The Hidden Danger to Sex Addiction Recovery: Addiction Interaction

A few months ago in my last post, we saw that addicts will unconsciously gravitate toward their substances or compulsive behaviors of choice as a way to manage their emotional pain.


Everyone’s emotional pain is different, and people seek out substances or behaviors that will alter their states of mind in just the way they’re looking for.



For instance, those vulnerable to depression might use cocaine, which will provide a rush of adrenaline, to feel better. Cocaine will bring on an almost manic state that’s associated with risk-taking, danger, and seeking stimulation of some kind. In a way, cocaine can help them feel more alive when they can feel unloved, unwanted, and depressed.


Gambling, a behavioral or “process” addiction, acts the same way. What gambler doesn’t know the heights of ecstasy when they win? As the addictive system is in full swing and dopamine, one of the neurochemicals released in the brain when we do something pleasurable, is surging, the problem gambler will take bigger risks, betting more in search of an increasing high.


So, where does sex addiction fit into all of this? After all, heroin provides a very different experience than cocaine does, just as watching pornography and masturbating alone is different from having high-risk, unprotected sex with prostitutes.


We can break it down into three main neuropathways that substances engage in addicts’ minds: 

  1. arousal,
  2. satiation or numbing,
  3. deprivation, and
  4. fantasy.


We’ll get into these next week (yes, next week! I’m trying to blog more regularly). I hope you’ll swing by then to check it out.


But first, why are these neuropathways important to learn more about? Why should you care?



After all, if you’re reading this, you or someone you love is probably currently in recovery. If you’re a marijuana addict, all you have to worry about is marijuana. If you’re a heroin user, you’re getting help for your heroin addiction. If you might be addicted to pornography, you’re working hard to starve that addiction by not watching porn.


So everything’s good, right?


Not necessarily.


So often, just because of the way addicted brains work, there’s more than one addiction present. For example, about 40% of sex addicts are also addicted to a substance of some kind. Forty percent! Crazy, right? That means that even though you might be getting help for one addiction, another addiction could pop up.


Consider the sex addict who struggles with prostituting herself; the anonymous, risky sex gives her a sense of danger, and she feels powerful when she is sexual with her customers, especially when they pay her. In recovery, she works hard to change this behavior, but she begins working longer hours at her job as a day trader. Soon, she begins making increasingly risky trades, working even more hours, so that now she’s a workaholic with a gambling problem.


She traded one high-risk addiction for another (two addictions engaging the arousal neuropathway, by the way, but more on that next week).


Sometimes, without careful attention to changing one’s lifestyle completely to combat addictive behaviors, addictions can be like that childhood game we all played, Whack-A-Mole.


You treat your sex addiction, and a gambling addiction pops up. You bat that down, and a substance abuse problem kicks in.


Addictions interact in highly complex ways. Let’s look at a few examples.



Dr. Patrick Carnes coined the term “addiction interaction disorder” to denote how addictions can co-occur with one another.

    • Addictions can alternate back and forth according to a specific pattern in the addict’s life. For instance, a sex addict stops all sexual behavior while engaging in his food addiction and returns to it when he’s done binging on food.
    • One addiction can reduce the addict’s inhibitions to act on another addiction. For instance, a sex addict might binge-drink to muster his courage to act out sexually.
    • Addictions might occur simultaneously. Perhaps an addict might only use cocaine while acting out sexually with a prostitute, so that he never uses cocaine without acting out sexually and vice versa.
    • One addiction might be a part of the ritual for preparing for another addiction, most often addictive behaviors. For example, the video game addict might ritualistically have a drink or two as he gears up for a gaming binge.
    • It can also be that an addiction can intensify the experience of another addiction. A sex addict might use ecstasy to intensify his experience of going to a swinger’s club or a sex party.
    • One addiction can be used to medicate painful feelings (e.g., shame, guilt, anxiety), caused by another addiction.



Given all of the ways that addictions can interact, it’s really essential to identify all of the addictions in your life, especially if you’re in recovery.


If addicts neglect to do this, they can sometimes replace the addiction they’re recovering from with another addiction. Oftentimes, they justify this new addiction. “It’s fine that I’m playing so much World of Warcraft. At least it’s not porn!”


Being really honest with yourself, your sponsor, and/or your therapist about the possible addictions present in your life and what constitutes a relapse for you is key to long-term recovery.


If you’re afraid that you’ve developed or may be developing another addiction while you’re in recovery, talk to your support network about it. They know you best and can help you sort out whether or not the behavior or substance use is problematic.


Clarifying the function of the new behavior or substance use is also really helpful and can assist you in evaluating your “off limits” substances and behaviors. That’s why it’s important to understand the neural pathways, where we started today, and where we’ll go next time.

Jeremy Mast

Jeremy is a licensed marriage and family therapist (CA LMFT90961) in private practice in Ventura, California. He helps those struggling with drugs, alcohol, and out-of-control sexual behaviors awaken to new possibilities for their lives. He lives with his wife, son, and cat in beautiful southern California.

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