Ask The Expert: Psychotherapist Donal Clifford on signs of problematic porn use, overcoming the problem and digital detox

Do you feel hooked on porn? In this Day One recovery series blog, I focus on problematic pornography use, trends and the increasing numbers of people seeking therapy for related behaviours. Our feature expert Donal Clifford shares his opinions on the topic and tells us the signs to watch out for that signify problem porn use and how to start the process of giving it up.

Problematic online pornography consumption, pornography addiction, and compulsive sexual behaviour disorder are growing problem which is reported as a major concern by many of my fellow Irish psychotherapists.

These days, there is no longer such thing as just pornography. Sexually explicit adult content for 18+ is available online in many forms and platforms, largely unregulated. Consumers are engaging less in passive viewing of traditional content, with trends towards more interactive, subscription-based and personalised content.

While the recreational consumption of porn does not lead to problems for most people, there are those who do develop problematic behaviours associated with porn use, including sexual compulsivity, also referred to as acting out. Using visual pornography content and the linked sexual arousal response is a mood-altering experience – a double high!

In a recent 2022 study of 1019 German internet users, 3.4% had developed problematic behaviours associated with porn use (*research link). Various research data suggests that approx 4% of those using pornography will develop some form of self-assessed problematic use. This equates to approx 4 per 100 people.

There are many reasons individuals get hooked on online porn. One of these factors is the fact that sites are developed to captivate and engage viewers, similar to gaming and gambling sites. A 2019 study of 507 women and 250 men (*research link) identified that depression, anxiety and stress statistically positively predict problematic pornography use. If this sounds like you, do not be afraid to reach out for help and have a conversation about the problem.

As a society we must be more conscious of the effect that online porn consumption and similar age-inappropriate sexual content can have on a young person’s brain as they develop and mature into adults. – Donal Clifford

In my ten years of professional experience working with these issues, some are drawn to the physiological erotic climax, while others are more driven by the buzz and thrill of seeking and viewing new material. For many, the secrecy, hidden nature and urgency of the behaviour add to the thrill… and a natural dopamine high.

In my clinical practice, which is primarily online, clients range from 21 to 70+ years of age. They are increasingly presenting in their early twenties. Some of these college-age males express having, in many cases, a decade of regular exposure to pornography before they seek help.

Individuals struggle to overcome porn use because they try to do it alone and with an emphasis only on trying to stop. I help my clients to understand that recommitting to stop is actually part of an addiction cycle. Willpower alone is not enough for a strong, successful recovery. Deep self-awareness and behavioural change are key.

About Donal Clifford (M.I.A.C.P., M.A.C.I.)

Donal Clifford is an accredited Psychotherapist and Addiction Counsellor based in Co. Cork, Ireland. He specialises in sexual addictions and compulsions, problematic and addictive pornography use, and relationship and intimacy issues.

He has trained as a sexual addiction therapist with leading UK expert Dr Paula Hall. As well as working in private practice since 2013, Donal developed the Sex And Love Therapy aka S.A.L.T programme in 2014, the first of its kind in Ireland.

The S.A.L.T Programme

The S.A.L.T. programme is a customised group therapy service which supports people in regulating their problematic sexualised behaviour and eliminates the internalised shame or isolation that may be associated with it. This programme became part of the Sexual Health Centre in Cork city in 2020, which has seen a steady rise in individuals seeking counselling for sexual and relational concerns. The service saw a 350% increase in demand in 2021, with clients travelling from different counties to seek support. 

These days, there is no longer such thing as ‘just pornography’. Sexually explicit adult content is now available in many forms and platforms, largely unregulated… – Orlagh Reid

Understanding problem porn use

Donal says that, pornographic material has been around for centuries in some form or other. It is not the content itself that is precisely the problem – the same way gaming and gambling is not specifically the problem for users. It is how the developed relationship with the content that is the problem.

For problem porn users, the association, relationship and behaviours with the content is the main problem. A significant, more recent addition to porn problem use is the age at which young people are being exposed to and introduced to the content, with estimates of, on average, between 7 and 11 years of age.

I continute to seen increasing numbers of younger people coming for help through therapy as they believe sex is a problem for them – and the majority believe that porn consumption is at the root of their problem.

As a society we must be more conscious of the effect that online porn consumption and similar age-inappropriate sexual content can have on young persons’ brain as they develop and mature into adults.

Often when exploring problem porn use with clients, the younger the people were exposed to content, the more severe the nature of the problem. What they once considered to be extreme content over time becomes mild or uninteresting; this is called desensitisation.

Supports for porn problems are available in some other countries with a better level of sex education. Regretfully, in Ireland, these services are not readily available, and sex education provided to adolescents is not at the point where it needs to be to meet the trends and influences of the digital world. These defecits in education and information mean that young people and, indeed, adults do not have the necessary information to make informed decisions. This is one of the reasons our services have been developed at the Sexual Health Centre.

Dr Paula Hall’s has an O.A.T. model, which is a way of understanding addiction or compulsive behaviour. I use this with my clients to explain what has happened, how to focus on reducing shame and address clear areas of exploration to work on towards a recovery process and overcoming problem porn use.

As the problem evolves over prolongued periods, recovery does also take time. Still, it is also an excellent opportunity for individuals to explore and define what healthy sexuality feels like for themselves.

If you are concerned about any of these problems, there are many signs to look out for. Take a read of these signs below and do a brief self-assessment to help you identify any related problems.

You might be interested in... [25 Signs You Might Have a Problem with Pornography]

What are the signs of problem pornography use?

Here are some of the signs that Donal identifies as indicators of problem porn use;

Salience: The importance of pornography in the person’s life that is beginning to dominate their thinking, feelings and behaviours.

Mood modification: When pornography is one of your primary resources to alter your mood i.e. avoid certain feelings or create certain feelings.

Conflict: A reliance on pornography to self-soothe after a relationship rupture and then an inability to develop other skills to repair or manage internal and external conflict.

Tolerance: Refers to the process whereby increasing amounts of the activity are required to achieve the former mood-modifying effects. In the case of pornography, this can be related to moving from soft-core content towards more extreme types of content. This may also include taking greater risks to access the view and content.

Relapse: Repeated reversions to earlier patterns of use and returning to the unwanted behaviours after a period of abstinence or control.

Withdrawal: Unpleasant feelings or emotional states that occur when the activity is discontinued or suddenly reduced. These can be psychological and physiological symptoms.

Other warning signs may include visiting unregulated sites with greater risk. Downloading unknown content. Contemplating seeking out illegal content.

You might be interested in...[Two hidden results of problem porn use]

Also, if there is a desire to engage with people online or offline in a way which may jeopardise other aspects of the individual’s life and the person’s committed monogamous and trusting relationship.

Overcoming problem pornography use is 100% achievable! In many ways, it is a task of unravelling developed behaviours, eradicating unhealthy unwanted behaviours and developing new healthy behaviours and improving well-being. Many individuals who experience compulsive sexual behaviours have a history of adverse childhood trauma, which can be explored in therapy. Porn use and masturbation, for some, is a maladaptive behaviour for coping with life stressors and inner distress or trauma.

Here Donal shares with us some suggestions about how to address the problem

How do I stop viewing online pornography?

  • Consider talking to a professional therapist who has an understanding of these specific issues. This will take courage, openness and honesty and will lead you towards a better understanding of the problem so that you can begin to address your concerns.
  • You may wish to consider putting content blockers on any tech and devices which as internet access. Some of these are good, and some to be honest, are poor. Anyone who is technology savvy will find a way around them, but they still act as a good temporary deterrent and are effective for anyone in active recovery.
  • Take a technology detox, otherwise called a digital detox. This provides essential time to focus on what is positive and healthy sexuality for the individual.
  • Consider changing to a standard non-smartphone for a period of time.
  • Make concrete, clear steps to prevent relapse once you have set your recovery goals. These can be identified with the help of an experienced addiction therapist.
  • Actively engage in therapy while also taking many proactive steps to address behaviours and rituals. 
  • Where possible, for moderate and more severe compulsive sexual behaviour and porn addiction, consider attending group therapy such as the S.A.L.T programme. Research and evidence suggest group therapy is the most effective for successful recovery.
  • Find out about support and resources that may be helpful. Make informed decisions about the types of group self-help supports you could attend and talk about any pros and cons you are worried about with your therapist.

Read more in my blog about sexual recovery here or book an online therapy appointment using the link below.

Donal says, recovery from any problematic behaviour, such as pornography and gambling addiction, needs to focus on what was missing and what can be good for the person going forward while also building a tool kit and practical recovery skills. All of these come be done with support of an experieced addiction professional if you have struggled to overcome the problem alone.

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Orlagh Reid Psychotherapy

Orlagh Reid

Orlagh Reid is an IACP accredited Counsellor & Psychotherapist, Addiction Counsellor, Gottman Couples Therapist and Fertility Counsellor in private practice based in Co. Kildare, Ireland and worldwide online via DOXY. She specialises in addiction, recovery, well-being and clinical sexology. To find out more or to book an online consultation visit www.orlaghreid.ie

Orlagh Reid Psychotherapy MIACP Therapy Ireland

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