Mental Health
December 12, 2022

Can BDSM Improve Mental Health? Here's What The Research Says.

Practicing BDSM and kink may have healing benefits beyond just being pleasurable.
Written by
Angie Ebba
Published on
December 12, 2022
Updated on
What's changed?
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Those who practice BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, Sadism and Masochism) know that there is enjoyment in kink they can’t get in other places. But beyond just being pleasurable, research shows that BDSM can be used for therapeutic purposes. 

Is BDSM therapy a thing? 

While research in the field of BDSM and kink is relatively new and somewhat limited, preliminary studies are showing that BDSM can be helpful in the reduction of mental health symptoms. That said, BDSM is not a therapy or a treatment. Practicing BDSM and kink can, however, feel therapeutic and help some people manage symptoms of anxiety and other mental health issues. 

3 ways BDSM can benefit your mental health 

Kink and BDSM is not for everyone, but for those who do enjoy it, there are three main ways BDSM can be practiced for therapeutic benefits that can help minimize symptoms of anxiety and other mental health issues. 

1. It helps reduce stress 

In one 2013 survey of over 1,300 participants, researchers found that in comparison to a control group who did not practice BDSM, those who did reported being less ‘neurotic’ and being less sensitive to rejection. They also reported having an overall better sense of well-being (1, 2). Another 2009 study, by Northern Illinois University (who has an entire project called The Science of BDSM) showed hormonal changes in 58 participants engaging in BDSM, including reduced cortisol (the ‘stress’ hormone) (3).

2. Entering a meditative state can reduce anxiety 

BDSM allows one to ‘escape’ from the world for a bit. Being fully in the moment and present in the kink experience is similar to meditating. Stella Harris, certified intimacy educator and coach and author of Tongue Tied: Untangling Communication in Sex, Kink, and Relationships, states that “BDSM is one way for people to enter into a near-meditative state. The focus created by many forms of BDSM play can drown out other thoughts, which may provide some temporary relief for folks with anxiety.” 

For those on the receiving end of BDSM, or ‘submissives,’ research from 2017 has shown this state as transient hypofrontality (when the thinking part of our brain gets a rest), while the ‘dominants’ (those giving) experience a state of Csikszentmihalyi flow (a period of time where nothing else matters but the experience at hand). While these findings were based on a small study that only included BDSM practitioners, it showed insight into how engaging in kink can be a positive and even therapeutic experience.

3. It can help promote trauma healing 

BDSM can also help those who have experienced trauma and may have anxiety and other symptoms from that. A 2021 study of 20 BDSM practitioners who had previously experienced trauma showed that BDSM was reported to have helped with liberation, reclaiming power, and redefining pain, among other things. According to Santini, the communication involved in BDSM can also help promote trauma healing. “Before BDSM or kink, partners communicate their boundaries with one another. For trauma survivors, this deepens the connection between their minds and bodies and those they are having fun with. The result? Fear and anxiety drop” (5). 

Editor’s pick for starter BDSM kit

Sportsheets Sweet Punishment Kit
Sportsheets Sweet Punishment Kit Cuffs
Sportsheets Sweet Punishment Kit Paddle Up Close
Sportsheets Sweet Punishment Kit Red Blindfold
Sportsheets Sweet Punishment Kit Box

Sportsheets’ Sweet Punishment Kit is perfect for anyone wanting to explore S&M play. It comes with one blindfold, a XOXO slapper paddle, and a pair of cuffs equipped with two release keys. The cuffs are covered with ultra comfortable faux fur, and the XOXO Impressions Paddle is made with high-quality leather and a stitched handle. You can also try on the silky blindfold to heighten senses and add a new element to teasing. This kit offers a safe, comfortable way to explore power play, no matter your experience level.

Benefits
Accessible to beginners
Cuffs have an emergency release feature
Affordable
Comes with 5-year warranty
Drawbacks
Cuffs might not be sturdy enough for more experienced users
Blindfold does not offer complete coverage
The nuts and bolts
  • Body-safe materials: Polyester, nickel free metal hardware, vinyl fabric, RBS-E glass batten, nylon cord
  • 3.5’’ x 2’’ x 3.5’’

Who can benefit from BDSM?

Anyone who is curious and open to exploring, and is of a consenting age, can explore kink and may find themselves benefiting from it in various ways. Specifically, those with anxiety or those who have experienced trauma may experience some therapeutic benefits from engaging in BDSM. That said, BDSM is not for everyone, and within BDSM there are a variety of kinks which may or may not appeal to you. 

Benefits of being a sub 

When thinking about the ways BDSM can be a positive experience, one may think that the person on the ‘receiving’ end (often referred to as a submissive, sub, or bottom) would have more benefits. Submissives definitely can receive a lot of benefits. Many enter “subspace” during a BDSM scene, which happens when their body experiences a hormone dump, “an altered state that can feel euphoric, relaxed, or floaty — similar to the endorphin high you get from an intense run.” According to Amy Julia Cheyfitz, sex therapist and BDSM educator, “[this] often contributes to an overall sense of calm and well-being.”

Benefits of being a dom 

Dominants (those in the ‘giving’ role of the kink practice) reported even higher feelings of well-being than submissives.” Cheyfitz states that “[s]imilarly to the bottom partner being able to escape into ‘subspace,’ Tops can also experience a respite from the outside world during kink scenes. Many Tops describe a particular type of headspace — a ‘flow state’ — and a period of intense focus and concentration where the world falls away.”  For both dominants and submissives, BDSM allows for a temporary escape from the world as well as a release of chemicals into the body that can reduce the symptoms of anxiety.

7 ways to incorporate BDSM into your life as a therapeutic practice

If you’re a first timer, be sure to explore the many resources out there to learn about BDSM and kink. Safety and communication are paramount, but when it comes to practicing BDSM as a practice with therapeutic benefits, those elements become that much more important. 

1. Set boundaries. Figure out your boundaries, set safe words, or even make a BDSM contract where boundaries are clearly defined or can be negotiated. 

2. Prioritize communication. Whatever type of kink you engage in, it is important to have good communication with your partner, and make sure you both are educated in what you are doing. As Santini warns, “If you are playing with someone not experienced in BDSM, you might experience bad pain that can worsen your mental health.” While communication is always important when engaging in BDSM, it is especially so for those with mental health issues or trauma history. Play with a partner you trust, establish boundaries before starting any play, and check in often throughout the scene and after. To better communicate needs, wants, and desires, try our Spice Meter

3. Check in often. Check in with yourself and your partner throughout a scene. This might include making sure you’re in your body and not disassociating. This may mean pausing play to have a verbal check-in with your partner, or just doing a body scan in the midst of play. Communicate before play to determine the best ways you’d like to check in during. 

4. Consider the type of BDSM play that will benefit you. What type of BDSM is going to be helpful to any given person depends on personal preferences and what each individual likes. The benefits of kink are far less about the type of kink practiced, and more about engaging in the act. “The mechanism that helps someone manage their anxiety is often very personal,” says Cheyfitz. “Many people love rope, restraint, or feeling tightly constrained as it allows them to relax and let their anxieties go. Many love a cathartic impact scene that allows them to cry and release all their pent up anxiety and emotions.” Other people enjoy being in headspaces such as those associated with being a little or Big, a pet such as a puppy or kitten or their Owner, or a service sub. These headspaces allow a person to get outside of their own minds, Cheyfitz says.  

5. Get BDSM toys for beginners. If you’re new to BDSM, it’s important to sample various sensations to discover what you enjoy. Start slow, and use products made for beginners. If you want to try restraints, for example, incorporate handcuffs made for beginners, with velcro snaps versus an enclosure needing a key. If you want to try impact play, you might want some lighter sensations first, like a feather duster or tickler. You may not want to go straight to a flogger unless you’ve had some experience working up to it. 

6. Start slowly. Don’t try to master anything right off the bat. Start slow and test out the toys or accessories you have. If you have a blindfold, for example, try it on without adding restraints so you can easily remove it. If you enjoy the blindfold and want to feel more like a sub, you may later decide to add in the handcuffs or ropes for bondage. Lyons refers to this as “tiration” or finding a balance between new activities and more known activities, to work up to higher levels of BDSM.

7. Practice aftercare. After a scene is done or after play, practice BDSM aftercare, like cuddling, offering words of affirmation, or something else. Especially after engaging in power play, it can be important to re-center and re-balance the power. Aftercare may happen immediately after play, but it can also occur a day or two after. 

The bottom line 

If you are someone seeking a more controlled sexual practice with potential mental health benefits , consider trying BDSM. Do some research, think about what you’d like to try, and talk to potential partners. If you’re interested in starting your BDSM exploration journey, check out our catalog of kink pleasure products to get started.

Reviewed for Medical Accuracy

Angie Ebba is a queer disabled femme from Portland, Oregon. As a writer, educator, activist, and performance artist, she believes strongly in the transformative powers of words and performance. Angie is a published essayist and poet, and has taught and performed across the United States. Angie fully believes in the power of words to help us gain a better understanding of ourselves, to build connections and community, and to make personal and social change. You can find Angie online at rebelonpage.com

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