Tamika rubbed her temples as she struggled to describe what had happened to her between our therapy appointments.
“I don’t know how to think about this. My Dom did everything we talked about. He started slow with the flogger, moved on to the cane. Maybe he was striking harder than usual, but I liked what he was doing.”
Then she hesitated.
“I expected all that, and I was feeling very relaxed. Then, he started to pour the low-temp wax on my back and shoulders.”
She didn’t say anything and I let her sit in silence.
“Then, nothing. The next thing I knew, he was face to face with me asking questions. He felt like 100 miles away from me. It took me a long time to figure out what he was saying. He was really worried about me. As we talked, he told me something had happened. It was like I was in another world. He couldn’t get me even to respond to anything he was saying. Mike, help me! What happened to me?”
I was fairly certain she had entered into a deeper level of Subspace than most people experience when doing kink. But it still sounded like Subspace.
She confirmed that as far as she knew, nothing had proved to be physically wrong with her. She did have Impact Play bruises in all the expected places. Her heartbeat was regular and so was her energy level.
If anything, she had more energy the next day or two after the scene
with her play partner.
For those unaware of the term, “Subspace” is where an individual perceives a loss of Self that some people experience in BDSM play. There are a lot of theories as to what Subspace actually is, and I won’t delve into that with this article.
I personally have come to believe that Subspace is an Altered State of Consciousness (ASC) and can be understood and described using some new language developed recently in the field of Psychology.
I am a clinical psychologist, specializing in trauma and sex therapy. I have also
practiced kink in my private life for many years. I approach this topic of Subspace with personal and professional interest points.
In this article, I want to explore three psychological aspects of Subspace:
What happens chemically during Subspace
What happens psychologically during Subspace
How Subspace can help with our emotional well being
I am going to reference just a few of the many recent academic studies focused on Kink. Never has BDSM been studied so much by so many educated people. I believe this is because kink is now more popular with the general public than ever before.
A Danish study in 2017 reported that 70% of European adults had tried kink in the 2016 calendar year. Though the numbers may be smaller in the US, they are probably not that much smaller. Because people tend to under-report their sexual experiences even on anonymous surveys, we can safely assume that the majority of adults in America have tried some form of BDSM.
As a result, many academic studies are coming out from universities and research centers devoted to elements of kink.
I’m going to survey the results of several of these.
What Happens Chemically During Subspace
In brain research on human behavior, one chemical that scientists often look for is Cortisol. Typically, Cortisol is produced by the body when it is under stress. For a long time, neurobiologists assumed that was the only purpose of Cortisol.
But we now know it has other uses.
For instance, researchers at Northern Illinois University did a study where they had kinky people involved in a series of tests. These were all experienced Switches and were assigned the Top/Bottom roles randomly. They acted out various scenes and afterward were asked to describe how they felt.
Their blood was also drawn for study.
Regardless of what emotion they described, almost all had higher levels of Cortisol. Yet almost none of them reported any real stress. The same thing has been observed with people involved in extreme sports: High Cortisol and low stress.
It seems that consensual extreme activities—whether hang-gliding or ritual piercing—produce Cortisol and several other hormones associated with pleasure.
They also produce large amounts of adrenaline.
But researchers did notice a difference between tops and bottoms when they then gave them cognitive tests. The bottoms did more poorly the longer they were dominated.
The tops showed almost no difference, regardless of their Cortisol or Adrenaline levels.
So, what made the difference between the subs and the Doms?
The subs had one other chemical element: Endorphins.
The more pain their body experienced, the more their bodies produced Endorphins.
In a recent article in the “Journal of Positive Sexuality”, they discovered that something very interesting happens when you combine adrenaline, endorphins, and Cortisol.
The prefrontal cortex of the brain, the part responsible for a sense of Self, no longer works as well as it normally does. The article claims this is the chemical cause of Subspace.
But, of course, there is so much more to our minds than just the neurochemical
What Happens Psychologically During Subspace
One of my favorite combinations when I sub is for my Domme and I to set up a mix of increasing amounts of impact play pain with humiliation. No one does that more effectively with me than my life partner.
Recently, she was doing a Florentine pattern with a flogger, and I could mentally tell she was hitting harder with more snap. Then, she used a couple of the words that often trigger shame in me and bring my deeper
emotions to the surface.
After a few minutes, I realized she wasn’t striking me anymore.
So, I came out of the scene with her and we talked. She could tell I wasn’t reacting any more to the impact and my muscles had gone slack. That’s when she decided to stop.
“Mike, where did you go?”
I had to press my mind for details.
They were blurry to me.
During this Subspace experience, I had flashed on a time when I was young and being tortured by a babysitter. I have done significant processing with that memory. I didn’t have any PTSD reactivity from the memory; only a sense that I was now in control of my adult life and I wasn’t that boy any more.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized I wasn’t really “thinking” that much.
I was just “being.”
In psychology, we now refer to that state, where a person just exists and feels but doesn’t think, as “hypofrontality.” It is experienced in many places in life. But it is most often felt as people consensually enter situations where they allow their mind to become overloaded with sensory data.
Loud concerts with flashing lights, BDSM scenes, participating in contact sports, and even deep focused meditation will all produce this state.
In a well-known study, (Burmeister, 1997) masochists in controlled scenes were observed to lose a sense of their Self.
This is also known as Ego Depletion.
The author observes that “the physical and psychological arousal that BDSM participants derive from consensual painful or humiliating experiences in the context of a BDSM interaction can provide a temporary, beneficial escape from the stress and burdens associated with an individual’s daily life and identity.”
In other words, the pain and humiliation allow the bottom to stop thinking so much and just focus on sensations and arousal.
This is one type of hypofrontality.
The loss of Self also brings with it a loss of anxiety, a loss of stress, a loss of responsibility, and even identity.
Another author refers to this as “transient hypofrontality” because it doesn’t last. If it did last much longer than a scene, it could be uncomfortable. This might be the explanation of why some people also experience “sub drop” after a scene. They have experienced too much ego depletion and need to be brought back to Self.
Curiously, the loss of hypofrontality can also be experienced by Tops.
But it is much different. There is no real sense of ego depletion, but the top may get into the scene so much that they also cease from over-thinking the process. This resembles what a long- distance runner may experience during a long race.
The repetition of the movements causes the brain to stop using the pre-frontal cortex and just rely on learned body movements.
Several years ago, running expert and physiologist, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi, identified this in athletes AND dominants. He referred to it as “flow.”
Flow is the sense of being in the zone with a physical activity so much that you get carried along with it. But there is no loss of Self. The mind simply turns off the thought process and the concentrates on instinctual body movements.
This can happen dancing as well.
The bottom experiences loss of Self and the top experiences Flow.
And both can happen at the same time.
No wonder BDSM is attracting more and more people.
How Subspace Can Help Our Emotional Well-Being
Though Subspace is hardly a recognized therapeutic method in our world, I have no qualms saying that it may have healing power for some people. Not only have I seen its advantages to my own life, but I have also observed the power of kink in the lives of my clients and friends.
Here are 6 benefits I can see from Subspace and kink in general.
- For those with childhood trauma, and who are constantly affected by the pain of
those events, the sub experience in Subspace can help alleviate the pain for a
period of time. It is like a reset of the Self. Once the Self is reset, the sub can
emerge from the scene feeling stronger and more aware.
- If the domme and sub are aware of the nature of Subspace, the domme can
safely monitor how deeply the sub goes in. This is different than other activities
where the person entering hypofrontality is often doing it solo.
- Because a sub has a safe word, they are in charge of the process from start to
finish. This potentially allows them to relax enough to enter Subspace more fully and find its benefits.
- The simultaneous release of endorphins with adrenaline can often relieve chronic
physical pain experienced in areas of the body not impacted by Impact play.
- Trusting a domme/top with your safe keeping while you enter Subspace will help to grow in the ability to trust. For those who have been abused earlier in life, theability to trust anyone for any length of time is helpful.
- Subspace does not seem to bring anxiety with it. The break from the parts of our
psyche that carry anxiety is often all some people need to feel more in control.
Though not every person experience positive results from Subspace, it is worth noting that many people do. The brain can use the BDSM platform to meet its needs quite effectively.
Links for Deeper Information:
You can find the author on socials: Twitter @sacwriter & FetLife @CarefulDaddy