Porn Recovery and The Mysterious Flatline

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"Discouraged guyThe grueling, mysterious initiation one endures but never speaks of"

"Flatlines… they are like being at a bottom of well and thinking you have no hope of getting out…. then one day just waking up and being out. So try and enjoy the peace and quiet of flatlines is my advice."

Our blog post Young Porn Users Need Longer To Recover Their Mojo describes a startling phenomenon: Guys in their early twenties with porn-induced erectile dysfunction typically need months longer to recover their sexual health than guys forty and older. Worse yet, the younger guys tend to linger far longer in the temporary "flatline"" (zero libido, "dead-dick"), which guys of all ages usually experience to some extent when recovering from porn-related ED. What does the flatline look like?

Nick: After a few days of brain tantrums (cravings), I went into a flatline for weeks. Basically I felt totally indifferent about girls, sex, everything. A little voice from the porn beast nagged at me in the back of my mind, but mostly, I just didn’t care. And my penis was very lifeless and small. It was like somebody just pulled the plug on whatever machine provides my sex drive. No libido at all.

Aaron: (Age 22) I've noticed the 'dead penis' syndrome whenever I try to quit porn/masturbation. After about 4-5 days my libido is absolutely shot and my penis shrivels up to nothing. It's terrifying actually.

Needless to say, many guys bail out of recovery at this point and rush back to their addiction, scared that they will permanently lose it if they don't use it. A few years ago, however, a 26-year old Australian kept going—and discovered that somewhere around week seven, his flatline ended and his libido (and erections) came back. Since then, many guys have documented their flatline experiences and their recoveries. We'll share some practical advice for coping with a flatline, but first...

What causes the flatline?

No one yet knows. It's likely that the flatline arises from a constellation of factors. Certainly everyone's flatline is somewhat unique in terms of severity and duration. Whatever its origins, it's a sign that Internet porn use has altered the flatliner's brain circuits in fundamental ways. Abstinence in otherwise healthy young men is typically not associated with a severe drop in libido  Remember the Seinfeld contest?

1. Is the flatline simply a variation of withdrawal symptoms?

We first assumed the flatline was just a different version of standard withdrawal blues. Recovering porn addicts report surprisingly severe withdrawal symptoms, not unlike drug addicts. When any addict quits an addiction, predictable neurochemical and cellular changes occur in specific brain regions. This cascade of withdrawal-related neurochemical alterations may include: 

  • further decline in dopamine levels
  • further decline in opioids and endorphins
  • drop-off in GABA, which is an anti-anxiety neurotransmitter
  • rise in brain stress hormones CRF and norepinephrine 
  • elevated dynorphin, which inhibits dopamine and lowers pleasure response

This combo could kill libido temporarily. With less dopamine, a desensitized reward circuit may not provide sufficient stimulation to men's erection centers in the brain. Less stimulation there means fewer nerve impulses traveling down the spinal cord to enable erections.

Not every guy who quits porn experiences a complete loss of libido at some point. However, the percentage of those who report flatlines is rising as the guys who started on highspeed comprise a growing portion of ED sufferers.

2. Is the flatline due to changes in the sexual centers of the brain unique to Internet porn use?

First, some background. All addictions cause the same general brain changes in key brain circuits. Chronically elevated dopamine in the reward center (nucleus accumbens) leads to accumulation of DeltaFosB, and addiction-related brain changes, such as decreasing sensitivity to dopamine (desensitization).

However, each natural reward (food, water, love or sex) also has its own dedicated micro-circuits in the brain. For example, overeating to obesity brings about additional alterations in the brain's regulation of feeding, satiation and metabolism. The central player is the hypothalamus—the pearl-sized control center for a multitude of important body functions—including both hunger and sexual desire.

It may be that long standing porn addiction similarly alters deep brain structures that govern male sexual behavior (hypothalamus) as well as the brain circuits devoted to erections. We know that erections require adequate dopamine in the reward circuit and the male sexual centers. Recently, Italian researchers' brain scans of guys with "psychogenic ED" (as opposed to "organic ED," which arises from issues below the belt) revealed atrophy of the grey matter in their brain's reward center (nucleus accumbens) and the sexual centers of the hypothalamus.

Grey matter is where nerve cells communicate, and less grey matter indicates fewer dopamine-producing nerve cells and fewer dopamine-receiving nerve cells. In other words, the study is evidence that psychogenic ED is not psychological, but rather physical. It comes down to low dopamine and dopamine signaling. These findings align perfectly with the hypothesis I put forward two years ago in this Porn & ED slideshow.

Years of overconsumption of Internet porn may weaken dopamine signaling in the hypothalamus in ways that do not occur in other addictions. Such changes could help account for stubborn ED (and lingering flatlines) in healthy young men.

Certainly many of today's porn users reports loss of attraction to real partners, morphing sexual tastes, loss of libido, and sexual dysfunction with a partner (delayed ejaculation, erectile dysfunction and even premature ejaculation with a somewhat flaccid penis). Some have seen more extreme changes:

Karl: If I watched porn, I had a strong enough erection...although for years it was getting weaker without my realizing it. With porn I think my erection [alone] satisfied me.

Jake: Porn doesn't actually require an erection to continue delivering stimulation. I wonder if my flaccidity means I have weakened the connections between my brain's pleasure pathways and erection pathways. Maybe my brain learned erections weren't necessary for pleasure.

3. Is the flatline due to classic rewiring (sexual conditioning)?

Guys who started out masturbating to Internet porn need longest to heal from the flatline, which shows that they are doing something very different from guys who didn't. In some of those who started on the Internet flatlines recur for the first year or so of their recovery. This is not the case with guys who started out masturbating to fantasies of real partners or magazines.

The guys who start young on Internet porn also generally have more trouble responding sexually to real partners. This may be because they spent their adolescence wiring exclusively to videos, endless novelty and a voyeur's detached, visual perspective. Adolescence is a key window when mammalian brains are primed to adapt their mating behavior to arousing cues in the environment. Thereafter, brains begin to prune away unused circuitry—perhaps the very circuitry related to the pursuit of real partners, which would have been thoroughly developed in these guys' ancestors. (More on sexual conditioning.) 

Tim: What you're likely wondering is, "For the love of god does the ED get better or am I torturing myself for no reason?!" I wondered that too. The answer is 'kind of,' then 'Yes!' What you're likely going to experience once you do engage in sex is your brain saying, "What the hell?" It is not used to actual sex as its primary way of being sexual. Real contact begins the "rewiring" process. You will be re-sensitizing yourself to actual sex. Death-grip masturbation sound familiar? Sex is nowhere close to that, and that's a good thing because sex after rebooting and rewiring feels WAY BETTER. Can't even describe it in words. So there will be a rewiring process where you may sputter and have a few backfires but eventually you fire on all cylinders. Now? Zero ED, I don't even have to think about it. In fact, I can think to myself "Man I hope my erection doesn't go down. Wow, it's still not going down and I'm not even focused on sex, wow, yep...still there...yep."

4. Is the flatline the body's attempt to recover from too frequent ejaculation?

Guys with the most stubborn flatlines often describe a decline into years of masturbating out of boredom or fear of the flatline, rather than horniness:

Ian: I went through a long phase of sluggish libido, just doing porn because I had nothing better to do. I literally felt no buzz or excitement, and the end result was hit or miss.

James: (Age19) I started masturbating once a day on average since 6th grade. I NEVER get the urge to fap now. I just learned that I'm able to 'rub one out' and it's pleasurable. Of course, this was possible because of unlimited porn available on the Internet. I am aware that a lot of people have sex all the time and don't develop ED, but on the other hand, I know few people my age who watch tremendous amounts of porn every day and have normal sex lives.

Tyler: I was in college, had a ton of free time and was away from my girlfriend, so I watched A LOT. All of a sudden one day I couldn't keep it up anymore and had zero libido, so I stopped watching porn. But then I felt worse and my dick would shrivel, so I figured quitting porn actually made it worse and would watch again. And then, after I realized that couldn't be true and quit again, after about 8-10 days I would start to have a HINT of a libido and would watch porn again. For 6 years I've been slowly getting out of the flatline, and then slowly putting myself back in.

Relative percentage of androgen & estrogen receptorsResearch on male rats shows that ejaculating beyond the point of normal satiety causes some of the same symptoms and brain changes seen in rats using drugs to excess. Researchers believe the changes are a natural protective measure against overstimulation, which (ideally) works by temporarily putting on the brakes. When a rat hits sexual satiety, massive drops in androgen (testosterone) receptors, as well as sharp jumps in estrogen receptors, occur in the brain's reward circuitry and sexual centers.

It's possible that when porn users consistently override their natural sexual satiety mechanisms with the help of Internet porn, they cause similar plastic changes in their brains. Or perhaps this practice simply depletes a guy's mojo in ways that take time to heal:

Jeff: My theory: We started masturbating to Internet porn very young, kept doing it like crazy until we exhausted our minds and bodies. When you became exhausted, your brain and body enters sleep mode (that we call flatline) in order to recover so it can react to stimulation again. If we had let it rest back then it would probably been a flatline of only a few days before things returned to normal. But we didn't let it rest. Despite being in a flatline, we used porn to continue until we reached the bottom. So now it won't take a few days for things to recover. It will take a few months or even a year in some cases. But it will pass.

Not everyone finds the flatline disagreeable

For some it's powerful:

Chad: Letting desire go feels good. It's not that I want to be desire-less forever, but right now I'm having all the success I want with women. I don't have to get them in bed. Just having fun with them and fooling around is already success. And the women seem to appreciate that. And I, in turn, appreciate female contact more than ever. It helps so much in this process.

Sergio: I understand my flatline as a natural response of the brain to find sexual normalcy. Knowing that, I actually started liking the flatline because I kinda feel that my sexuality is not controlling me. I can focus on other things than sex and women. It's better than desperate craving.

Josh: Honestly, I think the scariest part of flatlines is the fact that you are without urges and truly face life with no buffer, no illusion of escape by consoling yourself with sexual arousal. It reminds me of when I quit my job and took most of a year off. For the first couple of months, I would have really anxious days. All I could think about were regrets and what-ifs. Working through those problems without that distraction was difficult, but incredibly important.

Toby: Flatlines are scary because they shatter a lie that we have bought for so long—namely that the world's "man" is hypersexual. He lives a life that is constant stream of sex. Multiple partners, sometimes at the same time, women begging for sex. He has a reputation as someone who can bed anyone and can fulfill her every sexual need. In our obsession, we spend great lengths of time watching porn. The flatline is uncharted territory for men, but it is part of the rebalancing process.

Recovery tips

Out-of-service guyBe consistent.  Those who recover fastest (“reboot”), are consistent in avoiding porn, porn fantasy, trolling Facebook, Craigslist and dating sites, sexting with hotties, and so forth. They also drastically reduce or eliminate masturbation and orgasm (temporarily). Choosing to mix in occasional orgasm with a partner is great, but if it's too soon, some men find it stalls their reboot.

Edging to Internet porn without orgasm is particularly detrimental, because 1) porn is the cause of ED, and, 2) dopamine levels are typically elevated for very long periods, which can foster desensitization.

Do not test. When your libido flatlines, or you have other symptoms such as “lifeless penis,” it is easy to panic and want to test yourself with porn to see if you can still force an erection.

Jed: Forcing or "checking" your erection process is counterproductive. Nine times out of ten it's not up to expectations and you get stressed out. You're not doing it for sexual reasons, which means you really aren't thinking the kinds of thoughts your penis should even respond to. The more you break down how faulty the logic is to "check" yourself, the better you'll understand that forced erection serves zero purpose and usually just discourages you.

Be courageous and patient. Remain in The Void until your body gives you signs that your brain and sexual responsiveness are back to normal, or until you sense it is time to kick-start your libido (below). Meanwhile, if you need help regulating your mood, try vigorous exercise, flirting, socializing with friends, meditation or even a cold shower regimen.

Do not overdo it when the moment arrives. Take it easy once you decide to reintroduce regular ejaculation. Several ejaculations in rapid succession have sent guys back into a flatline. If you severely sprained your ankle, would it make sense to play six hours of full court basketball the day after you abandon your crutches? At first, any orgasm or intense arousal can trigger a powerful “chaser effect," and if the result is a porn binge, it slows recovery. Masturbation to physical sensations alone, without intense stimulation, it is less problematic. Ideally defer it until later in the process.

Do not compare yourself with others. First, brains differ in their sensitivity and response to excess dopamine (stimulation). Your brain may have adapted more quickly, and may need more time to return to balance. Second, the numbed pleasure response, that causes desensitization, doesn't appear to be directly tied to hours of viewing according to research. It's tied to "intensity of experience."

If your flatline is not improving after months, and you sense you are stuck, try kick-starting your libido. If you used your adolescence to wire to Internet porn and/or death-grip masturbation rather than real (potential) mates, you may eventually need to make up for the training you missed. As you might expect, the most effective way to do this is in a relationship with a trusted partner who will engage in lots of affectionate contact without demanding sexual performance.

However, guys have also found various other techniques helpful: energy circulation exercises, regular sensual genital self-massage in the shower (not necessarily to climax) while focusing on touch, not fantasy, or simply one or two masturbations to climax (without porn/porn fantasy). For more suggestions visit this thread.

Mark: At day 120 I was concerned because my libido was still flatlining. I decided to masturbate with no porn or fantasy. Just my hand, and very light strokes at that. None of that anaconda-gripping. The point of this test was to see if I could get hard without any sort of external stimuli besides the feel. Well, I was VERY surprised. I was hard after about 2 seconds, and I mean really hard. I didn't last very long. I wasn't convinced, however, because I haven't masturbated in almost 4 months. I decided to try again today, this time with a condom. Well, I put the condom on no problem, was still extremely hard before and after, and had no problems finishing off in the condom. For those worried about their libido, you might be completely fine and just not know it. I figured that after a few months I would be walking around 24/7 with an erection, but we're not 15 anymore. I was actually considering seeing a doctor and having my testosterone levels checked, so this masturbation session saved me a couple hundred dollars! I now know that there is nothing physically wrong with me. You could try this at 60 or 90 days. If you can't get an erection from doing this, don't force it. You need more time to heal.

Dave: Sexually, I feel like I never felt before. My entire body feels alive sexually. I feel like I have a new playground to explore on my own or with someone else. Porn doesn't interest me anymore. I'd never planned to give up masturbation completely, but I've definitely learned when my body needs release compared to doing it out of boredom. I masturbated this morning and it was amazing. Another goal for my going 90 days was to regain the sensitivity in my penis from too tight of a grip masturbating. It has definitely returned, which I'm very happy about. I'm sure the healing process will continue. I've learned masturbation is not the big deal some people make it out to be. It has its place and time. I feel that I'm just starting to come into my sexual self for the first time at the age of 29, and can't wait to see what the future holds.

Recovery is generally gradual

Grant: After 1 week, it felt as if my penis had no life. That it basically was dead. I was afraid as hell. But after two-three weeks, the morning erections started returning. They were not strong at all (only like 20%) but they have improved and I would say they regularly are around 70% [at one month].

Dietmar: I have been at this off and on for 10 months, with some dating, masturbation and porn use in between, and I am now really feeling the progress. Lately, I have been less aggressive and won't move past kissing for the first few days. This is the first time I have rebooted where I didn't jump into a flatline after the first week or 2. I've had consistent morning wood since day 11. I think my dick is finally saying, "Dude I feel refreshed and ready to go!"

loving coupleLeo: I started NoFap 146 days ago along with quitting smoking, quit getting drunk, quitting smoking weed. The immediate benefits I had were definitely increased energy and an almost hyperactive feeling all the time. This last for all of about 2 weeks. I hit a flatline from day 15 to day 45. The flatline ended on the first wet dream I've had in probably 6 or 7 years. Everything has been steadily moving up since this then and it's f—ing great!

It's not always obvious that you have fundamentally recovered until you are with a partner:

Kent: When I didn't feel awesome libido at 8 weeks I got pretty worried, but everything worked out. Just keep going and you'll eventually get back. I really didn't start to feel truly recovered again until after I'd been with a girl. It opened the floodgates. The improvement between now and a few weeks ago is absolutely insane.

Hans: (Age 21) I didn't have spontaneous erections at all before meeting this girl [He had just had sex for the first time, quite successfully]. I'd get a tingly sensation down there sometimes, but that's it. AFTER having sex though, I sometimes get erections just holding her. Even just looking at her gets me going. I think some of us are just built differently and need an actual partner to really jump start the libido back to life.

Even after you start to notice signs of life, it's quite normal to see them followed by phases of sleepy-libido before you are completely back to normal. You may notice improvements for months. For example, one frequent sign of continued recovery is that the post-climax neurochemical wallop decreases:

Rob: I would go through 56 days of no PMO and, then, after I masturbated, I would feel off: empty, anxious, numbed out. But guess what? After these 6 months of no porn I can finally say I don't have to worry about mild/random depression anymore. A little brain fog is my only symptom now.

Ahmed: [After rebooting] Yesterday we were on the couch watching a movie, and she started kissing me. I was hard, and I knew it was a different erection, an old erection, a healthy, awake one, and guess what? We made love, without any ED, without any fantasies, and it felt like she was a new person I was discovering. Even I felt like a new person. Sex was not foggy anymore, and even after orgasm I didn't feel any sadness, just plain healthy satisfaction.

Conclusion:

There's still much to learn about the flatline phenomenon, but for now, self-reports are the best data we have. Although guys generally recover, today's young guys sometimes need longer and longer. In this audio interview, a 25-year old needed 9 months to respond normally in bed—and he had the luxury of a girlfriend.

Glen: It's different for everyone. Some guys flatline a long time, some don't, some never get one. It's difficult to gauge anything because this addiction is so new. Hopefully in a couple years we'll start to see some trends and be able to give better advice to those who have just quit. Unfortunately we're the pioneers in this.

For more information:

Links to Yourbrainrebalanced.com flatline discussions:

Link to a Reddit flatline discussion

Link to flatline material on yourbrainonporn.com

Growing scientific evidence of a lingering post-orgasm cycle (studies)

Comments

Having experienced it in three stages, I can tell you that flatlining is a strange phenomena, that quite frankly no one has been able to explain. It is a necessary stage to bring your hormones and neurotransmitter levels back to normal. When you masturbate, your dopamine levels shoot up, but as you ejaculate, prolactin overrides all levels of dopamine causing that lethargic, lazy, unmotivated feeling. The flatline is just the prolactin taking over, ridding you of any desire to pursue a sexual interest. Not because you don't want to, but because your body won't allow you. You brain is re- circuiting, healing all of the neuro pathways damaged by any porn use. It just takes time, don't get frightened when you hit it. If you're aware then it will be easier.

Also, during the flatline, there is virtually no feeling in the penis; i.e. no erections, no feeling whatsoever. You may feel the urge to fap just to see if everything is working. PLEASE DON'T, that is the worst mistake people make. Then it pretty much means you wasted 45 days for nothing.

http://www.reddit.com/r/NoFap/comments/1bptb5/my_90_day_journey_ama/c9940bb

Flatline: I started this 90 day period because of erectile dysfunction. I was actually flatlining a little before I started, but I kept masturbating because that was just a habit I had developed. Flatlines are a mixed blessing. No-one comes to nofap looking to castrate themselves, and that is exactly what a flatline feels like. Of course, it’s easier, since you don’t find yourself tempted as much, but it is a strong blow to your self-esteem. Understand, that if you are here because of ED, your sexual self-esteem isn’t that high anyway, see this as the world getting darker before the dawn. It will pass. I didn’t believe it would pass, I actually bought a subliminal messaging tape to help it pass less naturally. The tape did not help. Nofap did help. But still 90 days later my experience of erections is very different to what it was like when I was masturbating. I get morning wood, but not every morning, haven’t had it every morning since I was 19. I only noticed it getting better about 55 days in, I was sitting next to a beautiful blonde girl on a train. Our legs were touching and my arm was up around her seat, because I was stretching out as I like to, and she was leaning back into my arm. Strong erection for the duration of the ride next to this stranger. Remember that erections are good things, and even though they might be uncomfortable at times, like when you’re standing up to get off a train, they are not a problem. They are biological proof that you are a sexual being. And if you stick with nofap, your natural biological behaviours will return to you.

Flatlines should be seen as an opportunity. Hard as it might be, just ignore the flaccidity in your pants and focus on yourself. You have extra time now. 90 day report - ED cured