynamics occur with an obsession as with a phobia. As with a phobia, an obsession occurs with an irrational or exaggerated fear or idea. An obsession is maintained through avoidance. For example, a person might get an unwanted or disturbing thought, which they then try to avoid or force out of their mind. Trying to force this thought out of their mind actually makes it more difficult, if not impossible, to get rid of the thought. The brain is made in such a way that as soon as you try to force a thought out of your mind it comes back in with a vengeance!
For example, try not to visualize a yellow school bus. If you combine that image with stress, anxiety, guilt, or fear, the force of that image coming back into your mind is increased. In fact, it becomes what is called an “intrusive thought”. The more you try to not think of a feared or disturbing thought, the more that thought forces itself into your mind. Your life then becomes dominated by these unwanted and intrusive thoughts. This can become disturbing at first and horrifying later because you realize that you are literally “out-of-control.” You try to cope the best you know how and do everything in your power to avoid and get rid of these thoughts and images only to find that you cannot.
We have learned that avoiding or running from feared thoughts is the worst possible way to handle them. In fact, avoiding or running from any fear, conditions, increases and anchors that fear. Once you’ve received the suggestion, it’s hard not to think of a yellow school bus. But imagine how nearly impossible it would be to keep that image out of your mind if it were linked to feelings of anxiety, guilt, or distress. Do you get it? Our minds are so powerful. Avoidance of fear, anxiety, or guilt is death emotionally! Trying not to think about something that is anxiety or guilt-provoking or disturbing only makes it that much more difficult to get rid of.
A Compulsion is related to an obsession, in that a compulsion is a ritual or behavior intended to get rid of the obsessive thought or reduce or prevent the obsessive anxiety or distress. For example, if someone is afraid of becoming ill (obsession), they often worry about becoming contaminated by disease through germs. Often, people realize that if they maintain good hygiene it reduces the chance for them to become contaminated with germs and thus they prevent themselves from getting sick. These people often wash their hands repeatedly (compulsion) in order to avoid the possibility of contamination. So for example, a person shakes hands with another person and then fears that they got germs from the other person. They try not to think about this or let this thought bother them, but they cannot get it out of their mind. It drives them crazy so they go to a restroom and wash their hands, at which point there is immediate relief and the thought, “whew, I’m safe now!” You can also see that they are engaging in the two thoughts that create anxiety and fear: “Negatively predicting the future” and “exaggerating the negative” or “making mountains out of molehills.” A compulsion, then, is an act or behavior that a person engages in to avoid the dreaded result—sickness. Because one can never be too careful, these people often will end up washing their hands excessively throughout the day. When this interferes with a person’s life and is deemed excessive and out of control, this is called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Overcoming an obsessive-compulsive cycle is most often simple, but difficult. It involves changing one’s beliefs so that they are more in line with truth and reason, as well as facing one’s fears and desensitizing the feared stimulus. Both of these tasks require a great deal of courage.
The Sexual Obsessive-Compulsive Cycle
As I mentioned, when a person is afraid of a thought, concept, or image and tries to avoid thinking that thought, or seeing that image, the feared thought or image is relentless in forcing its way into that person’s mind. Most everyone experiences obsessive or intrusive thoughts at some level. These intrusive thoughts are intensified through stress. The more stress a person experiences in relation to these thoughts, the greater will be the intrusive thoughts.
Sexual thoughts can also follow this pattern. Typically, people have normal sexual curiosity and a healthy sexual drive. But, sometimes a person may believe these normal thoughts are “bad,” “unhealthy” or “immoral.” The person tries to avoid normal sexual thoughts due to guilt. Whenever these normal thoughts come, he or she tries to force them out of their mind. This sets up an obsessive cycle where sexual thoughts force their way in all the more.
When a person is bright, has a good imagination, is emotionally sensitive, and is dedicated spiritually or to their own code of ethics or morals they are especially vulnerable to this kind of cycle. They have great ambition and motivation to be a good moral person. Often they want to be valiant and true to their own strict conscience. Often they are taught that they should avoid sexual sin. This can include pornography, masturbation, petting, intercourse, the wearing of immodest clothing, and lusting. Then one day out of the blue they are confronted with a sexual image, conversation, or idea. This frightens them. They are afraid that they are bad because they may have become sexually aroused through this unwanted stimulus. Sometimes people over-generalize that all sexual stimuli is bad and that they themselves are bad if they have sexual thoughts, are sexually aroused, or are attracted sexually. Many decide that the best way to cope with this is to completely avoid and go to war with any and all sexual thoughts, images or attraction that occur normally in the world around them.
Many are curious and dabble with or experiment with sexuality through conversation, looking at sexual material, acting out sexually, or by just having a natural sexual curiosity. After they have indulged in their curiosity or exploration many feel guilty and become determined that they will quit (repent) and never again give-in to sexual thoughts, curiosity or arousal. They believe that if they try hard enough they will overcome “the lust of the flesh” and will be free from temptation and sexual thoughts, interests, or feelings. Because this is an embarrassing topic, many of our young people are uninformed as to what is natural and normal.
For example, I have seen many young men who feel guilty because they have an erection, sexual thought, or visualize a sexual image, not realizing that every young man has an erection several times a day. This is absolutely normal and keeps the penis healthy. Being sexually attracted or having sexual thoughts is a normal part of development. These involuntary and sometimes voluntary erections and thoughts are seen as sinful. This can set up the pattern of guilt and avoidance. Before long this terrific young man is obsessed with sexuality, meaning he is terrified and experiences intrusive, unwanted thoughts that are torturous to him. Most of these people suffer in silence because of their shame. Working with these suffering, tortured, “great” individuals is one of the most heartbreaking and rewarding things that I do as a psychologist.
The more this person tries to get these intrusive, unwanted thoughts and images out of their mind, the more difficult and impossible it is to do so. At times, it is extremely difficult to think of little else. Most people explain to me that these sexual thoughts are so strong and relentless that it simply wears them down. The person then discovers that “giving in” to masturbation, pornography, or some other sexual behavior gives them temporary relief, which becomes compulsive. It also becomes classically conditioned. After fighting the intrusive thoughts and simply being worn down and exhausted a person gives in to the sexual temptation.
For example, a young man has fought the temptation to look at pornography and masturbate for three days. But because the temptation is relentless, the young man eventually becomes exhausted, gives, in and looks at pornography and masturbates. The young man experiences an immediate relief from the harassing and relentless temptations and intrusive thoughts. This feeling of temporary “peace” is classically reinforcing and sets the young man up for continued obsessive compulsive cycle:
This “avoidance cycle” can be so extreme that I have often worked with men who have not been in a grocery store for years due to the fear that they might see “cleavage” on a magazine cover. I know people who have not been to a public swimming pool for years because they might have unwanted sexual thoughts. If this is not mental imprisonment and torture, then I don’t know what is! When it comes to the obsessive compulsive cycle, avoidance is death! Mental extremes and exaggeration are emotional death! No wonder every religion in the world teaches temperance and moderation. It is the extreme that entraps!
If you or someone you know is caught up in this insidious obsessive compulsive cycle, keeping you trapped in pornography addiction and other sexual behaviors, there is hope and help! In the full Candeo online recovery training program, we will teach you how to break out of this cycle and regain your freedom!