Can Bondage Play Reduce Anxiety?

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The B in BDSM is having a moment. Fifty Shades of Grey, the film version of which is opening on Valentine’s Day, has sparked a loud cultural discussion about kinky sex. FKA Twigs is into bondage, too, and HBO’s new show Togetherness has also dabbled. Given that more than half of all men and women admit to having some sort of domination-and-submission-related fantasy, it’s unsurprising that pop culture is starting to reflect — and spark increased interest in — what was once a rather taboo subject.

Whatever one thinks of BDSM, given the pain and intensity associated with it, it certainly doesn’t come across as a stress-reducing activity — to most outsiders, there wouldn’t appear to be anything relaxing about whips and handcuffs. And yet practitioners say that BDSM is more than just kinky sex. Some practices, they argue, can enhance the psychological well-being of their participants. And recent science has started to support these claims, suggesting that certain forms of BDSM may have anti-anxiety effects, as well as other mental health benefits.

The transformative effects of bondage are well known within the BDSM community. “We call it ‘rope space,’” says Roxie, who leads the New York chapter of Hitchin Bitches, a rope bondage group for women. Also called “subspace” or being “rope drunk,” submissives describe entering an altered state of consciousness in which one feels totally released from stress and present in the moment.

There’s this ripple through your body. It’s like a drug,” said Christy, 23, who was tied up at a recent fetish party at a bar near the base of the Williamsburg Bridge in Manhattan. A Lynchian red light bathed the scene as a tall person with a husky voice in a white gimp mask and full body latex French maid outfit stood watching a few feet away. Christy looked dazed and dreamy as her partner, Dan, a banker, wound rope first around her waist and then in a tight criss-cross pattern down her leg. They were practicing Kinbaku, or Shibari, a form of Japanese rope bondage popular in some BDSM circles in which subjects are intricately bound and manipulated into strenuous positions, sometimes while suspended in midair.

Once the rope was unwound, the spell seemed to lift quickly. There were indentations on Christy’s thigh, and while bound her skin had bulged around the rope’s edges — yet despite the physical stress involved, Christy’s bliss is a common experience during this type of activity. While subspace can supposedly occur during any type of bondage or submissive activity, practitioners say it’s most easily achieved through rope. “It’s very tactile, very sensual, more so than say handcuffs or other forms of bondage,” said “Ratie,” an international-relations expert at a large NGO and longtime BDSM practitioner, at another bondage event on a recent Friday evening (she didn’t want her real name used).

I do a lot of yoga and meditation,” she said. “I think rope can have the same effect. When you’re tied up it’s like you’re not responsible for anything else that happens and there’s a sense of freedom in that. It’s one of the few moments where I don’t have to worry about all of my responsibilities.”

It’s presence. It feels like an opportunity to completely let go and to be completely present at the same time,” said Gorgone, a 22-year-old Shibari model who was tied up that night. “There’s a certain release from anxiety you get from it. Some people do it by drinking. They are looking for something that is going to take them away from themselves,” she said. With bondage, though, she said the high is also clearer and perceptions can become sharper — closer to a state of mindfulness than inebriation.

Doms are supposed to experience a corresponding mental state called “topspace,” described as feelings of deep focus and concentration. Both doms and subs say that they feel closer and more emotionally attached to their partners after engaging in BDSM.

Although preliminary, there is growing scientific support for some of the BDSM community’s observations. In a study from 2013, researchers surveyed 902 BDSM practitioners and 434 “vanilla” people, asking them questions about their personality, relationships, attachment styles, and general well-being. Practitioners of bondage reported less neuroticism, a trait similar to anxiety, and more security in their relationships than people strictly into vanilla sex. Since this was a survey, it doesn’t show that BDSM activities caused these effects, but it does indicate that people who practice BDSM seem to be calmer and more comfortable in their relationship than people who don’t, lending some weight to the idea of a link.

There may also be something to the notion that BDSM can induce altered states of consciousness. In a study published last year, researchers at Northern Illinois University recruited 14 switches — people who enjoy playing the roles of both dom and sub — and randomly assigned each to one of the two roles. Then, after the participants participated in their preferred BDSM activity, they took the Stroop Task, a common test of mental acuity, and answered questions about their mental state before and after the event. The Stroop Task involves identifying color words presented in colors other than those words (e.g., red written in blue ink), and is supposed to measure executive function skills like memory, attention, and self-control. Subs experienced a significant reduction in their scores on the Stroop task after engaging in their BDSM act compared to before — something that was not seen in doms.

This temporary mental dimming may be evidence of submissive BDSM activity leading to an altered state, said Brad Sagarin, a professor of social and evolutionary psychology at Northern Illinois and leader of the main research group studying BDSM there. Pain or restriction from BDSM activities could cause blood to rush away from certain areas of the brain, including the part of the frontal lobe where the executive function skills tested in the Stroop Task are housed, he explained. “This may also help to explain some similar states of altered consciousness: things like runner’s high, some kinds of drug effects, meditation,” he said. 

We think that may be one of the things that functionally bottoming does for people,” Sagarin said. “It lets people let go for a while. You’re put in a position where you don’t have control and that is actually pretty freeing. You can just relax and go with it.” In other words, like meditation and certain forms of exercise (under the right conditions), subbing could induce states in which the part of your brain responsible for, say, writing intelligible work emails shuts down a bit, and as a result, other, more spiritual feelings of flow and connectedness take hold instead.

Other physical and hormonal changes may also contribute to the sensation of subspace. In both the 2014 experiment and another pair from 2009, Sagarin and his team took saliva samples from participants at various points as they engaged in BDSM activities. Both bottoms and tops consistently had lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, after engaging in their BDSM act than before. During the act, however, bottoms’ cortisol levels increased before coming down considerably at the end. But even when their physical stress was high, subs reported low psychological stress. The disconnect between mental and physical stress may explain some of the out-of-body experiences and sensations of floating and time distortion that people report during subspace, Sagarin hypothesizes. (In a follow-up email, he said he would not expect to see the same changes in cortisol levels during vanilla sex, since rises in cortisol are primarily seen in situations with high novelty, low predictability and low control).

Doms may also benefit from BDSM, albeit less intensely. In the 2014 Stroop task experiment and more recent studies by Sagarin’s team, they report a heightened sense of control and accomplishment, or “flow,” during their fetish activity, similar to the description of “topspace” in the BDSM community. The studies also corroborated the feelings of enhanced relationship closeness frequently cited by both doms and subs.

Sagarin’s team hasn’t linked the apparent mental-health benefits of BDSM to any specific fetish activity, but various factors — including the length of the activity and the level of experience and trust between partners — may make them easier to achieve, he said. They are currently undertaking a larger study in which they hope to tease out more of the specifics.

This isn’t news to anyone in the BDSM community,” Sagarin said. “This is a group of people that has thought deeply about what it is they do. I think there are a lot of really good ideas and theories that merit scientific testing.”