What is Sex Addiction, and is it Similar to Substance Addiction?
Addiction, simply put, is a pattern of compulsive behavior that we engage in in order to seek a chemical reward in the brain. Both illicit substances and addictive behaviors—such as sex addiction, gambling, and codependency—can raise dopamine levels in our brains, creating a temporary sense of wellbeing as a way to cope with stress, pain, and trauma. And while the reason for seeking each behavior is the same, the threshold into addiction is also the same: like drug and alcohol addiction, sex addiction happens when sexual behaviors negatively impact our daily functioning, cause us to experience shame, and we find ourselves unable to change our behaviors despite their negative consequences.
Some of the warning signs of sex addiction include:
- Feelings of shame associated with sexual acts or behaviors
- Sex drive or behavior interfering with work, family, or daily functioning
- Failed attempts to limit sexual behavior
- Only finding interest in doing things that could lead to sex
- Engaging in risky or unsafe sexual behavior
- Engaging in sexual behaviors that hurt others
- Escalating sexual activity to achieve the same “high”
- Experiencing negative feelings when going a while without sex
Both substance abuse and sex addiction can be maladaptive ways of coping with an underlying issue, such as trauma, depression, anxiety, isolation, and intense stress. We can turn to either to alleviate the mental health symptoms that have become unbearable, temporarily finding relief ultimately creating deeper chaos and suffering in our lives. Sex addiction, in particular, is very commonly a symptom of unresolved sexual trauma, such as abuse or assault. In this sense, lasting addiction treatment for either or both will look very similar: identifying triggers for relapse, developing healthier coping skills, and most crucially, addressing the underlying root cause of the behavior. Once we’ve healed from what we are trying to escape, escaping no longer becomes necessary.
The Vicious Cycle of Sex Addiction and Substance Abuse
Sex addiction and substance abuse, when co-occuring, can create a vicious cycle, whereby one feeds off the other. Those suffering from alcoholism or drug addiction may turn to sex to escape the shame associated with their substance abuse, and vice versa. It is also very common for those who are seeking sex in an addictive way to end up binge drinking or otherwise abusing alcohol, as casual sex is commonly found at places with abundant alcohol use, such as bars, clubs, or parties. They may drink to increase their confidence or lower their inhibitions in pursuit of casual sex. Many struggling with sex addiction may also abuse stimulants, such as cocaine, methamphetamine, or ecstasy with the belief that these drugs enhance libido, sexual function, or sexual enjoyment. Because of the co-occuring nature of these two behaviors, approaching addiction treatment from a holistic perspective is crucial to long-term healing and recovery.
How Sex Addiction and Substance Abuse can be Treated
Flatirons Recovery is an addiction treatment center that views recovery as a healing process that addresses the whole person. It is crucial when treating substance abuse to look at both the underlying cause of the addiction as well as the other unhealthy behaviors, such as sex addiction, that are holding our clients back from living the life they want to live. If we do not take sex addiction into account in someone’s recovery plan, it is likely to get worse once they are sober and are no longer relying on drugs or alcohol to cope with their stress and pain. As mentioned before, the root cause of both substance addiction and sex addiction is likely to be the same for a person suffering from both. Our goal is to always address this root cause, bringing awareness to it and eventually making a plan to heal it, whether during addiction treatment with us or in longer term therapy after discharge. We partner with organizations and therapists who’s primary specialty is sex addiction, so that someone with co-occuring addictions can address their substance use with us, and then dive deeper into their sex addiction with additional programming in the Boulder community.
We also consider it important to take into account someone’s sex addiction when creating a relapse prevention plan for substance use, such as avoiding sex addiction triggers and creating healthier coping strategies and self care regimens. The therapeutic modalities we use, such as mindfulness, DBT, CBT, ACT, art therapy, and EMDR are extremely effective in addressing both addictions, as are our emphasis on leveraging community, nature, and physical wellness to aide in the healing journey. Further, our structured sober living facility provides continuous staff support, accountability, and healthy activities such as hiking, exercise, and recovery community connection outside of the clinical day, making it easier for our clients to focus on treatment with fewer distractions.