Out of control sexual behavior creates an imbalanced nervous system. The anticipation and hunt for sex leaves you dysregulated, as you remain lost in the attempt to numb your pain and escape your feelings. Dysregulation describes the disruption of the nervous system: up-regulation refers to internal states such as panic or rage, and down-regulation refers to disconnection or shutting down.
This leaves you with one of the greatest challenges in recovery—to restore resiliency, resourcefulness and regulation. Peter Levine, the founder of Somatic Experiencing and author of Waking the Tiger, reminds us that any disturbance to the nervous system requires focused attention to heal. Although sexual acting out provides immediate relief, it doesn’t last.
The nervous system lets you know if you’re feeling resilient or vulnerable to relapse. When you’re dysregulated most of the time, you are much more likely to slip or relapse. In contrast, a regulated nervous system will lead to sustainable sobriety. Although sexual acting out has been a survival strategy, it leaves you feeling more ungrounded and disconnected from yourself and others.
Recent brain-body modalities such as Somatic Experiencing and Brainspotting offer portable tools such as tracking sensations, grounding and orienting to help you build somatic awareness. For many years we’ve known that the body remembers, and now we know that trauma gets stuck in the subcortex of the brain — a storage place for highly unpleasant memories and experiences that were too much to process at the time of the original event. By working with a specialist, you’ll understanding the brain-body connection more thoroughly and realize that regulation is possible.
Debbie’s story illustrates her path toward nervous system regulation:
When I first spoke with Debbie on the phone, she let me know she was losing sleep but wasn’t ready to share more details. When we met for the first time, her eye contact was minimal, and her posture was poor. I’ve seen this many times before, and it’s almost always related to trauma, shame and helplessness. Once she settled into the office, Debbie barely looked up to see me. She was in her early twenties and her capacity for re intimacy was severely limited.
I reassured her that she could use as many or as little words as she chose. We were going to get to know her nervous system through a combination of feelings, thoughts, sensations, images and memories. Sometimes words would be helpful, but oftentimes, slowing down and building somatic awareness in the here and now would be the primary focus.
Over time, Debbie started to tell me about challenges she was facing. She disclosed that she used to have sex almost every day, and when she wasn’t with a sex partner, she was masturbating compulsively. Currently, she was having trouble sleeping because of flashbacks and nightmares. Little by little, Debbie shared the depth of her broken heartedness. She was anally penetrated by a male, teenage babysitter when she was seven years old and a male gym teacher exposed himself multiple times when she was in junior high. Instead of feeling protected by her parents, she felt alienated, abandoned and deeply misunderstood.
By the time she left for college at nineteen, Debbie was having sex with men and women multiple times a week—sometimes more than once a day. And it was becoming riskier—including anonymous and public sex. She knew that the daily sex medicated her residual pain from early childhood trauma, but her nervous system was getting worn down resulting in panic attacks, insomnia and dissociation.
Over the course of therapy, she began to understand when she was feeling regulated or dysregulated in her body. This awareness empowered her and left her feeling hopeful that she wasn’t at the mercy of her traumatic past. When she found a pleasant memory or relationship that felt calm and grounding, we would pause to help her nervous system experience a deeper sense of safety. Our therapeutic relationship became one of her resources both in the office and during the week as she learned to trust that together we could heal her nervous system.
It’s been three years since I first met Debbie; now her nightmares and flashbacks are less intrusive but still show up at times of extreme stress. Her sleeping patterns have normalized. Debbie recently become involved with a man who she describes as loving and patient, and she chose to share her background of sexual compulsivity and trauma with him. Debbie’s willingness to take emotional risks in this relationship builds her capacity for intimacy, and as a result, builds nervous system resiliency.
Before treatment, Debbie’s nervous system was over-activated or under-activated most of the time, and all of her basic functions were impacted. When dysregulated, reducing the pain became her primary focus. In the context of sexual compulsivity, sex became her go-to drug to try and minimize suffering.
Debbie developed an elaborate way to escape painful feelings, and the problematic cycle continued. In order for balance and regulation to become a more familiar and productive choice, she needed to experience a regulated nervous system as pleasurable. Over time, she found mutual regulation in session as she learned to trust me more and also learned self-regulation practices such as mindfulness meditation to experience a more regulated nervous system. Other regulating activities she practiced at home included deep breathing, texting a friend or spending time with a pet.
Regulation becomes a powerful antidote for sexual compulsivity when practiced as part of a daily awareness. From a regulated, resilient state, you’ll experience deeper contact with yourself and others. On the other hand, chronic dysregulation results in isolation and disconnection. Because we are all biologically wired for connection, surround yourself with emotionally dependable people which will help you and your nervous system feel safety, trust and relaxation.
It doesn’t matter whether a dysregulated nervous system is the cause or the effect of sexual compulsivity. Instead, your awareness of dysregulation along with the willingness to practice a more balanced and regulated lifestyle will build more likelihood of sustainable sexual sobriety. It takes patience, practice and perseverance to experience a more regulated nervous system one day at a time. Find a seasoned somatically-trained professional—possibly a Brainspotting or Somatic Experiencing Practitioner—and you’ll be on your way to understanding a missing piece of the puzzle for successful, long-term recovery from sex addiction.