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Christian Counseling’s Role in Retooling the Man and Rewiring the Brain

Porn and Power: A Christian Counselor Explains
Part 3 of a 4-Part Series 
I’ve positioned the solution-oriented parts of this series (Parts 3 and 4) at the end – on purpose. Because waiting, and holding the tension of waiting, is critical to healing soul, body, and brain.

Many guys are already prone to a quick “fix-it” persona that conveniently bypasses the need for a deeper, more disciplined attentiveness to their inner life, to the emotional core Self. As men, often we want a 5-step plan for efficiently calculating and conquering the problem (or concealing it).

But that’s what made porn so appealing in the first place: it’s just a few pre-packaged steps or clicks towards “managing” an anxiety that’s often unnamed, even unfelt.

The Brain on Porn

Pornography hijacks normal brain functioning by artificially stimulating a neurochemical cocktail. Naturally interacting levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and oxytocin become highly combustible when experienced outside of relationship – profoundly restricting our emotional bandwidth for genuine connection with another person.

The brain’s delicate reward-gratification circuitry goes haywire, which can lead to numbing depression, anger, anxiety and decreased motivation. The pornography user experiences a neurochemical charge of excitement, but soon struggles with reduced satisfaction or reward. He needs to give more and more in order to “get” the same high.

The thrill of novelty and exploration becomes the desperation of the chase. A tragic irony is that the added neurochemical buzz of shame – from the allure of doing something illicit or dangerous – can actually strengthen compulsive behavior.

The Brain on Shame

Shame drives us to disconnect and isolate from other people. Shame assaults our core identity and turns us against our deepest, truest Selves.

Shame is often an intensely stressful, anxious experience. Under stress, the brain’s amygdala, or fight-flight center, responds by releasing a stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol floods the body and shuts down the brain’s pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for processing thoughts and emotions.

This is a really good thing when a bus is barreling through a crosswalk. When your survival depends on instinctively jumping back to the curb, there’s no time for analyzing how you think or feel about the barreling bus. In an instant, the amygdala overrides higher-process cortical functions and screams, “Flight! Run!” (Or, in the case of porn: “Hide! Deny!”)

That’s your biology at work – cortisol trumping cognition – when under threat.

The Thievery of Porn

The problem is that we need our pre-frontal cortex to stay engaged and balanced – instead of competing with a hyper-active amygdala. Our pre-frontal cortex is responsible for reasoning, understanding, relating, language – even compassion and empathy.

In short, pornography robs us of words and emotion. It steals our story. It numbs the language and feeling we need for finding and telling that story both to ourselves, and to our loved ones.

Porn is the ultimate counterfeit: a pseudo-narrative that hooks you with hokey props and false hopes. As we saw in Part 2 of this series, there is no real life, no relationship, and no story worth living, without genuine risk. Failure itself doesn’t rob a man of strength, but his response to failure might.

Mind-Body Integration: Making Tools Work

Quick-fix cognitive or coping tools become part of the long-term problem – if they avoid a man’s insecurities and the underlying narrative of futility that’s driving him to act out. But tools are important if they work to re-integrate or reconnect mind and body, and when they serve to help you check in with your body and brain, instead of checking out. 

For “process addictions” like pornography (or gambling, shopping, hoarding, etc.), addiction treatment researchers have identified a short-list of five integrative mind-body lifestyle routines:

  • Presence: Mindfulness in the “here and now.” A rooted, calming Self-awareness and Self-acceptance that frees you to better attune to others and accurately read situations. Activities that develop mindfulness – a focused attentiveness that helps rewire the brain and boost neuroplasticity – may include journaling, solitude, contemplative silence, centering prayer, meditation, and other spiritual practices. (More on this in Part 4.)
  • Novelty: Any venture of new learning opens you to Self-discovery – and to greater participation in community. Newness and curiosity are full-blown oxygen for a brain rutted in addictive neural patterns and rigid reactions. Take a pottery or photography class. Haven’t you always wanted to learn Norwegian or reassemble a carburetor?
  • Hobbies: Newness is important, but the brain also feeds off the familiar. Re-commit to or expand a favorite pastime that gives you positive emotional energy. What do you look like at play? Or, have you lost touch with this? (Model airplanes aren’t just for boys.)
  • Exercise: Physical exercise is paramount to brain and body health, both aerobic (endurance-building, rhythmic, whole-body activities like cardio or swimming) and anaerobic (isolating muscle groups like weight-lifting or sprinting).
  • Yoga: If yoga exercises aren’t manly enough for you, then you’re already exercising: an exercise in missing-the-point. Mind-body integration is enhanced by focusing attention on breath and body movements in a meditative space – which centers the soul and brings the amygdala to rest.

Christian Counseling: Structure Facilitates Freedom

These five areas are foundational because they help to and re-direct the tempted or addicted mind. And the more this routine and structure is established, the more the brain is prepared to disrupt the addictive cycle in the heat of the moment with healthier means of Self-soothing and Self-validation.

Professional Christian counseling can be a vital, relational part of this routine and structure.

Photos
“Project 50 . . .” courtesy of Sean McGrath, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Stretched,” courtesy of Nicholas A. Tonelli, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0)


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