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Co-occurring Issues and Sex Addiction

Written By: Gentle Path

By Beau Black

Sex addiction is a disorder that’s not talked about much, and when it is, it’s often not discussed accurately. With unfortunate regularity, it’s become material for jokes, rather than given the serious treatment it deserves, perhaps because it makes many of us uncomfortable.

So, what is sex addiction? It can be defined as a compulsive engagement in sex despite negative consequences. This acting out ultimately winds up being emotionally distressing rather than fulfilling, and is a behavior that the individual struggling with it cannot stop on their own.

Frequently, sex addiction co-occurs with other addictions — drugs, alcohol, gambling — that can complicate treatment. The best treatment options address these co-occurring issues associated with sex addiction by getting at their root causes.

Some symptoms of sexual addiction, according to VeryWellMind, include:

  • Being so preoccupied with sex that interest in other areas of life are lost or ignored
  • Pursuing high-risk or inappropriate sexual behavior
  • Desire for sex is laced with shame and regret as opposed to fulfillment
  • Engaging in other forms of sex when alone (phone sex or serial masturbation)
  • Having sex outside of marriage with multiple partners, including anonymous ones

Sexual addiction is most often characterized by a vicious cycle of hypersexuality and low self-esteem, says VeryWellMind. It also may be a symptom of another illness, like bipolar disorder.

Sex Addiction and Substance Abuse

Adding substance abuse to the mix can temporarily heighten the ability to dull emotional discomfort. Though not well understood yet, it seems clear that substance abuse and sexual addiction can feed off of each other in destructive ways. Medical journal Addictive Behaviors surveyed research into the connection between substance abuse and sex addiction and found that about 10% of addicts have cravings triggered by sexual thoughts; another 25% of those studied linked drug use with sexual thoughts, feelings, or behaviors. The authors concluded that more specific research is needed on this connection, but what they did find was concerning.

If somebody leaves here not cheating, but then moves into a gambling addiction and spends their kids’ college fund, the family’s still traumatized; the patient’s still traumatized.

Gentle Path at The Meadows Executive Director Dr. Erica Sarr

Dr. Erica Sarr, the executive director for both Willow House and Gentle Path at The Meadows, talks about the risk of swapping one addiction for another: “If somebody leaves here not cheating, but then moves into a gambling addiction and spends their kids’ college fund, the family’s still traumatized; the patient’s still traumatized.” Accordingly, our programs at The Meadows take a holistic approach to getting at the root causes of addiction.

Sex Addiction and Trauma

man sulking on bed

Because sex addiction often develops in response to childhood trauma, including sexual trauma, treatment at Gentle Path is trauma-focused. Dr. Sarr explains how that’s different from other programs: “We see many men who are 25 years sober from alcohol, which is amazing … but they never took the time to figure out, Why did I need to drink in the first place?” Without uncovering the causes, they may end up simply trading one addiction for another.

Many of the men who come to Gentle Path are good at “top-down processing,” or the higher-level thinking part of therapy, says Sarr. However, “bottom-up processing,” that addresses trauma stored in our bodies that impacts us in a number of ways, can be difficult. “So, we come at it from a multitude of directions,” she says, noting the wide range of treatment strategies used at Gentle Path, including cognitive behavioral therapy, somatic experiencing, yoga, Tai Chi, and even equine and art therapies.

Understanding how trauma can be stored in our bodies is the specialty of Meadows Senior Fellow Bessel van der Kolk. In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, he describes how, long after a traumatic experience is over (such as physical or sexual abuse), it may be reactivated by stress or perceived dangers. It can then mobilize disturbed brain circuits and secrete massive amounts of stress hormones.

“We know that trauma compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feelings of being alive,” van der Kolk writes. Unlocking and releasing these traumatic experiences and being able to feel at home in our bodies can be key to overcoming what triggers sexual acting out.

Unlocking and releasing these traumatic experiences and being able to feel at home in our bodies can be key to overcoming what triggers sexual acting out.

Dr. Sarr offers an optimistic way forward for those struggling with sex addiction. “Let’s look at this disease of intimacy and find out where you didn’t get what you needed at many times when you needed it,” she says. “And let’s figure out now, as an adult, how you’re going to do that for yourself in a way that’s congruent with your values, that doesn’t harm others, and doesn’t harm you.”

If you’re experiencing symptoms that characterize sex addiction, our Gentle Path admissions team would love to talk with you. We can help answer questions and start you on a journey to healing today.

May 17th, 2022

Categories: alcohol sex addiction trauma

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