Trauma and Porn: The Potential Link

Have you ever wondered where addictions, like the compulsive use of pornography, come from? Why do some people get addicted to things that other people can do without ever getting addicted? 

It’s a good question, and it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer. The research on addictions is growing, however, and the more we learn about it, the more we learn that addiction is not random but rather has roots that can be defined and understood. 

There are many mechanisms at work behind addictive behavior, and it’s different for everyone, but I want to examine one that doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves: the role of trauma.

What Is Trauma?

How do you cope with stress? It’s an important question for all of us. It’s even more critical, however, when the stress is extreme. 

Following the Vietnam War, medical professionals began noticing many soldiers reporting similar symptoms after returning home: flashbacks and other intrusive memories, nightmares, hypervigilance to threats, and physical symptoms like tremors, heart palpitations, and shortness of breath.

These symptoms were so common that soon a new mental health diagnosis was formed: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. For a time, mental health practitioners diagnosed this rarely and assumed it only appeared in those who had experienced the extreme horror of war. 

Before long, however, the same symptoms were noticed among such diverse populations as first responders, rape victims, and those suffering the catastrophic losses of natural disasters. Clinicians began examining if perhaps PTSD could be more common, and this began bringing attention to the common experience of trauma or extreme stress. 

Sooner or later, nearly everyone will face extremely stressful circumstances. The death of a parent, a severe car accident or injury, domestic violence, or in far more cases than you might think, childhood abuse and neglect, whether physical, emotional, or sexual. These experiences can trigger a response that clinicians call trauma

Trauma is usually defined by the following three markers:

  1. An extremely stressful event or series of events
  2. A sense of helplessness that overwhelms our normal ability to cope
  3. A diminished sense of self that wounds our ability to feel the full range of human emotions and experiences

While horrific experiences like rape or the violence of war can certainly trigger trauma, experiences as common as bullying, divorce, or prolonged emotional abuse can as well. Sometimes even indirectly hearing about the suffering or death of a loved one can be traumatic. 

Trauma is nothing to take lightly. Peter Levine, a trauma researcher for over 35 years, emphasizes that “The effects of unresolved trauma can be devastating. It can affect our habits and outlook on life, leading to addictions and poor decision-making. It can take a toll on our family life and interpersonal relationships. It can trigger real physical pain, symptoms, and disease. And it can lead to a range of self-destructive behaviors.”

The Connection Between Trauma and Porn

By now, you may be wondering what trauma has to do with porn. The answer is that unresolved trauma can make us vulnerable to addictive behavior, including behavioral addictions like compulsive porn use. 

Those suffering from unresolved trauma are in emotional pain. The pain may be buried or numbed, but it is nevertheless there, perhaps even stored in our bodies. And when we’re suffering, it’s only natural to want to escape it. We look for anything that can help us forget, even for a few moments, that we are suffering. 

When we get a headache, we turn to Tylenol. Often, however, the emotional suffering in the wake of trauma is far worse than a headache. It’s inherently overwhelming and seems to threaten our very being—and so we turn to more powerful things to escape. For some people, that can be substances like alcohol or drugs, but for many, it can be more covert, though just as stimulating, behaviors like porn. Anything that improves our mood even momentarily, from video games to shopping to gambling, can be potentially addicting and a tempting escape from emotional pain.

Unfortunately, many of the methods we choose to cope are unhelpful and only wound us further, and porn is just such a coping method. Porn is a powerful emotional-physical experience that mirrors many of the effects of alcohol and drugs on the brain. It helps us forget our suffering for a moment, but as soon as the binge is over, we discover all the pain is still there. Porn never heals anything; it only inflicts more wounds.

If You Think You Might Be Suffering from Unresolved Trauma…

…get the help you deserve.

True, not everyone who looks at porn is suffering from unresolved trauma. Nevertheless, if you have a porn habit you just can’t seem to break, it is worth examining if your struggle might be rooted in unresolved trauma. 

Here are some signs to look for: 

  1. Anxiety and panic attacks (shaking, sweating, rapid breathing, and increased heart rate)
  2. Flashbacks 
  3. Sleeplessness and nightmares 
  4. Emotional numbness (inability to experience emotions)
  5. Depression 
  6. Suicidal thoughts
  7. Toxic shame (self-loathing, the belief “I am flawed, unworthy, a mistake”) 
  8. Avoiding people, places, or things that remind you of a person or event
  9. Self-harm 
  10. Disassociation (feeling detached from your body or everyday experiences)  

These are just a few signs of unresolved trauma. Keep in mind, you may not necessarily remember a trauma, but it can still be there and negatively affect your life. Please know that, whatever you’ve suffered, you are not alone. Experiences of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse are tragically common, and many other forms of trauma are likewise common to the human experience. The good news is, help is available, and cutting edge treatments for healing the effects of trauma are being developed every day. 

If you think your porn problem might be related to a traumatic experience, seek help from a qualified psychotherapist. It’s an investment in yourself and in your future that can go a long way toward healing the attraction and effects of porn. Even more, it can help you heal and begin living the joyful, free, and thriving life that you deserve. 

 Levine, P. (2008). Healing trauma – a pioneering program for restoring the wisdom of your body.

 Van, K. B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma.

 Doidge, N. (2017). The brain that changes itself: Stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science.