In my other posts on overcoming porn, fantasy and masturbation, I talked about ‘turning away from’ or ‘blocking out’ a sexual thought, image or cue the very instant you become aware of it, before it has a chance to release more arousal hormones into your bloodstream.
In fact, I think that shutting down all sexual thought really was the key to me giving up porn, fantasy and masturbation so easily this time, because it allowed me to stop the battles before they even began. This made things so much more pleasant, and much more successful. One forum member described my experience almost exactly:
I believe this is a primary cause for my failure in the past — yes, I knew not to [masturbate], but I would allow my mind to wander all over the friggin place thinking that was a reasonable substitute. Yeah, that was okay for the first week or so, but as time wore on, it just becomes unbearable. Don’t torture yourselves like that.
Because blocking out sexual thought is so beneficial, I thought it would be worth writing a bit more on how this works, in case people are finding it difficult to control their thoughts. I realise that it’s probably not enough to just say, ‘Don’t think about sex’, and leave it at that. While I did talk a bit about this in another post (Section B, 2-4), I’ve had some more thoughts, and have gotten some input from others, which might help those still struggling with this technique.
Sexual thoughts, images or cues
Just to reiterate, a sexual thought, image or cue, which is what we want to shut down, is not necessarily a mental picture of a sexual nature. We need to learn to detect the sexual cues that are more subtle than that. Sometimes a sexual cue is not visual, but is rather just a thought. I often think about life and relationships and find myself riding a train of thought that leads from ‘making toast’ to ‘having sex’ (don’t worry, there were a number of steps in between). Sometimes the physical stimulation of a person’s body can produce a certain sensation which can implant in the mind a desire for sexual satisfaction. As mentioned elsewhere, a sexual cue could be situational, such as finding oneself home alone or laying down to rest after a hard day of work. Upon waking in the morning, a person might think to themselves: ‘Mmmm… warm bed… comfortable… pleasure… masturbate.’ This is somewhere between a situational cue and a train of thought, and in my experience the two often do go together. And then there are the obvious sensory cues like the sight and smell of an attractive person, or a billboard displaying women in underwear. For regular internet porn users, I suspect that the very action of opening up a web browser will trigger anticipation that pornography will be accessed, resulting in the release of arousal hormones. That alone could be a sexual cue. I know that when I open up a web browser, I often accidentally find myself on facebook or my email, even when I was actually intending to check the weather. And even if navigating to porn sites is not as habitual as navigating to facebook or email, porn will surely raise itself as an option numerous times over the course of a session sitting at a computer. As the mind flicks through the options for internet/computer use at a speed that makes it almost imperceptible, the idea of porn will be among them, and it will probably be a lot more attractive than the others. Even turning your computer on might prompt your mind to ask the question, ‘porn?’ That’s a situational cue, and even at that very initial stage your body might start releasing endorphins in anticipation. That’s why you need to be sensitive to excitement and arousal, be aware of the cues that cause it, and you need to shut them down hard and fast.
Avoiding sexual thoughts, images or cues?
When using my approach to this issue, I think it’s quite important that you don’t worry too much about the initial sexual thought, image or cue coming into your mind. More often than not, they just happen whether you like it or not, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. As attributed to Martin Luther (among others), “You cannot keep birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.” Some people go to great lengths to avoid situations or places where a sexual thought, image or cue might enter their mind, but I find this to be not only very burdensome, but ultimately quite impossible. As careful as I am, I find random sexual thoughts popping into my mind at the most unexpected of times. Like when making toast. If I freaked out every time this happens, I would freak out a lot. And the danger of over-emphasising the avoidance of initial sexual thoughts, images or cues is that it can leave us unprepared for when we inevitably encounter one. When we find ourselves sexually aroused, despite our best efforts, we might resign ourselves to relapse, because there was no plan for this contingency.
So rather than focussing on avoiding films, magazines, books, billboards, pop music, and people I find sexually attractive, I prefer to work on how I respond mentally when I encounter a sexual cue in a film, magazine, book etc. The advantage of this approach is that it is internal, rather than external. Because we can’t control the outside world, but we can control our inner thought life. Moreover, this approach, once perfected, renders us largely immune to whatever life may throw our way. And be assured that life will throw things your way. So I find it much more reliable to train my mind to deal with sexual cues in a consistent, positive manner, than to go through life hoping that I never encounter a sexual cue.
Of course it is wise to reduce external sexual stimulus as far as possible. Why make things harder on yourself? But I don’t think that this can be the only focus, or even the main one. And an added benefit of working on your internal response to sexual thoughts, images or cues is that as you grow accustomed to immediately turning the mind away from sexual thought, you will find that you no longer subconsciously seek out sexual thoughts, images or cues. Eyes will scan over a billboard of a woman in lingerie without even focussing on the image or taking it in. You will view women as people rather than sexual objects to be assessed and consumed, and your eyes will naturally focus on theirs, rather than straying downwards. Old situational cues, like waking from a nap, will no longer even trigger the initial burst or arousal, and random sexual thoughts will become less and less frequent. In the first month of abstinence I would have a random sexual thought around 2-3 times per day, which would release a burst of arousal hormones, and require me to turn away from the sexual thought immediately. Now, after 70 days, this usually happens only once per day, and often not at all. I suspect that this is my subconscious learning that there is really no point in raising the idea of sex in the first place, because it just doesn’t go anywhere.
How to ignore a sexual thought: thinking about something else
Finally I get to the key section. How to turn the mind away and ignore a sexual thought, image or cue. Part of the problem is that, as they say, it’s an impossible task to not think of a pink elephant. It’s more or less the same with sex. If you focus really hard on the sexual thought in an attempt to nullify it, it will only become more prominent in your mind. Trying really hard to not think about something doesn’t really work. But as Isaac Newton noted, a long time ago, “The way to chastity is not to struggle directly with incontinent thought, but to avert your thoughts by some employment – by reading or meditating on other things or by converse. For he that’s always thinking of chastity will be always thinking of women.”
So what you need to do is to ignore the sexual thought, image or cue. And the best way to do this is to think about something else. If you experience your mind as a visual field, then what you need to do is to focus your mind’s eye on another thought or idea, other than the sexual image. This act will result in the sexual image becoming out of focus, and eventually fading away. There are a number of different ways that a person might visualise this action, and I suspect that our subjective experiences of our minds are quite different. So I’ll present a few possible ways that one might describe the action of ignoring a sexual thought, in the hope that one might work for you. Any one will do if it works, so just ignore any that don’t really make sense. I’ll start with a few of my own attempts to describe what goes on in my own mind, before offering some ideas from others. What I describe is not going to be a perfect description of what goes on in my mind, because that is too vague to put into words. I’m aiming for rough equivalents, or analogies.
Analogy 1: The rabbit hole
Suppose you a Beagle, and you love chasing rabbits and sticking your head down rabbit holes. You are looking out over a green field, which contains grass, rocks and shrubs, when out of the corner of your eye you see a rabbit hole. A small, dark dot in your field of vision. As a Beagle, your instinct is to lock onto the rabbit hole and stare at it. When you do, the black hole moves to the centre of your vision, and you focus on it. You race towards it, and it gets larger, and larger, as you get closer. Eventually, you get so close it takes up almost all of your vision, and you stick your head down the hole, and the black dot fully envelopes you.
This is sometimes how I experience a sexual thought. The Beagle’s field of vision is your mind’s eye, and the rabbit hole is a sexual thought, image or cue that creeps into your mind. What begins as a small peripheral dot in my mind’s eye, draws my focus like a magnet. It is attractive and appealing. Like the Beagle, I lock onto it and race towards it and it becomes bigger and bigger, crowding out all other thoughts. Then I stick my head down into it and I forget everything else. That’s obviously what you don’t want to do. So these days, when I see that black dot out of the corner of my eye, rather than locking onto it and racing towards it, I look at something else. I look at the rocks, or the grass, or the shrubs, or the beautiful clouds in the sky. Oftentimes I think to myself, ‘Where was I going before I spotted that rabbit hole?’. If I was going over the hill, then I focus my eyes on the crest of the hill and run towards that. Or, shifting out of the metaphor, I ask myself, ‘What was I thinking about before I started thinking about sex?’. It’s a matter of latching onto something else, and ignoring the sexual thought.
Analogy 2: The waving hand
Another way of thinking about it might be thus. Suppose you are trying to read a book, but there is a hand waving in front of your face. If you get irritated and stare at the hand, it moves closer to your face, and seems to grow bigger, until it blocks your sight completely. But if you ignore it, look through it and past it, focus on the page, and continue reading, it moves away from your face, and seems to grow smaller. If you keep focussing on the book, eventually the hand moves back behind the book where it continues to wave back and forth, now appearing, then disappearing behind the book. The hand is still there, and you can see it in your peripheral vision, but it no longer obscures the text in the book, and it soon moves so far away that you more or less forget about it. The hand, of course, is the sexual thought, and again, your field of vision is your mind’s eye.
In both of these examples, I am trying to make three points. Firstly, you can’t actually make the sexual thought (the rabbit hole or waving hand) go away. That is not within the power of the either the Beagle or the reader. But it actually doesn’t matter, which brings me to the second point. The second point is that even though the sexual thought is there, it’s not a problem, because you can just ignore it and focus on something else, or even run towards something else. The sexual thought can stay within the peripheral vision of your mind’s eye as long as it wants, so long as you don’t focus on it and encourage it to grow. ‘Ignoring’ something does not rely on making something go away. It’s getting on with other things despite the presence of that thing. And the third point, and here’s the good news, is that as you pursue that other line of thought, the sexual thought will naturally shift out of focus, move to your peripheral vision, and shrink, until it ultimately vanishes. Or I suppose that’s what happens, because I’m no longer aware of it by that stage.
As no-one who wants you face up to your problems ever said, ‘Ignore it and it will go away.’ That’s not a prescription for dealing with life’s problems in general, but I have found it to be a good way to deal with sexual thought and arousal.
Stalling thoughts, not removing them
In my experience, you don’t need to worry too much about trying to remove or banish a thought from your mind completely. All you need to do is stall or starve the process by which a sexual thought grows in power and prominence. You just need to not encourage it. You see, normally when I notice a sexual thought, my mind latches onto it immediately. It’s attractive and alluring, like a rabbit hole to a Beagle (I guess). I focus on it, I examine it, and I start to delve deeper. I think about the sexual thought in more detail, and in richer colours. I explore the sexual scenario that comes to mind. I push into it, and what was once a small dark dot envelopes me and I lose myself in the fantasy. In this process, arousal hormones and endorphins are released, in initially small but ever increasing amounts. These in turn motivate me to press in even more deeply, and they also shut down the prefrontal cortex, as I have described elsewhere. It is in the nature of a sexual thought to draw you in and lead you into a more involved engagement with itself. Or perhaps it is in the nature of my mind to follow a sexual thought, explore it and attempt to see how deep the rabbit hole goes.
However, if the instant I notice the sexual thought, image or cue, I simply turn away and focus on something else, then I starve it of the ability to grow, and it releases only the very initial burst of arousal hormones. I refuse to ‘examine’ it, even though it looks very interesting. I refuse to follow it down the rabbit hole. I just leave it sitting there as a random, impotent idea in my mind, and focus on something else. Whatever I do, I don’t follow the sexual thought where it wants to lead me.
Have you ever wondered how a weird conversation got so weird, thought back to the initial topic, and then traced its evolution to the present topic? Or have you ever been in a conversation where a person has forgotten what they wanted to say, so you quickly rehash the trajectory of the conversation in an attempt to jog their memory? Or have you ever found yourself thinking about something completely random, and wondered how you go to thinking about that? I often wonder about that when I find myself thinking about sex. And in fact, tracing the line of thought backwards can be a great way to turn away the sexual thought. As discussed above, sexual thoughts often seek to lead you onwards. They entice and drag you forwards into a deeper and more detailed consideration of the sexual thought. So a great way to stall that process is to backtrack – instead of following the train of thought forward, you follow it backwards, and try to recall what you were thinking about just before you started thinking about sex. If that thought is not particularly interesting or engaging, think about what the thought was prior to that, and so on. By the time you’ve thought back several steps, you should have found something else to think about, and forgotten the sexual thought, or at least stalled its progress.
Analogy 3: The energy beam
At other times, I imagine that a sexual thought or image is something that I can lock onto with my attention, like with one of those energy beams that the Ghostbusters use. The energy beam makes the sexual thought grow and grow, but when I break the connection, it stops growing, and starts to shrink. Of course the instant a sexual thought, image or cue enters my mind, my attention automatically locks onto it. That’s because I like those thoughts. They make me feel good, and I want to lock onto them and see them grow. But these days, the instant I realise that I have locked onto a sexual thought, I turn away and lock my energy beam onto something else, and break the connection to the sexual thought, image or cue. Then the sexual thought gradually shrinks and vanishes.
All of these different metaphors are just my attempts to explain the one process, as I perceive it in my mind. Although I have gone into some detail about what seems to be a lengthy process, in actual fact, when I do this, it is an almost instantaneous reaction of detaching my focus from the sexual thought and redirecting my attention elsewhere. It takes about half of a second. The descriptions I have given are what you might see if you zoomed right in and put the thought process into extreme slow motion. Another forum user explained it much more succinctly:
So, if you start thinking of porn, just open your eyes wide (physically), pay attention to your surroundings, and then start thinking about them or something else.
I should really learn to write this concisely.
I’ve included below another technique, quite different to mine. I can’t verify its effectiveness, as I’ve never used it, but if it works for this forum user it might work for others.
If you read something or see something that makes you start thinking about masturbating (or if you’re just lying in bed and start thinking), you have to pull these thoughts out of your head. I mean literally PULLING them out of your head. So what I do is I grab an invisible rope on the side of my head (this rope is my masturbation fantasies). Then I start pulling the invisible rope out of my head. Then I throw it away. For me it also works to grab the thought, like DIGGING the thought out of my head, then when I am holding it in my hand, I throw it away. I repeat this action for a moment, maybe 30 seconds. (edited for punctuation, grammar and slang)
Although this technique is different to mine, in that it seeks to actually remove a thought rather than just sideline or ignore it, I’ve included it because it is dealing with the desire to masturbate at the thought level.
Practising the technique
Now that you have an idea of what it might look like to ignore or turn away from a sexual thought, image or cue, you can practise it the next time you notice that you are aroused. Try to catch the arousal at the very initial stage, the instant you start to feel curious about, or a pull towards, something sexual. When you notice even the slightest arousal, try to locate and identify what is actually going on on your body. Is there a warm, tingly feeling just above your stomach? Or in your groin? If you’re a guy, do you have an erection? Try to specify what is going on, and what you are feeling, physically. These are all the effects of endorphins in your blood stream. Then identify what the sexual thought, image or cue was that triggered the release of these endorphins in the first place. Is there an idea in your brain that is taking you for a ride? Did you see something and you are holding the image in your mind? Or did a bodily urge make you think about sex or masturbation? Do what I have suggested above to try to sideline that thought, image or cue – ignore it and focus completely on something else. Then check back in in an hour to see how you feel (maybe set an alarm to remind you to check back, because you don’t want to have to keep thinking about it). In an hour, if the physical effects (warm tingly feeling in the stomach etc) are gone, then congratulations, you have successfully prevented the further release of endorphins and terminated the arousal process, just by using your mind. Simply repeat this process whenever you notice arousal or become aware that you are dwelling on a sexual cue.
But if you find that in an hour you still feel aroused physically, then your mind is probably dwelling on the sexual cue. Even if you think that you are focussing on something else, you might be secretly keeping a part of your focus on the sexual cue. That’s understandable, because part of your brain really likes that thought and wants it to stick around. Part of your brain thinks that something good is going to come of it, and wants to keep the idea alive. So make sure that you tell yourself that you’re not going to gratify your arousal, and that you’re not going to masturbate. At least not today. Maybe tomorrow, but not today. “Sorry brain, it ain’t gonna happen. May as well forget about it.” Instead, visualise yourself in an hour’s time feeling 100% relaxed and un-aroused, without any desire to masturbate. Having accepted that nothing ‘good’ will come of this sexual thought today, get back to whatever else you were doing – completely refocus your mind on something else. So long as the arousal persists, keep practising turn your mind away from the sexual cue. Your brain will repeatedly want to go back to that sexual thought, however, because it’s a lot more interesting than your homework, but every time it does, just say, ‘Uh uh’, and turn back to your homework. Starve the thought and it will die.
Whatever you do, don’t fear the arousal, it’s actually a great opportunity to practice the very skill you want to develop. See the arousal as a welcome and necessary sparring partner. You will know that you have succeeded when you realise that the physical arousal is gone (it usually takes 30-60 mins after completely ceasing to dwell on the sexual image, thought or cue). Until that happens, keep trying! You will get it eventually.
One example of what not to do (perhaps think of your own examples)
In contrast to ignoring a sexual thought, image or cue, as described above, often when I was tempted to masturbate in the past, I would find myself ‘struggling against’ the temptation in a really, really stupid way. I would think to myself, “OK, I have just had the idea of masturbating, I wonder if I should do it or not? I probably shouldn’t, but let’s consider the pros and cons. The ‘pros’ are that it will feel really good. How will it feel? Well, let me think about what it feels like. Let me imagine myself masturbating and what I will be thinking of, and how it will make me feel (after all, I need to have an accurate idea of what the positive benefits of masturbation will be in order to make a good decision here).” Of course, by this stage I am completely aroused to the point where my prefrontal cortex is probably already shut down, and all the long-term, rational reasons I have for not masturbating are nowhere to be found. Game over.
Imagining or anticipating a potential actual sexual encounter (including masturbation) is one of the strongest sexual cues that exists. By ‘weighing up the pros and cons’, what I am really doing is dwelling on a massive sexual cue which leaves me so aroused that I am beyond the point of no return, though I don’t realise it. I kid myself that I am simply thinking through the ‘pros’ of masturbation, but then when I get to assessing the ‘cons’, well, long-term commitments just don’t seem so important anymore. Consequences in the middle to long-term future seem so far away. The cumulative effect of many of these sorts of actions is not such a big deal, because after all, “It’s just this one last time. And I’ll start over tomorrow.” I’m already beaten, and I don’t even know it. I think I’m being rational and I’m in control, but I’m a dead man walking.
The lesson is, don’t even think about masturbating, because when you do, you will get aroused. And the more aroused you are, the more you want to keep thinking about masturbation, which then makes you more aroused. It’s a positive feedback loop. So don’t even think about thinking about masturbation. Think about something else instead.
So now when I have the idea to masturbate, rather than projecting forward and imagining the act of masturbation in detail, I freeze the thought at the initial concept stage, perhaps limiting the thought to no more than the very word ‘masturbation’ – certainly not allowing that initial word or concept to flesh itself out into a more real or detailed mental scenario. At all costs I refuse to follow the cue or sign forward, to what it is pointing to. I freeze the process, and either backtrack to the previous thought, think about something else, or just back away very slowly. Whatever I do, I don’t follow the rabbit down the hole.
Well, I hope I haven’t bored you with too much detail, but since this practice seemed to be the key to my recent success in avoiding porn, sexual fantasy and masturbation, I thought I ought to explain it in more detail, rather than just saying ‘don’t think about sex’.
In summary, the key is to ignore the sexual thought, image or cue, and to turn your attention away from it. Turn the mind to something else, and don’t worry if the sexual thought remains in the background of your mind. It will go away by itself if you refuse to pay it any more attention.
Did I mention that this technique has many applications in other areas of life too? Are you stressing about something that you can’t control, and therefore don’t really need to think about? Just ignore it. Are you depressed about something that you can’t change? Just ignore it. Are you angry about something that you don’t want to be angry about? Just ignore it. Since quitting porn, sexual fantasy and masturbation over two months ago, I have found myself using this same technique to control sadness, anxiety and anger, to great positive effect. Don’t repress or ignore your emotions altogether though. If you’re angry or sad about something for good reason, acknowledge it. And if there’s a healthy way to express it, then express it. If your anxiety is telling you to take action, take it. If you’re constantly worried, look for the source and seek change. But sometimes there are things that we’ve thought about, and we know that we shouldn’t let them bother us, but they still do. Or maybe it’s something that we just can’t do anything about or express in a healthy way. Perhaps it’s an obsessive thought that you can’t stop thinking about but which is affecting your mood negatively. Sometimes it is just better to let it go. And I’ve found this to be a great way to do this.
If you have any questions at all, comment below and I will get back to you!