The old adage, what comes first, the chicken or the egg? When it comes to the symbiotic relationship between addiction and depression, it is often difficult to determine which causes which. When working with people who struggle with compulsive sexual behavior, often depression rides just beneath the surface. One acts out sexually to avoid the depression (subconsciously) and in turn after they act out the depression is enflamed and pronounced and they feel far worse.
The Connection Between Sex Addiction and Depression
We act out what we don’t (want to) feel. If you’re feeling down or low, it makes sense to want to move away from that and instead find something else to do instead. The vast majority of my clients have been doing this since they were adolescents and the habitual pattern of acting out has continued for most of their lifetime. At a neurobiological level, sex or porn creates a high similar to many drugs and offers at least a temporary relief from their struggles. For someone who acts out sexually with other people, it not only gives them relief from their struggles but also creates a sense of connecting to another person. Because of that, depressed people who are addicted to sex, do so with a compulsion that does not include healthy functioning but rather chasing a their only source of safety, pleasure, soothing, and acceptance.
It’s important to recognize how the brain and our reward circuitry function. In Your Brain on Porn, we learn that primitive circuits in the brain manage emotions, drives, impulses, and subconscious decision-making. The desire and motivation to pursue sex arises from dopamine, the neurochemical that drives the primitive part of the brain known as the reward circuitry. It’s where you experience cravings and pleasure and where you get addicted.
Sex and pornography are used to (temporarily) forget about feelings of sadness, fear, anger and boredom. This habit can both lead to depression—because you know you’re really not dealing with core issues—and is also something depression can drive. Sex and porn floods the brain with dopamine and makes us feel good but like most habits, the good wanes and you require more and more to feel the same rush. You may find yourself progressing in your behavior due to this and getting more and more stuck in this negative cycle.
How to Work with Depression
If you are struggling with both depression and compulsive sexual behavior, both need to be treated. One without the other is like continuing pulling weeds without ever getting to the roots. Throughout our website you will find numerous blogs, articles, and of course our best-selling book, Breaking the Cycle: Free Yourself from Sex Addiction, Porn Obsession, and Shame, as resources on how to address your compulsive sexual behavior. But what about depression?
There are many types of depression based on levels of time, intensity, and controllability. For our purposes here, I will address only several that are routinely seen in our clients—major depression, persistent depressive disorder, and situational depression. Here is a brief recap of their characteristics and symptoms:
Loss of interest or pleasure in your activities
Feelings restless and agitated, or else very sluggish and slowed down physically or mentally
Feeling worthless or guilty
Thoughts of suicide
Persistent Depressive Disorder:
Change in appetite and changes in sleep
Sleeping more than usual
Feeling of heaviness in your arms and legs
Oversensitive to criticism
As you can imagine, feeling any these experiences and having a way out like acting out sexually makes for a unhealthy cycle. Working with your depression can take on many forms, from psychotherapy to psychopharmacology to holistically.
A wonderful book and program, The Mindful Way Through Depression offers an 8-week program that can help you overcome depression, anxiety and stress. The course emphasizes many of the skills we stress too with our clients—meditation, journaling, and other specific mindfulness practices that attempt to change your relationship with the feelings of depression.