It probably doesn’t come as news that porn use is more widespread than ever, and is being introduced to increasingly younger consumers. This is partially due to increased accessibility and anonymity, a cultural shift towards more open attitudes about sex and pornography more generally, and increased technology use.
What Drives Porn Use
Another reason for this increased use may be that we have seen feelings of loneliness and disconnection rise to record levels. Pornography provides an effective, short-term solution for this that, at first glance, appears to have little risk: it gives us a free boost of the happy brain chemicals such as oxytocin, dopamine and opiates that we typically get in close relationships. Dopamine levels increase to an incredible 200 percent during orgasm. Oxytocin (the “connection” drug) plays a vital role in bonding, creating memories, empathy, trust, and relationship building. It spikes during sex, when we hug or kiss or snuggle, or even just have a good conversation. It also increases sensitivity to naturally occurring opiates in the brain, which makes it very effective for bonding and soothing physical and emotional pain.
Of course, there’s a catch. You can’t really build a “healthy” relationship with pornography. It is a one-way street: dopamine-centred and novelty-seeking, and while a porn-induced orgasm will provide oxytocin and soothe pain, it won’t provide any of those healthy relationship building functions, or make us any less lonely. In fact, it may make us more lonely. This is one reason many people call pornography an addiction: it can create compulsive use that comes at a cost. As it provides effective temporary relief from implicit negative feelings, the brain will learn to direct us towards it compulsively.
How Does Pornography Impact Us
I could spend this post bashing pornography, and rattling off scary stats about how it breaks up marriages and has long term physical implications for the brain (it does, and it does), but I’m more interested in the human factors. Sex is great for bonding, and when used well, it builds intimacy, vulnerability and connection – the opposite of loneliness. Porn, on the other hand, based on vast amounts of research, actually tends to do the opposite: it builds shame and secrecy. It is typically a private experience and taps into some deep-seated urges that can feel very shameful. It’s possible that couples could use pornography in a healthy way, but research tells us that this is far more likely to be the rare exception than the rule.
This post is mostly aimed at men, mainly because I only work with men around these issues. Anyone can struggle with porn use, because it is so, so easy to come to rely on or use it, especially (though certainly not only) when we are feeling disconnected, shamed, or lonely. It’s a brilliant solution, really, but it tends not to solve the problem for future us.
What Can I Do About My Porn Use
Alongside You is running a porn recovery group this fall, for men who would like to be able to talk openly about the role of porn in their life, past and present, and receive support. We aren’t there to judge ourselves but to recognize and talk about some of the things that affect all of us, and, hopefully, feel like we can begin to enter a period of recovery from those impacts. If you or someone you know might be interested in attending, it’s low pressure and low cost (as always, talk to us if money is an issue), and is a great way to feel some meaningful and healthy connection with great people.
If you have any questions, feel free to contact me directly here – I’m always happy to chat. If you would like support for yourself or a loved one, reach out to our reception, and they will help you find something that fits, whether it is at our offices or somewhere closer to home.
I was speaking with a friend on the phone a few weeks ago. She was curious about what I do as a Registered Clinical Counsellor and what happens in a session. As we continued to talk, I mentioned that I was going to see a counsellor myself. She gasped and said: “You have issues too?” I chuckled and said, “Yes, we all have issues, even counsellors.”
I mentioned to a few colleagues that I was going to see a counsellor and they encouraged me to write about my experience as a way to share with others and ultimately normalize going to seek professional help. As a counsellor myself, it is so important to understand the perspective of what it is like to be a client. This post will try and shed some light on my experience as a counsellor, and being a client.
I have been thinking about seeing a counsellor for a while now: over a year. However, it always seemed like it was never the right time. I was too busy, juggling different jobs, other commitments, financial constraints: all these things seemed to vie for my attention and appeared to be good reasons to once again push down counselling on the list of “things to do.” May I offer my perspective for a moment? There are always going to be things that seem more important and seem like they must take priority, yet, my mental health and overall well being should also be a priority. It is my deepest desire to be the best counsellor that I can be, to show up and be the right support for each of my clients. Therefore, I need to make myself a priority. I need to make the time to work on areas of my life that will ultimately help me in my career helping others. I struggle with the idea that this sounds selfish, but as the old airplane analogy goes, I need to put on my oxygen mask first before I help others with their masks.
So, I put on my mask, so to speak, and made my first appointment. I left a message. I was brief and gave my contact information. Julie (this is not her real name) called me back promptly and we set up a time to meet in 2 weeks time. I had done it. I was proud of this first initial step. I filled out the intake form, sharing contact information and reasons for counselling. It was personal. I was reminded of the initial vulnerability that all clients must experience as they complete the forms; from a counselling perspective, it is crucial for liability and legality sake, yet there is also a piece that asks the client to try to put into words the areas they want to work on. In my experience, this process allowed me to think about the areas that I wanted to concentrate on and helped organize some of my thoughts a bit more.
Seemingly small, making that first phone call was the first step towards reaching out and asking for help, acknowledging the importance of having someone to listen to my story. As I tell all my clients on our first meeting, coming for counselling is brave. It is trusting a stranger with pieces of your story and there I was asking for a stranger to listen to mine. The tables have been turned, or perhaps another way, this time I get to sit on the couch instead of the armchair.
The day arrived. I saw some clients of my own. As the day progressed, I continued to check in with myself and see how I was feeling. My stomach felt a bit “off.” I named this feeling and voiced that I was nervous. This seemed like a natural reaction to me as I was preparing to meet with Julie. I left myself enough leeway in my schedule to arrive on time, as I tend to be late and did not want to arrive flustered.
Disclaimer: It is May, and I still have my snow tires on my car. Again, this is something that is on the “to do list,” not really a priority, but important nonetheless. Sometimes, there is a misconception about counsellors that they have it all together and have reached new levels of perfection. May I say, this is not the case. At. All. I share this with you, because as I sat in my car waiting to go into the office, I saw Julie getting out of her car, and to my delight, she too had her snow tires on. At that moment, I felt a sense of connection and validation that counsellors are people too, people that care deeply, they are human just like everyone else and perhaps have left car maintenance slide a bit as well.
I got myself comfortable on the couch, Julie has a few couches in her office, and so she chose the couch opposite to where I was sitting. She went over the limits to confidentiality and said that although I was a counsellor myself, she would treat me like any other client. I appreciated that. She mentioned that as she asked me questions if there was anything that I did not want to answer, then that was fine; in addition, if there was something that I wanted to talk about more in-depth for another session, I was free to do that as well.
Julie explained the importance of finding the right fit with a counsellor. This is so important. Just like in life, you are not going to click with everyone. Sometimes I like finding a counsellor to that of eating ice cream. There are many flavours and while some folks might enjoy more daring flavours of Bubblegum, Tiger or Moose Tracks, others enjoy the classic Vanilla, Neapolitan and Chocolate Chip Mint. It is a preference, and like ice cream, finding the right fit is crucial in a relationship with a Registered Clinical Counsellor.
My first session was basically me providing background. I gave a brief summary of what my childhood was like and highlighted some major events that have happened throughout my life. My counsellor listened intently, she provided encouraging nods and asked questions when more insight or clarification was needed. Her approach was gentle and genuine. As I shared about a situation that is particularly meaningful to me, I started to cry. I am not saying that crying in mandatory in counselling sessions, but as I share with my clients, “tears are welcome,” while ensuring a box of tissues is close by. When I cried, my counsellor sat with me. She shared the space. She acknowledged this was important to me and therefore she took the time to understand it more from my perspective. This was a beautiful gift for me to receive from her. It validated my experience and allowed me to know that she understood the importance for me.
At the end of the session, I felt like I was in a bit of a fog. Sometimes I have referred to this with my own clients as a “vulnerability hangover.” It is the sense of having shared meaningful information with someone and trusting them enough to hold the information. Did I share too much? Not enough? My life cannot be condensed to 50 minutes. Nor can the lives of the clients that I see. Counselling takes time to unpack, learn and discover. As I tell my clients, after my own session, I took some time to breathe and think and be calm. I booked another session to see Julie again in 2 weeks.
In summary, the session went well. I felt safe, heard and validated. For me, this is a sign of a positive therapeutic rapport. Moving forward, I anticipate more tears, more questions, more wrestling with the reasons why I do the things I do; but I know that what I learn and discover as a client will help me tremendously as a Registered Clinical Counsellor. My second session with Julie is in a few days. I am excited to see her again and see where the conversation takes us. And I must say, I still have my snow tires on my car. Perhaps I will have them taken off before my third counselling session, and maybe Julie will too?
If you have been thinking about going to counselling, can I give you that little nudge and say to do it? Find a Registered Clinical Counsellor who is a good fit for you. Can I be so bold as to suggest looking at Alongside You to find a one? Like ice cream, we have some daring counsellors as well as classics and everything in between. There is no shame to ask for help. There are counsellors who want to help. Put on your oxygen mask. Be Brave. Contact Us.
The Stress-Response Cycle: How to Move Through Stress
To follow up on my last post, it’s time to get practical! What do we do with stress? We’re often told to reduce our stress by taking on fewer responsibilities when we’re feeling overwhelmed. That certainly can help, but what’s more important is to learn to move through the stress response cycle so that when we are faced with stressors our bodies have the capacity to handle them. This requires learning to listen to our bodies and our emotions.
Don’t Confuse the Stressor with the Stress
A stressor is something that causes stress, such as a semester of school. Stress is that feeling of fight, flight or freeze. Often, we believe that we’ll feel less stressed once we’ve dealt with the stressor. I often tell myself that when the next term at school is over, I’ll feel energized and happy again. Then, the end of term comes and after a week I notice I’m still feeling exhausted and irritable. This is because I was confusing the stressor with the stress. The stressor may be long gone and successfully conquered, but the reason I still feel irritable and exhausted is that my body hasn’t moved through the stress response cycle and come out the other side.1 Can you relate? Let me explain.
Stress-Response Cycle: Listening to our Bodies
Our body’s natural tendency in times of stress is to move through the beginning, middle and end of our response to stress. When we are in fight, flight or freeze, a lot of adrenaline is pumping through our bodies. Our body’s natural tendency is to find a way to expend that energy. With fight, it would be throwing punches, flight would be to run, and even in freeze, our natural tendency when we come out of freeze is to shake. Once we’ve expended that energy, our natural tendency is to find safety and to rest. This is the full cycle: trigger (beginning); energy expending (middle); safety and rest (end).1
Unfortunately, in our culture we’ve been taught to suppress the messages we get from our bodies. Our culture is uncomfortable with feelings and so we’re told to suck it up; we’re told that everyone is stressed and that’s just what life is. We override our body’s messages because they’re not always compatible with work or with the social context at hand. When we keep overriding the messages our bodies send us, our bodies become stuck in a state of stress. When we never feel like we can escape the feeling of stress, we start to cope in ways that are less healthy, such as developing addictions or lashing out at people when we don’t mean to. This is because there’s so much pent up energy and it hasn’t had a chance to move through us.1
How to Complete the Cycle
We probably don’t want to be fighting people when we’re stuck in traffic or running out of our cars after a car veers into our lane. Thankfully, there are more practical ways to complete the stress-response cycle.
The Middle Part of the Cycle: (The part where you let the energy out)
- Physical activity: This helps to re-calibrate the nervous system. It lets your body complete the middle part of the cycle and expend all of that adrenaline that was secreted from the various stress-related triggers in your life. Any kind of physical activity will do, as long as it gets you moving and gets your heart-rate up.
- Allow yourself to have a good cry or a primal scream. The kind of cry where you sob for 10 minutes and then have a big sigh of relief. This lets the emotion move through you instead of getting trapped in your body.
- Journaling: Writing your thoughts down can sometimes offer a feeling of release and relief. You can keep an ongoing journal of your thoughts and feelings and/or you can write them down and then rip them up. The act of ripping up the pages can also be relieving.
- Art: Finding creative ways to express emotion and dispel stress. You might think you’re not particularly artsy, so maybe you want to try coming to something like our Open Studio Sessions to start where you can get some gentle guidance and try some new things out?
The End of the Cycle: (The part where you rest)
- Seeking affection from someone you trust. This is proven to be a very effective way to calm the nervous system.
- Identify people and places that you can trust to provide space for you to feel your feels.
- Sleep: Do what you can to prioritize it, and seek help from a doctor and/or counsellor when you’re having consistent trouble sleeping.
- Grooming: For some, it can be meditative and give a feeling of self-care.
- Engaging in anything you find
Throughout the Cycle:
- Mindfulness: Start cultivating a mindfulness practice, even if you start out with just one minute per day.
- Mindfulness allows us to notice what we’re focusing on, notice what we’re feeling and then have control in deciding what we want to focus on and how we want to express that feeling.
- Headspace is an app that offers a free mindfulness series to get you started, and the app allows you to start with mindfulness exercises as short, or as long as you want.
- Counselling: A counsellor can help you learn to move through your stress response cycle in a way that feels right for you. They can also help you to make sense of stress responses and emotions that feel confusing and stuck.
Remember, this can be very difficult, especially if you’ve grown up in a culture that teaches you to suppress your feelings and your body’s signals.
The most important part of moving through the stress response cycle is to be patient and kind to yourself. You’re learning something new, it takes time and you don’t need to do it alone.
Nagoski, E. (2015). Come as you are: The surprising new science that will transform your sex life. Simon & Schuster: New York, NY
Van Der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books: New York, NY