Kink & BDSM have long been pathologized and stigmatized in the mental health community and general society. Wanting to incorporate intentional power, pain, bondage, and dynamics have been viewed as due to someone’s trauma history or mental illness. However, more therapists such as myself and other folks in the BDSM community have been making connections between somatic and relational healing, and kink. Regardless of someone’s trauma, which may look exactly like their kink or not at all, kink provides a container for a somatic & relational experience that can re-write our narratives about ourself, form new brain pathways, and help us return to our bodies. Below are some of the (many) ways BDSM & Kink can be framed for healing purposes if done within a safe and healthy relationship container (which could be a long term relationship or a carefully negotiated pick up play scene at a party!).

Experiencing a safe, predictable container.

Much like the therapy office, having the same day and time for an appointment, and discussing goals and treatment modalities with a therapist, kink can provide a similar safety container, if done in a safe place and with safe people. There is a scene, which is the time and space in which play happens, and before then planning between partners about what is ok and not ok to happen in that scene. There is predictability, which calms and heals the nervous system.

Completing our stress response cycle

Similar to other physical practices, kink can invite stuck traumatic stress energy that is pent up to be released. Through movement and expression, we release this energy that is no longer serving us. Here, we get to do this while also connecting to another person, and a larger community.

Connecting with our felt sense

Kink done well invites us to connect with our internal sensations. It asks us to be in touch with how things are feeling for us inside of our bodies, and name them to our partners, whereas other physical or sexual activity can never invite us to drop into embodiment.

Getting a corrective emotional experience or a “mismatch”

If we have experienced trauma, harm, or misattunement in the past (which I could argue everyone has), then kink can heal this due to the need for extreme attunement. Here, we get the experience of being attuned to. Here, we get to change our narratives about ourselves in relationship (it can be safe to be known, we can choose what happens to our bodies, we can set boundaries).

Getting to experience safe attunement

As mentioned above, here our attachment systems can get a new experience of someone being tuned into our emotions and sensations and needs, and having that be safe. During a scene, partners need to be aware of each other to an extreme level, and in a healthy dynamic, that leads to more closeness and better play. This is different than someone being attuned to you and using that knowledge as a way to manipulate or harm you further. This is also different than someone not attuning to you, and the experience of being abandoned or uncared for.

Kink & BDSM is another opportunity for embodiment and healing. To find out more, I have an hour long workshop available here for purchase and download.

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Triggers have become part of our societal vocabulary as trauma becomes more openly spoken about. However, glimmers are new to my personal vocabulary, and feel extremely key to the conversation around learning what activates us, both into states of survival, and of safety.

Glimmers are essentially the opposite of triggers!

If a trigger brings us into a survival state, and is also known as a cue of danger,, glimmers are what bring us back into our window of tolerance and safety (cue of safety).

To fully understand where glimmers take us in our nervous system, it’s important to outline the branches of it. The nervous system has the sympathetic branch and the parasympathetic branch.

The sympathetic is our fight or flight response, it’s our nervous system’s call to action. It calls us to fight back, or run away, depending on what feels like is going to be more successful, or what has worked for us in the past. This is also known as a hyperaroused state, a state of the body with more stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, increasing our heart rate and suspending our appetite so we are more ready for the fight to to run. This can also show up as anxiety, anger, not being able to sleep, loss of appetite, and so on when we get stuck in this state.

The parasympathetic branch has two separate parts, the dorsal vagal and the ventral vagal.

The dorsal is our submit/freeze response. It is where our nervous system goes when we have perceived that fight or flight isn’t safe. It is the “giving up”, hopelessness, “if I am so still maybe no one will see me response”. It’s like the hurt animal we try and help on the side of the road who is listless and we can’t even tell is they are alive. It’s playing dead.

The ventral vagal is where we go when we feel safe and connected. Our glimmers take us here. It is the feeling of being known and understood, seen and validated. It is feel cozy and safe and secure, in a space or with a person.

As Deb Dana talks about, our goal is to not be here all the time. We are meant to fluctuate between states, with flexibility. It’s when we get stuck in a survival state, and can;t access the safe & connected place that we need help coming home to the ventral vagal state.

So back to triggers & glimmers,Certain smells, places and people and so on activate us into a sympathetic response (our fight or flight response) or the parasympathetic response connected to the dorsal vagal (our freeze or collapse response).

Certain smells, places and people and so on can activate us into our ventral vagal, the safe and connected zone of our parasympathetic nervous system.

Those are our glimmers!

Some questions to ask yourself:

What people, places, feelings, smells, sensations glimmer me back into feeling safe and connected?

What triggers take me into a survival response?

What glimmers are most effective when I am in a survival state? Which ones get me home from fight? Flight? Freeze? Submit?

What do my states feel like in my body? How do I know I’m triggered in my body? How do I know a glimmer is kicking in and taking me home?

What does a glimmer feel like, what sensations does it bring up, what feelings?

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Updated: Sep 18, 2019

Therapy that incorporates our bodies is known as somatic therapy. As trauma treatment progresses, the mental health field is beginning to acknowledge that the body is a necessary component of healing.

Whether you are a trauma survivor or not, body based therapy helps us come home to ourselves and feel more safe & connected. Practices like breath work, yoga, meditation, and grounding have become common ways for folks to have lower stress and anxiety. Somatic work of all kind helps us breath deeper, be more present, and can improve our physical health.

Most people have experienced some kind of trauma. This can be what we call “capital t Trauma” (being a war veteran, a sexual assault survivor, a natural disaster survivor), it can be any attachment disruption (anytime our needs weren’t met as a child), or living with an identity where you experience daily/frequent oppression (being queer, trans, disabled, a person of color, an immigrant, a woman etc). Most people have had to leave their bodies or experienced being in their bodies are unsafe at some point.

All of this to say that any can benefit from somatic therapy or therapy that at the very least acknowledges your body. So what does somatic therapy look like in the room with a therapist?

Somatic work usually starts with psychoeducation. Meaning, the therapist and client exploring the impact of trauma on the body, understanding our bodies responses to stimuli, the nervous system, and how other mammals use their bodies to expel stressful & traumatic energy. It’s important to build an understanding of how our bodies are a part of our emotional experience and react to stress before digging deep into processing through the body.

Somatic work also means building internal resources so that the body starts to feel like a place of comfort and safety, instead of chaos. Having grounding techniques, movements for feeling centered, and external resources like supportive relationships, are ways of resourcing.

Then, client and therapist can move on to process difficult memories or feelings using the body. Titrating a little bit of the feeling or memory at a time and letting the body take over, while dropping the story. We let our bodies natural cycle of activation and settling move the stress or trauma energy out and through.

This kind of therapy is often non linear, with the above looking like many different variations. Sometimes just talking about the body is as far as someone can get, and that’s ok. Sometimes it’s just about building resources and the trauma feeling like too much to touch, which is fine too. Ultimately, any therapy that incorporates the body in some way is somatic therapy, and the therapist and client get to decide what that looks like.

My training is in Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, which I find to be very holistic, looking at the body, belief systems, and attachment. It honors our innate healing capacities, and looks at what we have right inside us as what we need to heal. I also incorporate the Polyvagal theory which helps us to befriend our nervous systems.

All somatic work invites us home to our bodies, which is something that no matter your life experiences, we all need in the world we live in.

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