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Summiting a high-altitude mountain, like those found in Colorado, is a challenging endeavor. But so is breaking free from an attachment to pornography. The process of hiking at high altitude provides some great analogies to recovering from pornography. Mountain climbing is challenging on physical and emotional levels. Overcoming a struggle with pornography involves all aspects of the person, body, emotions, and spirit.

As you climb higher on a mountain there is reduced oxygen to the brain, potentially causing a person to make bad decisions or get sick. Altitude can also impact a person negatively by causing headaches, nausea, and throwing off one's equilibrium, in the mild form. These challenges require various measures of preparation to overcome as well as a focused step-by-step approach towards achieving your goal. Physical consequences can add to the baffling nature of recovery, with decreased cognitive ability, withdrawal symptoms, and an increased tendency towards anger and depression.

Pornography addiction has some similarities. Neuroscience tells us that addiction affects the brain in at least two ways. First, it causes a “hypofrontality,” which reduces activity in the frontal brain, decreasing impulse control and creating a negative mood. Second, it produces a “desensitization,” a numbing of the brain’s ability to experience pleasure. So it numbs the brain and creates impulse deficits, as a person progresses in use. 

Slow Down and Surrender the Impulse

Ideally, before high altitude hiking, time is allowed for the body to prepare by acclimating to stages of altitude and thus adjust to a low oxygen environment, increasing the body’s ability to transfer oxygen. Additionally, in the midst of this, a climber can consciously slow down his breathing and take deeper breaths to let in more air. Recovery from an addiction to pornography is similar in that we need to slow down, surrender the impulse to turn back to sexualized images or euphoric recall, and engage the thinking part of the brain in decisions. One can practice alternative means to cope and make real-world connections rather than escaping. It is like the difference between reacting vs. responding to a situation.

The challenges of dealing with emotions are also present with addiction recovery and high altitude and thus need preparation as well. At high altitudes, we can panic when we feel the increased heart rate and shortness of breath, but again slowing down our breathing can help the body take in more air and oxygen and thus assist the brain in thinking more clearly as well. Having short-term distance goals on a hike can help to not get too overwhelmed by the distant peak ahead. Healing from pornography use also involves practicing being aware of our emotions and recognizing that they are there to inform us about what is happening on the inside, even when fear is taking over. Recovery also has a staged approach. Each step has the ability to help us become more aware and take things in smaller chunks, rather than becoming overwhelmed by the whole project ahead.

Related: Guiding Our Emotions 

Having Much-Needed Attachment

Human attachment is another important aspect of recovery and in some ways mountain climbing. This involves our emotional system and the ability to receive and give help from others, which allows us to build trusting relationships. We have learned something about the negative effects of not having adequate attachment from the experience of Romanian orphans in the notorious hospitals where children were turned over to the communist state as their primary caregivers.

This Romanian experiment did not support the attachment needs of children. The conditions, abuse, and lack of consistent caregivers in many of these places created children who were reactively disorganized, some unable to communicate and physically unable to grow. Brain imaging PET scans of these children highlighted the low activity in parts of the brain where there is normally bright levels of activity. Sadly, as a result, it was observed that the children sought stimulation through rocking or hitting their heads as a replacement for what was missing from connection. From this extreme example, we gain an understanding of the importance of consistent attachment figures. For someone addicted to pornography over a long period, it can be easier to use excitement, sexuality, or things rather than people as a source of connection. Pornography likely mimics these effects on the brain and thus addiction becomes a non-relational way of getting needs met. When someone becomes more comfortable getting their needs met in this way rather than through human support, that can easily turn into an addiction. The team or group dynamic can help break this.

Related: How Early Childhood Experiences Can Contribute to Sexual Brokenness

The Need for Support and Teamwork

To achieve your goal in hiking or climbing it is important to have a team. Your buddies work together and with their skills to support each other. There needs to be an awareness of how everyone is doing and to recognize problems before things start to go off course. Similarly in recovery, support and teamwork are needed. Some have more experience than others, like trained counselors who can accompany those with porn and other sexual addictions. A component of developing this trust and support is facilitated through a group of individuals who share a common journey of purity and recovery. 12-step focused groups like Sexaholics Anonymous (SA) are often vital. These group connections, once established can provide a great means to grow in the ability to trust and further our other relationships. This is also why the accountability that comes with Covenant Eyes is beneficial. 

The metaphor of water and thirst can be used to understand our need for a new lifestyle. During high altitude hikes, the goal is to maintain a basic level of hydration. You do this by sipping water regularly rather than waiting until you are too thirsty. Similarly, with recovery from addiction, there is a process of learning to maintain a healthy lifestyle rather than becoming depleted and more chaotic, and thus more vulnerable to fill oneself up with old addictive habits. Things like regular prayer, relationships, exercise, and eating well, function as basic maintenance for a new lifestyle. If this becomes more regular we can help avoid the risk of becoming too “thirsty,” and help avoid the highs and lows of depletion and excess. In addition, a new lifestyle allows the structure for the important more fulfilling things. Positive maintenance should also feel better and happier. It is not like chasing our tail, as a dog who just can't quite catch it, as he goes round and round. Recovery is less about control and more like basic habits for wellbeing. The goal is as we drink more quality water, our thirst is satisfied and we are less tempted to look elsewhere.

Related: Being an Accountability Partner is More Than Just Listening 

Conclusion 

In mountain climbing and in recovery from sexual brokenness there are lessons to be learned from others who showed us that the effort involves the whole person, rather than just the stopping of a particular behavior. Thus, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

"There is a connection between purity of heart, of body, and of faith” (CCC, no. 2518).  

As we learn to practice these methods and grow in these habits of daily life, we can find more joy and peace along the journey. After all, "[w]e are created with a basic integrity, or connection, between our mind, body, and spirit. In essence, what we think about impacts our behavior. What we choose to do with our bodies impacts our desires and ability to see the value of others. Our sexuality is meant to be a reminder that we are called to love with our bodies with integrity and purity (USCCB Life Matters: Called to Love).”

Resource
Ally Covenant Eyes

Covenant Eyes: Screen Accountability™

Description

Be the best version of you.

Covenant Eyes Screen Accountability is designed to help you live with integrity on your devices by sharing your activity with a trusted friend.

Audience: Adults and supervised minors 
Language: English
Resource Type: Software 
Cost: $15.99 / month.  

Daniel Spadaro is a professional counselor in private practice in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He has worked as a counselor with couples, families, and youth since 1997. He received an MA in Counseling from Franciscan University of Steubenville and has training in the area of sexual addictions.  He has served as a member of the Diocesan Review Board and is currently a member of the faculty for the Permanent Deacon Formation Program in Colorado Springs. Dan has written and consulted for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on the topic of pornography and has spoken to a variety of groups nationally about the topic of addictions and pornography.