Is there a connection between sexual addiction and mental illness? If there is, which disorder comes first?
I would like to suggest a bi-directional interaction between the two: Sexual addiction can assist in the development of mental illness, and some mental illnesses can assist the development of a sexual addiction. This is, however, my conclusion from clinical practice, research data and considering psychological theory. There isn’t a causal link.
If you are wrestling with the question, “Which came first?” I would recommend a different question, “How are each of my concerns affecting my functioning and relationships?”
The first question can be an unhelpful self-reflective process that blames or excuses our behavior and consequences. However, it can also seem like it validates our struggles and behaviors. Regardless, healing and health comes through honestly recognizing our current condition and finding the right help.
Below we’ll unpack how sexual addiction and mental illness can influence one another’s development.
Sexual Addiction Can Help A Mental Illness Develop
Sexual addiction often produces a number of life-interfering consequences, which can develop into mental illness, such as depression, anxiety and alternate substance abuse. Furthermore, eating disorders are not uncommon, especially within the female population.
It is common for addiction to lead to depression for a number of reasons. The addict can become socially isolated as they spend increasing time pursuing the addiction and find less pleasure in other activities. The reward pathways in the brain can become altered, leading to a struggle in finding enjoyment outside of the addiction.
Negative emotional consequences of addiction are high, as the addict experiences a loss of control, self-respect and healthy relationships. Specific to sexual addiction is an inability to enjoy relational intimacy as sex becomes distorted away from a person-to-person experience to a person-to-sexual object experience. A low mood can then spiral into neurochemical depression.
Anxiety can be fueled by ruminating thoughts. In sexual addiction, anxious thoughts may be beliefs about the “unlovable” self, or a preoccupation with finding the next stimulus. As our neurochemistry becomes addiction-oriented, it is harder to relax and unwind in healthy ways, which can further exacerbate anxiety.
Addiction is often an attempt to deal with problems in living. Sexual addiction is usually no different – e.g., coping with unsatisfying relationships or inabilities to sooth emotional distress. It is fairly common to experience co-occurring addiction, and an alternative behavior or substance can become another way of dealing with problems in living.
Finally, eating disorders can develop as a result of pressure to conform to a “sexual ideal” that the addict witnesses or imagines as an attempt to control one’s environment or a way to tolerate negative feelings.
Undoubtedly, there are other mental illnesses that can develop from a sexual addiction, but we have looked at some common experiences. The development of these additional struggles may be for other reasons, yet with the same outcome.
Mental Illness Can Help A Sexual Addiction Develop
It is also possible that a previous mental illness can make you more susceptible to developing sexual addiction. Let’s look at two main groups.
Depression or anxiety can precede sexual addiction. Sexual gratification can serve as a way to feel better and in control, or to provide a sense of entitled pleasure. In this case, sexual behavior was a “problem-solving” attempt that has developed into addiction.
Mental illnesses such as ADHD/ADD, autism and impaired cognitive development can have a number of effects that lend one to addiction. For example, ADHD/ADD reduces our ability to control impulses and experience life as satisfying. This can tie into depression or anxiety.
Autism reduces one’s ability to correctly read, respond to, and generate normal social functioning. This might lead to difficulty in emotionally engaged relationships, and so pornography, for example, becomes a compelling sexual outlet.
In general, cognitive impairment can produce a number of deficits in functioning that could make one susceptible to a sexual addiction. There are myriad other mental illnesses that could lead to sexual behaviors that seem like a viable coping strategy.
Choice, Responsibility And Healing
A key point to remember is actions that led to addiction included choices. We are responsible for our actions even when we are highly susceptible and struggling. It is a sad reality that many of us were not taught how to cope with biological, social or psychological concerns. Further, it remains a choice to follow a healing path, one that usually requires outside support.
Regardless of whether mental illness or sexual addiction came first, they may both need to be dealt with actively and purposefully.
If you or a loved one is struggling with comorbid conditions, I recommend finding a trained counselor who can help you tackle these issues appropriately. Humans are complex, and our paths to healing may not all look the same.
Community Discussion: Share Your Thoughts Here!
What tools have you learned during treatment, counseling or support that have helped you to overcome negative feelings?
About the author: Written by Paul Loosemore, MA, PLPC. Paul works as a mental health counselor, and consults those who wish to recover from Sexual Addiction. He is the founder of www.stopsexualaddiction.com.