About two thirds of people dealing with a sexual addiction or compulsion also have a history of mood disorders such as depression. The question then becomes: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did the individual develop a sex addiction because they were depressed, or are they depressed because of their sex addiction?
On a chemical basis, sex or porn creates a high similar to many drugs and offers at least a temporary relief from their struggles. For someone who acts out sexually with other people, it not only gives them relief from their struggles but also creates a sense of connecting to another person. Due to this, people who are addicted to sex and suffering from depression, do so with a compulsion that does not include healthy functioning but rather chasing their only source of safety, pleasure, soothing, and acceptance.
When it comes to the symbiotic relationship between depression and sex addiction, it is often difficult to determine which causes which. When working with people who struggle with compulsive sexual behavior, often depression rides just beneath the surface. One subconsciously acts out sexually to avoid the depression and in turn after they act out the depression is more pronounced and they feel far worse.
We act out what we don’t want to feel. If you’re feeling down or low, it makes sense to want to move away from that and instead find something else to do instead. The vast majority of individuals have been doing this since they were adolescents and the habitual pattern of acting out has continued for most of their lifetime. Some experts say that sexual addiction is really a coping mechanism to numb painful feelings and memories. Other people having a sexual addiction agree that it isn’t about the sex but more about escaping pain or reducing anxiety.
Some studies have demonstrated the link between depression and sexual addiction. In a 2004 study, researchers at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Gender and Reproduction at Indiana University, concluded that their sample of individuals identified as having a sexual addiction had an increased interest in sex when they were either depressed or feeling anxious.
It’s important to recognize how the brain and our reward circuitry function. We know that primitive circuits in the brain manage emotions, drives, impulses, and subconscious decision-making. The desire and motivation to pursue sex arises from dopamine, the neurochemical that drives the primitive part of the brain known as the reward circuitry. It’s where you experience cravings and pleasure and where you get addicted.
Sex and pornography are used to temporarily forget about feelings of sadness, fear, anger and boredom. This habit can both lead to depression—because you know you’re really not dealing with core issues—and is also something depression can drive. Sex and porn floods the brain with dopamine and makes us feel good but like most habits, the good wanes and you require more and more to feel the same rush. You may find yourself progressing in your behavior due to this and getting more and more stuck in this negative cycle.
If you are struggling with both depression and compulsive sexual behavior, both need to be treated. One without the other is like continuing pulling weeds without ever getting to the roots. The correlation between depression and sex addiction is one of the reasons that antidepressants can be useful when treating sex addiction.