“Ouchie! – No, Don’t Stop!” – Is Painplay Self-Harm?
I have a lot of anxiety. I am not talking about being worried or being stressed. Those are of course also quite frustrating experiences but they might not reach the intensity of emotions that anxiety can create. I get flashbacks, I get panic attacks and I go into full-blown anxiety that has me crying and shaking. I have anxiety every day. It is a symptom of my mental illnesses and while I know all the lovely coping strategies out there, sometimes, they are just not enough. I can do breathing exercises, I can do mindfulness, colouring, distract myself, I can do physical exercise, I can try to question my automatic thoughts. I even know about all the great grounding exercises. A lot of times, those things make it easier for me. I am not writing this post to whine about how badly I am struggling. It is okay, it is nothing new for me and it is something I will have to deal with for the rest of my life.
I used to self-harm. There is a lot of stigma around self-harm because people in general can not fathom the idea that someone would inflict harm to their own body for relief. But physically, biologically and chemically, it makes sense. You refocus, your brain gets flooded with endorphins and you can breathe out. People self-harm for a ton of reasons: to handle overwhelming emotions, to express self-hatred, to actually feel anything at all. There is not one cause, one motivation, same as there is not one way to self-harm. It can even develop into an addiction, because of the endorphins. You can stuck in cycles that you are unable to break: you have overwhelming emotions, so you self-harm, which after the initial relief will make you feel bad about yourself and you end up with overwhelming emotions again, and back to self-harm you go! And it is not only that: you end up with scars, you end up with the stigma and looks from other people. And the sad thing is: there is almost nothing as effective and fast when it comes to relief of overwhelming emotions. Everything else might seem very much like small drops of water trying to extinguish a fire. I don’t self-harm anymore, for a variety of reasons. It is not because my anxiety has improved. It is more because the long-term negative effects of it are not something I want to have to handle. I have had way too many concussions, I have enough scars.
I have had some concerns when I started realizing how much of a masochist I am in my BDSM dynamics. For a while I was quite worried that I was doing something unhealthy. I was thinking in terms of self-harm by proxy. I allow someone else to hurt me, instead of taking the more stigmatized route of hurting myself. Pain floods your brain with endorphins and they can have a similar effect on you like opiods and morphine. And for me, and a lot of other masochists I assume, it even has an arousing effect. But it is the endorphins that help you to breathe out, to slide into subspace from pain.
Intentions, Context and Effects – The Differences Between Painplay and Self-Harm
So I had these worries about it maybe being another unhealthy coping mechanism. But then I realized that it is all about the intentions, the safety, and the effects long-term and short-term. Therapeutic spanking is something that a lot of people engage in. It is basically a way to release stress, to break overwhelming emotions. I have read accounts of people needing a spanking after a stressful and overwhelming day. How much different is that from having anxiety and wanting relief? In the end, anxiety is just a more intense form of stress and worries. They are in the same ballpark, right? So feeling the need to be spanked because you are so tensed up and overwhelmed by anxiety, so you are able to breathe out: isn’t that therapeutic spanking as well?
For myself, I have come to the conclusion that enjoying pain in a BDSM context is not self-harm by proxy. My intentions to engage in painplay are very different from the intentions I had when I was self-harming. I want to engage in painplay because it arouses me, because I enjoy it. I never enjoyed self-harm. Instead there was a strong guilt and self-hatred involved. It was a result of panic and overwhelming emotions. Painplay, on the other hand, is never connected to feelings of guilt or shame for me. I think it has to do with the context.
It happens in a safe context, with another person. It happens consensually. The intention is to enjoy each other, to please each other in different ways. There are no negative connotations. The relief from anxiety is more of a positive side-effect of something that is enjoyable on its own. The safety aspect is very important. We are both in a mindspace where we agree to what we are about to do, we are both engaging in something that is bringing us pleasure. It is definitely not similar to me sitting alone in the darkness, bawling my euys out, not knowing how get through this moment of overwhelming emotional pain. Both the long-term and short-term effects of painplay are positive for me. I have never felt shame or guilt about it. And in the moment it can be the most beautiful thing in the world.
Every now and then, when I am in an overwhelming anxiety attack, or sliding into an emotional flashback (different from other kinds of flashbacks, it is a symptom of C-PTSD, you can read up more about that here), my Master actually breaks the emotion by giving me pain. He might squeeze my upper arm really hard, or initiates play by pulling my ear, pushing me onto the bed and starts spanking me. See, the anxiety relief, it is a positive side effect! The context is our D/s dynamics where I have given him consent to use me physically the way he pleases. I have given consent to pain. And I have a safeword to stop things when I feel they are going into unhealthy territory. As a matter of fact, there were instances when I had a strong urge to get hurt, because I wanted to hurt myself, because in the moment I hated myself so much, I felt the need to get punished, hurt, degraded. But my Master saw right through me and didn’t at all respond to my requests. Instead, I got hugs, care and we talked about what was really going on. He gave me a shoulder to cry on. He refused to let me use him as a tool for self-harm.
What is it I am saying? I am saying that there is nothing bad about getting anxiety relief from painplay in a safe and consensual BDSM dynamics. For me, pain can be pleasure, it can give me relief sexually, it can also ground me and eventually make me float in an endorphin-soaked subspace. The grounding and the anxiety relief are part in this equation too, yes, they are. But they are not the main reason for me to engage in BDSM, for being in a D/s relationship. I want to submit because it makes me feel good. I want to feel pain because it makes me feel good. I want to give up control because it makes me feel good. If it helps me with my mental health issues too, all the better!