Is sex addiction the result of a brain disorder?
Yes, according to recent studies of brain development. Sexual addiction is now often discussed in clinical circles as “a brain disorder manifesting in a compulsive behavior.”
Sexually addicted people very often have some history of emotional, physical or sexual abuse or neglect in their early life which is thought to cause stunting in specific parts of the developing brain. This in turn results in impairment in the brain’s ability to regulate emotional and behavioral reactions which in turn leads to over-reactions of distress and “emergency” unrelated to present day reality. The use of a drug or an addictive behavior later in life can become a substitute for the normal mechanisms of emotional regulation such as the ability to calm oneself, to stop and think, etc.
Thus the brain of the addict has two strikes against it. First, the person will have more difficulty maintaining their emotional equilibrium and will reach for outside substance or experience to take the place of the normal self soothing mechanisms. Second the addict’s brain is less able to control his or her reactions and so the addict will tend to behave impulsively and without regard to consequences, especially if the behavior (drugs, sex, food etc.) offers escape from uncomfortable emotions (see also Sex Addiction is a Drug and This is Your Brain on Cyber Porn.)
With treatment the learning of new self regulating skills and new behaviors, the letting go of old reactions and the resolving of early trauma make room for different neural pathways to form. In this way the addict brain can and does heal over time