BDSM and Depression: Therapy or Self-Harm?

Woman_on_Spanking_Bench_by_MaltesteLast Tuesday (4/26), The folks of @sextalktuesday held a discussion facilitated by @taylorjmace about kink and BDSM being used as a therapeutic recovery method for those dealing with trauma. Since I have no connection to trauma and only experience depression and anxiety, I felt my thoughts about my own relationship to BDSM would be better suited for a personal blog post rather than chiming into the conversation with something off-topic.

Important: These are my personal experiences with BDSM and kink. I am not declaring all BDSM a form of therapy nor of self harm. People have healthy and happy relationships with BDSM, and for the most part, I do too. However when it comes to dealing with depression and anxiety in my kinky play, ethics get a little fuzzy. This post discusses questions I’ve been asking myself lately, and almost none of them have answers.

The first time my partner and I talked about BDSM and kink was when I asked him what his favorite genre of porn was. We had been dating for only about a month, so he was embarrassed and shy when he admitted he liked “rougher stuff”. I remember feeling my insides light up with glee after hearing those words. I pressed for details, asking him if he wanted to try anything he had watched, what he particularly liked, and what he wasn’t so into. We discussed hair pulling and pinning one another down and being tied up. This began our journey into BDSM. We learned we were both switches, devised creative and inexpensive ways to practice our passion, and began exploring impact play. I discovered that I love being hit. I crave thuddy spanks rather than stinging slaps, and although we have yet to purchase a tool that would work for impact play elsewhere on the body than the buttocks, I crave to feel a bit of pain everywhere. For the most part, I love BDSM because it’s fun. It allows a more diverse sex life, incorporating different emotions and power dynamics and mixing pleasure with pain. It helps build trust between us, which contributes to increasing and strengthening our relationship as a whole.*

I started to question my relationship with BDSM during depressive downswings and moments of extreme stress and anxiety. I began to notice that it was during these times that I craved impact play the most, and at a more intense degree. I became worried. I wondered if this a type of self-harm, even though I was consensually having someone else hurt me rather than inflicting pain directly upon myself. I began taking note of my feelings more closely. I noticed that sometimes my desire to be hurt was particularly to be hit by my partner. This was when I had upset him. His negative emotions could be because of an argument or disagreement, or because I had said something offhand that was accidentally hurtful. Regardless as to what the hurt feelings were about, I would get upset as well, and want him to hit me. This would be consensually and safely on the buttocks, and with our safewords in place, but hit me nonetheless. I suppose this could be a desire for punishment, or a desire to even the score (I hurt you so you can take it out on me), but I suspect it may be more and recognize these thoughts as unhealthy.

Whenever I hurt someone’s feelings or someone I care about is upset with me, I spiral. Thoughts start turning and everything gets blown out of proportion. I end up with a big bucket of self-loathing in my gut, and my thoughts take it from there. I repeatedly tell myself that I am a horrible person, that I don’t deserve my partner, and that I hate myself. I realize that this is selfish, and that I should be trying to comfort and talk things out with my partner, but that makes me hate myself even more. Then the cycle of self-loathing and guilt keeps turning. This spiraling effect also happens when I go through a depressive or anxiety episode unrelated to a disagreement with my partner, and ends in the same conclusion. I desire pain. Mentalhelp.com lists six reasons why people self- harm:

1. “Distract themselves, alter the focus of their attention, or regain control over their minds when experiencing pressing, unavoidable and overwhelming feelings or thoughts.

2. Release tension associated with strong emotions or overwhelming thoughts.

3. Feel something physical when they are otherwise dissociated and numb.

4. Express themselves or communicate and/or document strong emotions they are feeling and cannot otherwise articulate.

5. Punish themselves.

6. Experience a temporary but intense feeling of euphoria that occurs in the immediate aftermath of self-harm.”

I’ve never self-harmed in the usual sense, but some of my underlying reasons for engaging in BDSM are mirrored in these reasons for self-harming. In the instance of desiring this pain during episodes of self-loathing, reasons 1, 2, 4, and 5 could definitely be at hand.  Regardless of reasons, self-harm is a coping mechanism, albeit a harmful one. If BDSM is a coping method for me, I’m worried it may be harmful because of my reasons for doing it. However, distracting oneself, releasing tension, expressing oneself, and experiencing natural brain-chemistry induced “good feels” aren’t themes that are tied to only self-harm, and could instead be beneficial and therapeutic reasons to engage in BDSM.

Although part of me wonders if I mentally crave self-harm, the other part considers that my body may physically crave the brain chemicals that are released from experiencing pain and pleasure. This would make my relationship with BDSM not a form of self-harm, but a form of therapy. Ever heard of a “runner’s high”? Exercise is commonly recommended for treating those with depression, anxiety, or other mental ailments. Not only does exercise keep your body healthy, it causes your brain to release endorphins, little chemicals that make you feel happy. Sexual activity and pain also cause endorphins to be released. Maybe my need for pain in times of sorrow stems from a biological craving of endorphins to make me happy. Maybe it isn’t craving to be punished, but healed. If doctors prescribe exercise to combat depression and anxiety, could BDSM work in a similar way? While looking for scientific and medical resources (spoiler alert: there aren’t a lot), I found this webpage that had a lot of tales similar to mine. Although it isn’t a scientific study, it is helpful to know I’m not alone in these thoughts.

Perhaps I crave not the pain itself, but the mental peace that comes with it. Two articles summarising different studies here (skip to 4), and here**, both compared the “altered headspace” of a BDSM scene similar to that of a practice of meditation or a runner’s high. When I engage in a BDSM scene, I only focus on what is happening in the present moment. I forget all my troubles and worries about the past present and future. My anxiety is temporarily erased as well as many emotions as all my attention is focused on the physical and mental sensations of play.

Its for all these reasons I’ve been questioning my relationship with BDSM. I suppose in the end perhaps it’s a tangle of all of these. The inter-brain chemical reactions and resulting altered headspace of a BDSM scene are tied together, and when researchers compare the results of a BDSM scene to those of exercise and meditation it sounds like a therapy method. When I examine the moments I desire pain, however, it makes me question my own motives. At minor lows, kink and impact play in particular is definitely beneficial, giving me a palpable boost in mood, but at times when depression or anxiety is so bad that I can’t get out of bed, I worry. Regardless of cause, I’ve taken to abstaining from playing at extreme depressive lows until I can decide whether engaging is more helpful or harmful. If you’ve had experience with anything resembling this, let me know in the comments, tweet me on twitter, or privately email me at sbedsprings@gmail.com.

 

*Just because BDSM works this way in my relationship doesn’t mean it will have the same effect for you. Vanilla sex is just as beautiful and wonderful and can build trust and love just as much. This is from my personal experience and isn’t meant to demean sex without kink. Different strokes for different folks!

**This resource fails to mention that there are many differing forms of BDSM, and that the practice isn’t limited to “Skin tight leather-clad outfits, whips, and chains”. In fact I’m a bit offended from the stereotype.

To read another post of mine about hormonal birth control and how if affected my anxiety and depression, read here.

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