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Psychological safety in BDSM play, part 2 – Strategies

Welcome to part 2 of Psychological safety in BDSM play. In this part we discuss risk minimisation and some safety strategies. Miss out on part 1? You can read it first here.

 

In the same way that we work to minimise the physical risks of play, there are ways that we can minimise the emotional risks. One way to minimise the risks is to be aware of the kinds of play that are most likely to be major emotional hot spots. Scenes that are likely to trigger strong emotions for the majority of people are–

  • Humiliation
  • Age play
  • Military/interrogation scenes
  • Corporal punishment
  • Sensory deprivation/confinement
  • Consensual non consent

Humiliation play is one in particular that, in my experience, seems to catch people off guard. People are often surprised at the intensity of emotion that certain words can arouse in them. It’s all hot and sexy and fun until your Dominant uses that one word that your high school bully used to taunt you with every day. Like any other risky play, it’s a good idea to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. A good approach is to have a mix of proactive and reactive strategies available to you.

 

Proactive strategies –

 

Communication communication communication

Jay Wiseman has an excellent checklist available in his book SM101, and I highly recommend this as a good starting point to anyone beginning to play. It will help you to uncover your partners preferences, as well as problem areas and hard limits. Going through a checklist can be fun in itself, and usually uncovers something you can use for your dastardly purposes!

 In the same way that you should be asking your partner if they have any pre-existing injuries or medical conditions, you should be checking to see if they have any history of mental health issues or traumas that may be relevant to the session. Don’t rely on someone to tell you. Imagine you are doing a sensory deprivation session. You may need to ask specifically – have you ever had a panic attack? Have you ever experienced dissociation? Have you suffered from claustrophobia? Remember, this only works if you have already established that you are the kind of person who is not going to judge them for having mental health issues. How forthcoming do you really think someone with mental health issues will be if you have just finished telling them a story about that depressed friend of yours who just needs to “pull their socks up and get over it”?

 

Consent consent consent

When a person has suffered a psychological trauma, it is usually a result of someone violating their consent in some way. Violating someone’s consent in a small way, or even joking about violating their consent, can bring on intense feelings of panic for someone who has experienced this. Do your best to listen to your play partner’s requests and actively encourage them to use their safe word or say no if they need to. Never make jokes about safe words, denigrate someone who needed to use a safeword, or imply that maybe you won’t listen to them if they use a safe word.

 

Your behaviour matters

When someone experiences a flashback or panic attack, their reaction will be very different if it occurs in a safe, respectful environment. There is nothing that you can do about the fact that they are experiencing difficult feelings – but if you can create a calm, respectful and reassuring space it will pass much more quickly for them and be less severe. Building a rapport and creating a history of respectful behaviour towards the person you are playing with means that you are creating a psychologically safe space. Creating this space is like disinfecting your play room. It means that even if injuries do accidentally occur, at least they have occurred in a sterile environment. You can help people feel safe by looking after your own psychological health, doing your own reading about mental health issues and trauma, and working actively on your own communication skills.*

 

Reactive strategies

 

So you have done everything that you can, and your partner is still in psychological distress. What do you do? Depending on the personality and prior history of your play partner, they will be experiencing one of the following –

  • Panic attack
  • Flashback
  • Dissociation

To know the most helpful way to respond to these events, it is important to understand a little bit about the “alarm system” of the human body. When a person experiences a traumatic event, the body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated. The alarm goes off, and the SNS begins to prepare the body to fight or run away.

Given that, in much of our play, we are deliberately arousing the SNS, it is no wonder that sometimes the wires get crossed, and sexual arousal spills over into real panic.

 All of these reactions are simply symptoms of a sympathetic nervous system that has become too aroused. In order to assist with any of them, you need to calm down the persons sympathetic nervous system.

 

How to bring the SNS back to baseline

 

  • Stop playing immediately – take off the ropes, take off the collar and stop playing. This person’s emotional brain has taken over, and they are in no condition to be playing anymore.
  • Reduce intense stimulation – intense stimulation is usually what has led to the person being in this state. The less stimulation at this point, the better. If you can, take the person somewhere quiet and safe and private.
  • Slow breathing – fast, shallow breathing is the first reaction that occurs in the body as it prepares for a dangerous situation. Slowing your breathing down reverses this reaction, and sends a signal to the body that the danger has passed. Human beings have special “mirror neurons” in the brain that allow us to empathise with other people. Even if the person you are with has trouble slowing their breathing, they will subconsciously mirror the pace of your breathing. So when in doubt, act as a mirror – begin breathing at their pace and then gradually make your own breathing slower and more relaxed. Their breathing will automatically follow, without them even being aware of it.
  • Use grounding – Grounding is a technique that allows dissociated people to “come back to earth”. The brain can only focus on one thing at a time, so if you focus it on something neutral, it cannot remain panicked. A good example of a verbal grounding exercise is to ask the person to tell you about their day, backwards. They will need to concentrate to remember, and you can ask them to expand on neutral events, such as watching TV or eating breakfast.
  • If in doubt, call for help – While it’s great to have these skills up your sleeve, in the end it’s important that the person speak to a professional. The symptoms of a panic attack are similar to those of a heart attack, and unless the person has been physically examined you cannot be sure which is which. If in doubt, contact emergency services or your local hospital. It’s better to create a false alarm than to ignore a potentially serious situation.

 

We hope you have found this article useful. We will follow it up soon with a short, hand-out style summary of what to do in the event of a problem like this.

If you would like to keep abreast of future posts or special offers, you can join our mailing list below, or follow us on Twitter or Facebook.

Thank you,

Miss Pixie

*I highly recommend two things: Studying NVC (Non-violent communication), or even better find a course local to you! And attending a psychological first aid course (just search online for “Psychological first aid training”).

 

Some definitions:  Triggerdissociationtraumapanic attack, flashback, sympathetic nervous system

 

Crisis numbers (Please leave more in the comments so we can add to the list, thanks!)

UK

Samaritans: 08457 909090

NHS advice line: 111

Emergencies: 999

AUSTRALIA

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Lifeline crisis chat

Emergencies: 000

USA

Samaritans 24hour: 617 247 0220 and 508 875 4500

Emergencies: 911

About Stuniverse

Stuniverse is a very lucky person. He has been exploring kink and polyamoury for about 8 years, and both have dramatically changed his life for the better. A long time vegetarian, he made the happy leap to veganism at the beginning of 2014 and won't look back. Stuniverse is currently the driving force behind Ethical Kink, and brings a bunch of technical and business skills to the team. His interests and values include: feminism, ethics, personal development, meditation, veganism, activism, games, being a massive geek and writing about himself in the third person.
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