Matt is a licensed professional counselor and the clinical director of Boulder Recovery. He initially sought a career in church ministry,  but moved into the mental health field and started working with individuals recovering from sexual addiction.

  • The connection between anxiety, attachment trauma and sex/porn addiction
  • How does addiction develop?
  • How does addiction affect anxiety?
  • The link between childhood experience and addiction.
  • How does shame around unwanted sexual behaviors affect one’s relationship with God?
  • How long does sexual addiction recovery take?
  • Recovery program for porn/sexual addiction

Links and resources:
Boulder Recovery

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Transcript

Carrie: Welcome to Hope for Anxiety and OCD where we are all about reducing shame, increasing hope, and developing healthier connections with God and others. I’m your host, Carrie Bock. And today we are going to be talking about an important topic that affects a lot of Christians and non-Christians and that’s sex porn addiction.

We’re gonna talk about the connection between anxiety, attachment trauma and these issues. So if you’ve tuned into the show before you know that we’re not shy about talking about different issues that people face that are connected to anxiety. So here today, I have Matt Wininger, who is a licensed professional counselor and also the clinical director of Boulder recovery in Colorado. Welcome to the show.

Matt: Thank you, Carrie. Thanks for having me.

Carrie:So today we’re talking about sex porn addiction, which is an issue that many Christian men deal with. Do you see this issue as being as prevalent in the church as outside the church?

Matt:Oh yeah. It’s hard to understate the breadth of this addiction. I mean, we live in such a, um, saturated world when it comes to sex and objectification of women and, and men, and it affects it. Doesn’t, it doesn’t really seem to know like a boundary between the secular and the Christian world. Most of the men that I’ve treated both in secular context in, in Christian programs, uh, have been Christian.

I think that there’s just an increased level of, of shame around it for Christians and they, they seek out treatment, but this knows no bounds. It’s an epidemic really.

Carrie: Right. And really thanks to the internet. It’s very easy to keep the secret and keep it hidden. I mean, now, um, people have not just computers, but smartphones and tablets. And oftentimes this can go on for a while before anyone else really knows.

Matt: Yeah. I mean, it’s changed so much, you know, when you work with the older guys and we, I just, I see men exclusively for this. A lot of times they’ll talk about how it started, you know, magazines and print and things like that. And you just have to go to the corner store or, or whatever, to get a magazine or, or something like that. And, um, there was a little bit of a barrier there, you know, to have to leave your house and go and purchase something in person. But right now it’s, I mean, you can get, you can get some of this content for less than a dollar.

You can get it anytime you want. You can get some of it for free on your phone, in your pocket at any time. And there’s a myriad ways of hiding. What it is that you’re doing. And, and in some ways it’s more difficult to deal with than even some substance addiction, just because of the ease of access and that how easy it is to get it in terms of cost.

Carrie: That makes sense, because it’s also something that you can run into even when you’re not looking for it. And that happens to, to children sometimes on the internet, they’re searching for something else and this pops up and, you know, next thing you know, that’s, that’s a scary rabbit hole to go. From the outside, people really see addiction as a problem, but it actually starts out as a solution to a problem, help us understand kind of how addictions develop. 

Matt: I believe that addictions arise to regulate an unregulated nervous Sy regulated nervous system. So what I mean by that is addiction arises to cope with sensations within the body that feel overwhelming.

So an unregulated nervous system is, you know, things that are shooting me up to an 11 in my nervous system, like rapid heartbeat, uh, difficulty breathing, those kinds of things, or crashing me down into what we would call kind a dorsal response or, or, or a frozen response. So there’s that fight or flight is at the 11 and the dorsal is kind of that negative one where I’m in that frozen.

And I can get a dysregulated nervous system in a lot of ways, but what we call that is just trauma, right? Where, um, something is overwhelming my brain overwhelming my nervous system. And I, I lose the ability to process. Whenever I get a, a memory that’s associated with that or an experience in my day-to-day life that’s associated with that.

I associated with that trauma. Then it’s gonna put me back in that place in my nervous system. So people talk about this all the time. Being triggered, you know, triggered by something, um, traumatic from the past. Well, it has an effect on our nervous system, not just, you know, the way we feel emotion, it can put us into that fight or flight space, or it can put us into that place of shutdown and withdraw or frozen.

That can lead to addictions as an outside source of regulation that I can reach out for something to calm my nervous system down, or to bring it up out of that frozen space. So guys will often say like, oh, I’m was so stressed, I’m stressed. And I just overwhelmed and I need to release or come down from that 11 or stress relief. Or I need to feel something. I was stuck in a depressive state and I had to like shoot up out of that at Boulder recovery, we use the Tena model, which is called trauma-induced sexual addiction. So it linked traumatic events to the dysregulation in your nervous system. And as your nervous system is disregulated, it cries out for coping cries out for relief.

It cries out to regulate. And if I had that early trauma between zero and 20 years old and a maladaptive sexual experience, like early exposure to pornography or, um, molestation or sexual abuse or something like that, and that stuff kinda wires together, that every time I need to cope. I can go to that thing that I was exposed to, and that feels, I feel okay for a little bit.

I feel like comforted or nurtured or calm or peaceful. I, my nervous system comes down or I begin to feel when I, when I was empty or hollow. And as long as if I keep going back to that as a young person into my teenage years and into adulthood, I keep going back again and again and again, again, and now I’m dealing with addiction.

This kind of rut and my brain has been formed and wherever the ditch is dug, the water’s gonna flow. Right. And so, again and again, and again, and then all of a sudden I’m what, what you described as a solution, which what was once, um, wanted, is now needed to feel okay on a day-to-day kind of basis. And that’s the transition between something that’s just coping.

And now that is addiction something that wanted or something that was a solution to a problem of how I felt dysregulated and emotion that I did not like, or was not comfortable. Has now become a problem because of the compulsivity around it and the way in which it is damaging my life.

Carrie: Right. And all of a sudden, there’s, there’s more problems that end up happening, like relationship issues. So do you find that a lot of times brings men into treatment?

Matt: Oh yeah. A classic thing in addiction, right? Like gotta hit rock bottom before you’re gonna really do something about it, but nine times outta 10, you guys are coming to see us. They got caught, but that’s what doesn’t tell the whole story  because part of it is they are a relief.

They’re tired, they’re sick and tired, of doing this. They’re sick and tired of living that way. And when they do get caught, their whole life blows up and maybe they’re ready to give it up and maybe they’re not, but they’re tired of living that way. And just living on that rollercoaster too.

So sometimes guys come and see us because they really wanna work on themselves and they want to get better and they wanna find health. And then sometimes more often than not, it’s, it’s a, it’s a crisis, you know, it’s a response to crisis in their relationship,

Carrie: Right. In order to get help for these types of things, you really have to be willing to examine yourself and start to look at some of those painful feelings that you’ve been avoiding and that’s really hard work to do. And so oftentimes people don’t seek that out until their situation becomes too painful. That, that they’re forced to deal with that.

Matt: Yeah. And I think you’re right. And the crazy thing about emotions and trauma is that they’re going on all of the time, whether we acknowledge them or not.

And sure. And if I can like spend decades of just shoving it down and ignoring it. And I think that I’m dealing with it. That’s just false. It’s affecting my life in, in every which way emotions will be dealt with one way or the other. Either we face them and we deal with them and the pain and whatever else around them, or they’re gonna come sideways.

They’re gonna come out as passive-aggressive. They’re gonna come out as rage. They’re gonna come out as anxiety. They’re gonna come. You know, you, you can. Kind of joke around with guys about how, you know, they’ve been, they think that they’ve been dealing with anxiety by using their addiction, but really what they’re doing is just exponentially causing more anxiety in their life. And the thing that they’re trying to get a solution for is creating even more of the same, the irony in that is apparent, but oh man, addiction is going to the same thing again and again, and again, expecting different results. And so you can joke with guys, but it’s deadly serious that if you don’t get treatment, then it’s gonna escalate and it’s gonna get worse for.

Carrie: Right. That makes sense. That makes sense. You talked about this a little bit before, just in terms of regulation of the nervous system. Talk with us a little bit more about that connection that you’ve seen between. The early childhood experiences, the anxiety and the sexual addiction.

Matt: Sure. I kind of talk about it in two ways. Well, there’s attachment wounds that are kind of at the core of this, right? With that tr traumatic attachment wounds. So sometimes the trauma can happen outside the home and the primary caregivers don’t do a great job of dealing with it. Right. They try to ignore it or they try to minimize it or you, Hey, you’re fine.

We’re all fine. Everybody’s fine. And um, sometimes guys will tell me that was more damaging than the trauma that happened outside the home.

Carrie: I’ve heard that as well. Yeah, just the response or lack of response to it.

Matt: Yeah. And, and, and that’s really sad. You know, I worked with a guy who was kidnapped and when the police found him, his parents never brought it up ever again.

And he, that, for him that was more damaging than, than the actual event in the sexual abuse that happened during the kidnapping to have him describe it. There’s kind of that trauma that happens outside the home, but the real damage I think is done with the primary caregiver. So either in that kind of, uh, dismissal or denial or, um, minimization of emotion within the home, which we call like a cold box, the emotions there are cold.

You know, big caregivers have their back turned to the young person. Emotionally vacant would be another phrase there or the hot box where there’s a lot of emotion, but it’s chaos and there’s violence or abuse, uh, physical abuse, emotional abuse, psychological abuse, all the sexual abuse. So in the hot box,  the kid is reaching out for connection and support and validation and love and all that stuff.

But in response, they’re getting hurt and they’re getting abused. Even if they’re being told that they’re loved, they’re not being treated that way. And in the cold box, the kids reaching out the same way again and again, and again, to get their needs met, but they’re being ignored or invalidated, or there’s this cold, emotionally vacant response as the parents are distracted by something else and they can’t or want pay attention to, to the young.

So what happens is in both of those scenarios, the kid will reach out again and again and again for connection and validation. And what they’re doing when they’re reaching out for that is they’re. Mom dad or whoever, uh, help me, help me understand my world, help me understand where I’m feeling, help me calm down, nurture me, cultivate me, comfort me.

All of those things. That’s how you develop a healthy nervous system is you co-regulate with a secure and safe person when you’re. As your brain and your nervous system develops. But if you don’t get that and they’re either abusing you or dismissing you or they well, hot box or cold box, then the kid eventually says, this person is not safe.

They’re not consistent. And so I cannot get my needs met through this person. So all guys that I’ve talked to that struggle with sex addiction have either said this out loud, or they’ve said it to themselves. I guess I have to take care of myself. 

Carrie: Wow. So I have to be the one to meet my own needs because mom or dad is not available to meet those needs for me.

Matt: Yeah. And so what do I do right. I don’t have this person to co-regulate with, I don’t have this person to help physiologically help me form my, a regulated nervous system. So I have to rely on some, and then there incomes that maladaptive sexual experience, right? Oh, that made me feel good. I didn’t really like that, but it made me feel something and that was kind of exciting or interesting or powerful in some way.

And, and what if I go back there that can really, that, that can change my physiological state, obviously they’re kids and not thinking about it in those terms, but sure. They’ll go back. And they’ll go back again and they’ll go back a couple more times and then as they continue to age, it’ll be more and more and more and more, and it’ll continue to escalate until it’s compulsion or addiction.

Carrie: So, I mean, I think that’s great. I haven’t heard that the hot box cold box explanation, but I really like that. I, I think it does happen. In one of those two extremes in terms of attachment trauma, from what I’ve seen. And, and we have a previous episode of people wanna go back and with Laura Mullis, where we talk about specifically about childhood wounding, and is that the key to unlocking your anxiety, I think is what that show is called, but it’s very interesting, the connections between that, that you’ve made for us and sex addiction because I think a lot of times people look at addiction and their focus of treatment really is on abstinence. Like we need to just get you away from whatever it is. Yeah. And then you’ll be okay, as long as you’re not doing that, as long as that’s not available to you, as long as you’re not engaging with it, just kind of white knuckle get through it. And that’s not really ever dealing with the root cause of the issue.

Matt: Right. And the absence of a compulsive behavior does not make health right.  If I’m dealing with an underlying traumatic issue where my nervous system has not formed or developed in a way that is. Healthy or, or lends itself to health, then, then not doing the compulsive behavior is not gonna bring me closer to health.

It’s gonna put more stress on the system. It’s gonna push me into other methods of coping. And that’s where we see guys that white knuckle, like you’re describing it where they’re just. Dry drunk and they’re doing everything to just not do the behavior, but what, like I said, what comes out? Sideways rage, emotional abuse, psychological abuse of their partner.

They’re manipulative, they’re controlling, they’re angry. They’re overwhelmed with all of these other things. And maybe they’re. There’s even, um, comorbidity with alcohol or, or something else to try to help them cope with it. So the, the elimination of the unwanted behavior is never the answer.

Carrie: Yeah. Talk with us about the shame piece, cuz I can imagine that you have Christian men that come there and say, “you know, I spiritually, I am free in Christ and I am a new creation and I’ve been made new and they’ve, I’m sure prayed about this struggle, maybe memorized Bible verses.” And they still feel stuck like in this cycle. And then they’re ashamed because they’re like, I can’t seem to get, get out of it. How do you guys address this?

Matt: On the one hand, Christian men struggle immensely with shame around unwanted sexual behaviors. And on the other hand, it’s not that dissimilar to, to other guys, but the things that are unique to the Christian experiences. I’m not just damaging myself and my own relationships.

I feel a brokenness and a separation in my relationship with God, which is a huge piece or the number one piece of my identity. There’s this spiritual stressor on top of the relational stressor on top of everything else, Christian men are carrying that around as a disruption within their own identity as, uh, men created by God.

For his perfect and for his glory, right? It’s an extra weight on their shoulders. Then, the odd thing is, and I guess it’s not too surprising that theologically, they won’t argue with you that you know, that I’m loved by God and that God forgives me and that God died for me. And that I am a new creation and all the things that you said, Carrie, but functionally, they don’t really act.

They don’t really believe it. So they have theological beliefs on one hand and functional beliefs on the other. So they will look around in the group of, of men that are doing group therapy together. And this, you know, God loves all of you guys. And the subtext there is God loves everybody, except for me, S is by faith for everyone, but me, but I have to prove it.

I have to earn it or the idea. That is sneaky because it’s so close to the truth that sin separates me from God. And that I have a disrupted relationship with God because of this addiction. Paul says in Romans there’s nothing height or depth or life or death or angels or demons that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

So in a way, sin separates us from God, but Jesus has bridged that. Gap. And then we accept him in relationship and, as our savior and as the justifier and the one who’s made us right before God, then there isn’t anything separating us. And even addiction cannot separate us from God, even an addiction that feels, uh, shameful and dark and isolating.

So part of the treatment for Christian men is bringing into question some of their theological beliefs. And do you actually really believe. And do you function as if you do, and what would it be like if you actually functioned as if these theological beliefs were true? And what we find with Christian men is that trauma is the culprit yet again because trauma causes me to treat God and, and to project onto God, the caregiver relationships that I was wounded by.

So. As fast. Absolutely. Like if you talk to somebody who was abused by a parent and you get down to the nitty-gritty, their functional belief is that God is out to get them, that they are bad and that God wants to punish them or hurt them or withhold good things from them because they’re bad. And they deserve to be punished, which is hot box.

And if they grew up in an emotionally dismissive environment, emotionally, they. They tend to believe that God has his back to them and that they have to perform to get him to demonstrate love and care and warmth and affection for them. And they have to do the right rain dance to get God to respond.

And in both of these scenarios, religion, And superstition weasel their way in where Christian guys would be like, Hey man, I’m doing all the right things. I’m putting all the quarters in the pot machine and on, God’s not doing what I want him to do. I prayed for 10 years to, for him to take away this addiction.

And he’s not, or I’m a missionary or I’m a passion. I devoted my life to this and God is letting me down as if this rain dance and performance is gonna manipulate God into treating me the way that I wanted to. So now issues of resentment have popped up in their relationship with God. So it’s layered and nuanced, but one of the joys of working with Christian men is helping them come into a deeper understanding of the ways in which trauma has polluted, even their relationship with God, and seeing the rule on and, and see renewal around that super.

Carrie: Some of the greatest distances between our head and our heart. You probably have heard someone say that before, so we can know the right things theologically, and yet they haven’t really sunk down into our heart in an emotional level of yes. Like I am a child of God, like really able to sit with that and rest in it versus like, oh yeah, I know I’m God’s child like, well, yeah, I know. Yeah. You know, nothing can separate me from his love. it’s a different level there.

Matt: So, yeah.  And that’s a, like, again, a function of the attachment that they experienced. Right. They were told that they were loved or they assumed that they were loved. So like an abusive parent, you know, I’m sorry, I did that.

I’m sorry. I blew up. I’m sorry that blah, blah. You know, I love you, right? No, I love you, right. Oh. And then what’s the kids’ response every time. I used to work with children and, and, and they’ll agree. And they’ll be like, yeah, I, yeah, I know, you know, little littles, little kids assume that their parents love them and that they are gonna respond to them.

The next time, even if all of the evidence tells them that they won’t. So it’s this cognitive understanding of what love is with a lack of experiencing that love. And it’s the same way for the cold box kids. So they talk to guys all the time and they’re like, oh yeah, I have great childhood. Dad came into all my baseball games.

We went on vacation or whatever, but when you get down to. Nitty gritty. Like there was no eye contact. There was no physical affection, no one ever talked about emotions. Everything was, you know, tamped down. And again, they’re being told that they’re loved, but they’re not experiencing that. So why would it be any different than their relationship with God?

My obligation then as a Christian is to assume that God loves me, even when I don’t or have never really experienced that love, cuz I probably wouldn’t know it even if it fit me on. 

Carrie: Tell me about the recovery program that you’re involved with and what that looks like. 

Matt: Boulder Recovery and our kind of sister program, the secular program begin again, Institute.

Those are 14-day intensive programs where we bring guys from all over the country to stay with us for two weeks. And they all come in together and they all leave together. So it’s kind of cohort model. We do intensive trauma therapy every day of that program. And we also do psychoed around trauma and addiction and attachment wounding and expose them to different trauma modalities so that they can get to the root of their traumatic experiences.

Feel through those experiences, learn how those have developed and perpetuated their a. Then we teach ’em about neurochemistry and dopamine, the, you know, addiction cycles and things like that. And so we, so we’re teaching ’em about trauma and how to feel their feelings. We teach them about the neurochemistry and the brain, and we teach them how their addiction is damaged, their relationships, and how that has developed and how that has happened.

And then we equip them to, uh, begin a strong recovery. So those are kind of the four major beats of the program over those two weeks. And that whole time we’re doing individual trauma sessions and group, uh, trauma work. It’s really helpful for guys. It’s a strong running start into lifelong recovery.

Carrie: Have you, do you have some data surrounding people that you followed up with say at 30 days or 90 days after your program or six months?

How, what has that looked like for you guys as far as success rates? 

Matt: We have about like a 94, 90 5% satisfaction rating. It’s really high. You know, I don’t like to talk about that stuff because people that are those are guys that are just leaving the program. They really enjoyed it. And they, they really felt like they made a lot of growth, but they haven’t quite gone back to the real world yet.

And then the guys that we do hear from positively like that’s kind of a select sample size, isn’t it? Where they’re just. That you hear about, right? Yeah. But we do get a lot of positive feedback. We see a lot of success and we have a network of therapists all over the country that we refer to get referrals from.

They keep coming in and, and we hear from our refers all the time that, uh, guys are making breakthroughs and, and are changing their lives when they get back. 

Carrie: That’s awesome. So do you see it as like a way for them to really kickstart their recovery process. And then of course, they’re gonna need follow-up like therapy to continue working through some of the hose things.

Matt: You’re not gonna be able to cure. You know, compulsive behavior and addiction in two weeks, but what you can do sure is crack some things open, look at things from a new perspective, do some deep dives because you can’t really do that in weekly therapy. You do, you, you make a, you make some big gains in, in a trauma session, but then you, you know, put your seatbelt back on and you go back to work or.

Go home. And then it’s the kids and job and stress, and it’s hard to get traction sometimes in those deeper issues. And what we can do is keep guys in the work for eight hours, 14 days in a row. And, um, you can see a lot of progress in a lot of change, um, through that kind of method. And so it’s a great avenue for people that are entering into recovery.

It’s a good thing for guys who have been sober for a while and kind of need a tune-up. And it’s a great opportunity for guys who have been sober for a long time, but are still struggling with residual effects of trauma. So we see all three types of guys. What I really enjoy is working with guys that are motivated and, uh, motivated to change, motivated to grow.

And that’s not all of our clients, by the way, like sometimes guys are like, decide they want to come see us register with us. And then somewhere in flight, I assume they decide that they’re not an addict anymore and they show up and they’re like, yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know if this is for me, you know, but at that point we kind of, we kind of got ’em, we got their keys and their phone and everything and, and the rest of the group can say, Hey man, I think this is a serious issue for you too.

So there’s some, sometimes we get some guys that are stuck in denial and, but we can work. We can work through that. 

Carrie: So as we’re getting towards the end of the podcast, I like to ask our guests to share a story of hope, which is a time in which you received hope from God or another person

Matt: Yeah, I was thinking about this before, cuz I knew you were gonna ask me that and I just get so much of that in my life.  I’m blessed to have that, you know, guys will email me all the time. I have this one guy who just emails me a picture of his chip. Every couple months. So like, he’ll take a picture of an essay. They have these little coins. And he’ll just take a picture. He just send me his one-year coin and no, no text, nothing.

Yeah. It’s like no subject line. It was just like a picture of his, his coin. It’s always fun to get those, but I did get an email last week from a guy who just wanted to be an encouragement and just, Hey, I just wanna remind you that you guys changed my life. He was telling me how he is moved back in with his wife and, um, his kids.

And he’s been sober for nine months. He’s just really killing it. So it’s always encouraging to get those kind of emails and to speak with guys that are finding traction and how. Not just because they’re no longer like in the deep hole of addiction, but because they’re becoming authentic and whole people and the kind of people that you really wanna spend time with, not just people that aren’t doing a thing

Carrie:  Yeah. It’s like there was something to replace the addiction with. Like, you can’t just get rid of it. You have to replace, put something back in there, like the health and the wholeness and the peace.

Matt: Yeah. And we just, we say authenticity because, you know, back when those wounds happened, when they were kids, that’s what they lost. They lost the ability to be authentic and they had to perform or hide or cope, but whatever they were doing, they weren’t being themselves. And that, that real and valuable person that was created by God and his image deserves to be returned to and explored and not hidden under this blanket of addiction. We talk about returning to authenticity. And that’s probably the highest compliment for American men is to be told that, you know, oh, that guy, that guy’s real, that guy, that guy’s a real guy. He’s real. Yeah. Awesome. That’s what we get to see. So very exciting.

Carrie: Well, I think that what you’re doing is great.

I hope you guys keep on doing it. And I know that you’re helping a lot of people and hopefully, this podcast will, you know, open people up to this as a hopeful opportunity for maybe someone. Maybe themselves personally, or someone in their life who may be struggling. Thank you so much for coming and sharing today.

Matt: Yeah. Thanks for having me, Carrie. You know, I appreciate what you’re doing too, bringing hope to people that are suffering from compulsivity and anxiety. And yeah, there’s a lot of that in the world right now. So thank you too.

Hope for anxiety and OCD is a production of, By The Well Counseling in Tennessee. Our original music is by Brandon Mangrum until next time may you be comforted by God’s great love for you