Can PTSD Lead to a Porn Addiction or Vice Versa?

Dr R. Y. Langham

Mar 15, 2022

Porn is often regarded as “taboo,” and as such most users keep this adult pastime a secret. In fact, porn users tend to hide their use from their partners, spouses, friends, and family out of embarrassment, shame, and/or the fear of being shunned or abandoned by loved ones because of their “porn use.”

Porn ruins romantic relationships and friendships and fractures family bonds. It also causes mistrust and feelings of betrayal and inadequacy. Sometimes, porn-watching leads to anxiety and depression, and sometimes, anxiety or depression triggers porn-watching. Many times, “heavy porn use” leads to porn addiction.

And, often, “heavy porn use” or porn addiction weighs heavily on romantic partners or spouses, triggering ripple effects, in which partners or spouses experience body image issues, anxiety, despair, anger, resentment, frustration, hostility, depression, low self-esteem and self-confidence, self-doubt, etc.

Moreover, researchers have found that children, as young as 4 and 5, are being exposed to porn for the first time. When young children are exposed to sexually-explicit images and videos, it is confusing and extremely upsetting to them. Some children even develop PTSD from repeated exposure to porn. In other words, for these children, porn is scary – and scaring. And, these mental images can follow them throughout life, clouding their perception of “sex” and relationships.

Because of this exposure, some children become hypersexual (a high sex drive and an uncontrollable urge to have lots of sex – often with many people and in a variety of ways) as they age, while others become hyposexual (a poor sexual desire and/or avoiding sex or not wanting to be intimate with someone else).

Still, a small percentage of children grow up to have healthy “porn-free” sex lives and relationships. It does not matter if a person, who was exposed to porn at an early age, becomes hypersexual or hyposexual, the behavior stems from trauma. In other words, the sexual behavior is a manifestation (sign or symptom) of the trauma he or she experienced as a child.

This is where post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) comes into play. Contrary to popular belief, people can develop PTSD – without going to war or experiencing dangerous situations. Anything that traumatizes a person can cause acute or chronic PTSD.

A prime example – Jenny, now 20, was first exposed to porn around the age of 5. She was at a friend’s house at the time. She went home very upset and crying. She was afraid to talk about what she had seen with her mother. She was traumatized.

After witnessing the porn, Jenny could not get the sexually-explicit images out of her mind. She had never seen anything like it. It was extremely graphic. She was too young to understand what she was seeing, but she knew it was “bad” and she didn’t want it to happen to her. As a result, she could not eat or sleep because she was afraid that what she saw (“porn sex”) was what awaited her once she grew up. In the porn world, sex is loveless and robotic. So, the thought of having this “experience” one day made her sad and afraid.

Eventually, Jenny felt “safe enough” to tell her mom, Sally, what she saw on the screen. Sally then explained to Jenny that what she saw on the “adult site” was the anthesis of what happens between two loving and consenting adults. Sally was then “forced” to have “the sex talk” with her daughter – at 5-years-old!

Sally also purchased the book “Where Did I Come From?” And, she and Jenny read the book together during one of their “girls’ nights.” Afterward, Sally asked Jenny a few questions, which led to an in-depth conversation about “adult sites” and why she needs to avoid them. Now that Jenny is an adult, she and her mother have open and honest conversations about sex, porn, love, and relationships.

Although Jenny only saw the porn images once as a child, those images have haunted her, so much so that it has caused her to become “hypersexual. Jenny not only has a high libido but also has a tendency of sleeping with multiple people. She is currently in counseling and taking anti-anxiety meds. And, as a result, her porn-related trauma is slowly dissipating.

So, can PTSD lead to porn addiction or vice versa? Absolutely!

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that is triggered by a frightening or upsetting incident (i.e., being exposed to porn). PTSD can arise after personally experiencing or observing a traumatic event.

PTSD symptoms may include nightmares or night terrors, terrifying flashbacks, extreme anxiety, avoidance strategies (avoiding places and people who may trigger PTSD), memory problems, intrusive thoughts, emotional detachment, self-isolation, anger, all-encompassing guilt and shame, a loss of interest in things that used to elicit happiness and joy, emotional numbness, an urge to always be on guard or cautious around others, a feeling of being hopelessness, especially in regards to the future, being easily startled, panicky, or spooked, hypervigilance, self-blame, irritability or mood swings, promiscuity or engaging in risky behaviors, an excessive startle reaction, poor focus and concentration, insomnia, and a negative perception of oneself and the world around him or her.

It is common for people, who have experienced a traumatic event, to have a hard time adjusting to and coping with the aftermath – at least initially. The good news is with proper treatment, along with effective self-help tools, the prognosis is positive. In other words, people with PTSD, who seek treatment, are more likely to experience a reduction in PTSD symptoms – in comparison to those, who do not seek treatment for it.

PTSD is common after a traumatic event or after witnessing or experiencing threats of death, a life-threatening situation, severe injury, and/or sexual infraction (i.e., rape, sexual assault, or child sexual abuse). However, the jury is still out when it comes to why certain people develop PTSD after a traumatic incident and others do not.

Still, the general consensus is that certain factors contribute to the development of this condition.

These factors include:

  • Overwhelming stress, an upsetting experience, or trauma (this involves stress, experiences, or trauma throughout your life)
  • Genetics or hereditary mental health conditions (i.e., a family history of anxiety, depression, and/or other mood disorders)
  • Personality traits
  • Biology or brain chemicals and hormones released when you become stressed

Understand that anyone, regardless of their age, gender, economic status, education background, culture/race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, health status, or religion, can experience PTSD. It does not discriminate. However, some factors increase your risk of developing PTSD after a traumatic incident.

These risk factors are:

  • Severe or long-lasting trauma
  • A previous or childhood trauma (i.e., physical, sexual, or mental/emotional child abuse, neglect, or abandonment)
  • A dangerous job that places you at risk of experiencing or witnessing traumatic events (i.e., doctors, EMT, firefighters, soldiers, etc.)
  • A personal history of anxiety or depression
  • A personal history of substance abuse (i.e., drugs and/or alcohol)
  • A non-existent or dysfunctional support system (i.e., little-to-no support from friends and family)
  • A family history of mental health conditions (i.e., anxiety, depression, etc.)
  • Front-line combat exposure
  • Sexual or physical assaults (i.e., rapes, domestic violence, etc.)
  • Serious threats – especially those involving weapons
  • A particular gnarly car or personal accident (i.e., a car accident, a traumatic fall, etc.)

Note: If your PTSD symptoms persist, worsen, or interfere with your daily life, consult your doctor for guidance.

How is PTSD Linked to Porn Addiction?

PTSD can lead to “porn use” and porn addiction and “porn use” and porn addiction can lead to PTSD. More specifically, people, who are struggling with PTSD symptoms may turn to porn as an “escape” or block out upsetting or disturbing flashbacks, memories, fears, and intrusive thoughts.

Conversely, people, who use porn, and those, who are addicted to it, can experience PTSD after being exposed to extreme porn (i.e., BDSM, fetish sex, violent sex, child porn, etc.), especially if the exposure was involuntary and occurred early in life. But even though porn exposure may not lead to PTSD for all users, for hypersensitive or vulnerable people, it can cause emotional distress so severe that it triggers PTSD.

Researchers have also discovered that a common sign of PTSD is dissociation. What is dissociation? Well, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), dissociation is a “disconnect” between a person’s memories, thoughts, feelings, behaviors, beliefs, perceptions, and/or self-image or self-esteem.

This “disconnect” is involuntary, which means that it is out of the person’s control. People, who have dissociated, report that it feels like an out-of-body experience. Keep in mind, however, that dissociation falls on a spectrum, ranging from mild (i.e., daydreaming) to severe in intensity (dissociative behaviors that cause significant disruptions in daily functioning).

Because dissociation is a sign of PTSD, the risk of using porn or becoming dependent on it is high. In fact, researchers have found that anyone, from an adult, who suffered abuse or trauma during childhood or a front-line solider, who experienced trauma during battle, to a person, who has been struggling with a chronic illness or an adult, who was forced to watch porn at as a young child can develop PTSD. In other words, anyone, who has suffered trauma is at risk of PTSD-related dissociation, “porn use,” and/or porn addiction.

How is a Co-Existing Condition (PTSD and Porn Addiction) Typically Treated?

Like other co-existing, co-occurring, or comorbid conditions (dual diagnoses), the best course of treatment involves treating both conditions – either together or individually. Regardless of the approach, both conditions (PTSD and porn addiction) must be acknowledged and treated.

So, what is the best way to treat a PTSD/porn addiction co-occurring condition?

Well, a trauma-focused approach is the most effective way to treat PTSD and porn addiction treatment is the best way to treat a “heavy porn use” or porn addiction. Once you can identify the origin of your trauma, you can start your porn addiction recovery journey.

Understand that “being human” means that you will experience pain and distress at some point. The good news is there are a variety of ways to successfully treat trauma. And, because trauma is complicated and highly personal, trauma treatment will likely follow this path. Some studies suggest that porn addiction is linked to trauma and PTSD. Thus, to successfully treat porn addiction, the underlying trauma, along with your feelings of shame and guilt, must be fully addressed.

PTSD Treatment

Listed below are the most effective treatments for PTSD:

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is one of the most researched treatment methods for trauma. EMDR is not only effective but can also successfully treat trauma and PTSD in as little as five sessions. Moreover, EMDR has a 95% efficacy rate and is accepted by most health insurance companies, so it is a highly accessible PTSD treatment.

Neurofeedback

Neurofeedback is another effective PTSD treatment. Neurofeedback is often used to treat traumatized soldiers; however, it is also used to treat trauma and PTSD in a variety of non-military situations as well. Researchers have found that neurofeedback result is extremely promising in the treatment of trauma and PTSD. Similar to EDMR, neurofeedback can “realign” a person’s brain following a traumatic incident. More specifically, it can regulate the brain and strengthen its resilience.

Once the brain is regulated, it is “freed” from the perpetual fight and flight (or freeze) mode that normally arises during stressful, upsetting, and overwhelming situations. Thus, neurofeedback offers a person a variety of choices when it comes to life situations (i.e., trauma). It also teaches the brain how to elicit alpha waves (electrical brain activity that causes a person to feel conscious, calm, peaceful, and relaxed).

This is especially beneficial in trauma and PTSD cases, because many times, a traumatized person is unable to properly recall or “voice” the details of the horrific event. The good news is neurofeedback can be a starting or ending point in the therapy process for people, who are struggling with PTSD and porn addiction. This is especially true for porn addicts, who have been unable to garner success from other trauma treatments. It usually takes about 20 sessions to see noticeable results from neurofeedback.

Recreational Therapy

Researchers have found that recreational therapy involving theater, music, and yoga can effectively treat trauma and PTSD. Recreational therapy uses movement to teach a traumatized individual how to “reunite” with his or her body. It also addresses the “dissociation” and emotional detachment (or numbness), commonly found in people with PTSD.

Theater (play therapy) promotes self-awareness. In other words, it helps traumatized individuals become more in touch with their innermost thoughts and feelings. Music, on the other hand, teaches traumatized individuals how to self-soothe (through songs) when their PTSD symptoms arise. Yoga creates a Zen or calming atmosphere, which can be beneficial for traumatized people, who are stressed, overwhelmed, and/or experiencing other PTSD symptoms, like disturbing flashbacks or nightmares.

Therefore, recreational therapy is beneficial for traumatized people with PTSD because it provides a non-stressful way to manage their fears and symptoms. It also promotes self-connection, emotional attachments, and relationship development and repair. This type of therapy targets childhood traumas, such as neglect, abuse, abandonment, unhealthy or insecure parent/child bonds, self-isolation, and a lack of intimacy – factors that many porn addicts experienced as children or teens.

Lastly, recreational therapy can help porn addicts, who have experienced trauma, learn how to trust again, so they can have productive lives, stop the PTSD symptoms, and form healthy relationships.

Porn Addiction Treatment

Porn addiction treatment usually involves the following:

Psychotherapy

CBT, ACT, individual therapy, group therapy, marriage and family therapy, addiction counseling, etc. can help you better understand what is causing your porn addiction, how your “heavy porn use” is affecting your self-esteem and self-confidence, loved ones and friends, and ability to function at an optimal level. It can help you better understand how your trauma or PTSD is triggering or worsening your porn addiction. Lastly, psychotherapy can help you identify unfulfilled sexual wants and needs and teach you healthy ways to manage emotional distress.

Couples Counseling

Couples counseling is another effective way to treat porn addiction. During couples counseling, you and your spouse or partner will be encouraged to share your thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and values. Sharing these things with your loved one can help your counselor or therapist determine how deeply porn is affecting your relationship – i.e., trust, bond, communication, etc.

Medications

Sometimes, medications are needed to treat other underlying conditions that could be triggering or worsening your “porn use” or porn addiction.

Lifestyle Changes

Sometimes, people who have been traumatized, or who are suffering from PTSD may turn to porn as an “escape” from distressing emotions and/or painful memories. These individuals use porn as a way to “self-medicate.” However, making lifestyle changes can help reduce or stop your “porn use.”

These lifestyle changes can include: finding things to keep you busy, moving your electronic devices (the ones you watch porn on) into open spaces – secrecy and isolation fuels “excessive porn use” and PTSD symptoms, installing anti-porn software on your electronic devices so you cannot enter porn sites, telling someone about your “porn use,” eating healthy foods, getting plenty of exercise, getting proper sleep, seeking porn addiction help and support, etc.

Self-Help Tools

Self-help tools can involve a variety of steps, exercises, and tips, such as hypnosis, an online porn addiction recovery program, porn addiction support groups and forums, apps, reading books on porn addiction and how to stop it, etc.

***If you need extra support while battling your PTSD and porn addiction, Stop Together, an online porn addiction recovery program can help. This program can help you repair your relationships, improve your sexual health and well-being, emerge from your self-imposed self-isolation, and put the money you were putting into porn back into your wallet – all while you focus on getting your PTSD symptoms under control.