The Psychology of Lust




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Carl Thomas

Pastor | Live Free Founder | Lover of Jesus, Philly sports, fitness, tattoos, sarcasm, and craft beers.

For those dealing with unwanted sexual behaviors, lust is a topic that comes up more often than not.

Mostly because it often operates as the precursor to acting out. And in the Christian world, we tend to approach lust as a sin issue that needs to be effectively managed. In other words, it is a matter of prayerful self-control.

But did you know there are often psychological factors such as attachment patterns, emotional regulation, and the brain’s reward system that contribute to these thoughts? Particularly noteworthy is the interplay between lust, pornography use, and past experiences as it relates to sexual desire and emotional well-being. 

As such, realize this reality is not meant to excuse or lessen the serious nature of lust. Nor do these factors change in any way the fact that lust is a choice, and we can choose better. But, these emotional and psychological influences are significant and should be considered when approaching the matter of lust and why it at times seems to be an undefeatable and unquenchable monster.

Here are 4 powerful psychological reasons that one may gravitate towards lust.


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1. Lust and Pornography

At the heart of lust lies the brain’s reward system, governed by neurotransmitters such as dopamine, which are highly involved in feelings of pleasure and motivation. Pornography, with its explicit content and novelty, can hijack this reward system, leading to heightened arousal and a reinforcing cycle of seeking out similar stimuli.

In other words, if you often watch porn that features fitness models, there is a good chance that fitness models or women who look like fitness models are going to trigger your desire to lust. 

Research by Voon et al. (2014) found that when people who struggle with compulsive sexual behaviors are shown sexual images, the parts of their brain linked to the rewards system become more active. This suggests that their brains react stronger to sexual cues compared to those without compulsive sexual behaviors.

2. Attachment Patterns and Emotional Fulfillment

Our attachment styles, shaped by early life experiences and relationships, also play a pivotal role in how we experience lust and seek emotional fulfillment. Individuals with insecure attachment patterns, such as anxious or avoidant attachment, may use lustful experiences as a way to cope with unmet emotional needs or alleviate attachment-related anxieties.

The work of Mikulincer and Shaver (2016) delves into the intricacies of adult attachment, highlighting how attachment structures influence intimacy, emotional regulation, and relationship dynamics. Understanding one’s attachment style can offer valuable insights into patterns of lustful behavior and emotional fulfillment.

3. Coping Mechanisms and Distorted Cognitions

For some individuals, engaging in lustful thoughts or behaviors serves as a form of emotional regulation and coping. In the face of stress, emotional discomfort, or maladaptive cognitions, lust promises a way to escape that provides temporary relief or distraction. This coincides with the observations of Carnes and Adams (2002) who point out that distorted thoughts and certain ways of coping can perpetuate addictive behaviors related to lust and watching pornography.

4. Societal and Cultural Influences

Societal norms, cultural beliefs, and peer influences also shape attitudes towards lust and sexual desires. Messages from media, entertainment, and social interactions contribute to the normalization or stigmatization of lustful tendencies, impacting how individuals perceive and express their desires.

Again, these factors do not excuse one’s decision to lust. Unlike what some books will tell you, lust is not an inevitability. But, if you understand the psychological underpinnings of lust, especially in the context of pornography use and attachment patterns, you can then work on these issues possibly with a therapist.

That way you can feel empowered to navigate your desires mindfully while cultivating fulfilling, authentic connections rather than relying on lust-management techniques that may or may not work for a time.

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Carnes, P. J., & Adams, K. M. (2002). Clinical management of sex addiction. Psychology Press.

Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2016). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change. Guilford Publications.

Voon, V., Mole, T. B., Banca, P., Porter, L., Morris, L., Mitchell, S., … & Irvine, M. (2014). Neural correlates of sexual cue reactivity in individuals with and without compulsive sexual behaviours. PloS one, 9(7), e102419.


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