Sub-space And Dissociation

Author: Master Yves © 2001


Subspace was recently the topic of a thread on one of the mail lists I moderate. Some of the list members described their experience of subspace in a manner that another member found confusing. This member, a woman who is a survivor of extreme abuse during her childhood, suffers from a variety of dissociative symptoms, and she asked if perhaps she was confusing subspace and dissociation. This was a good and important question. The short answer is, she wasn’t really confused at all, because in fact subspace is a dissociative phenomenon.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (or DSM-IV, the text that defines currently-recognized psychiatric and psychological disorders, syndromes and symptoms), dissociation refers to “a disruption in the usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity or perception of the environment.” It can take many forms. Common dissociative experiences include a sense of derealization (feeling oneself or life situation is unreal) or disconnection with one’s environment; dissociative amnesia (splitting off of part of one’s memories from the rest); isolation of affect (splitting off of one’s emotions from conscious awareness); and flashbacks (in which one becomes so immersed in a traumatic memory that one is dissociated from awareness of the here and now, or otherwise dissociated from their normal sense of time). A more extreme dissociative manifestation is seen in dissociative identity disorder (formerly called multiple personality disorder), in which one’s sense of self is fragmented into a sense of being many selves, each to some extent independent of the others. At the core, dissociation involves an altered state of consciousness, in which one is not conscious of things one should be (the environment, one’s feelings or memories, continuity of identity). Dissociation and hypnotic states are closely related, and share the same underlying neurological processes.

Subspace is also an altered state of consciousness, one that varies from person to person but in which one’s awareness is altered dramatically. Some submissives become immersed in sensations, to the point that they become unaware of anything else (their environment, their identity, time); others shut off entirely, entering a trance state in which they are no longer conscious of their actions, experiences or surroundings. In any case, it is clear that subspace can be considered a sort of dissociated state. However, at least ideally, the nature of the change of consciousness is different from trauma-related dissociation.

Traumatic dissociation is a defensive reaction, in which one shuts off or goes away. It starts as a reaction to unbearable events, but can become habitual and occur in response to stimuli (i.e., triggers) that remind one of or symbolize past abusive experiences. One often does not feel good after such an event, or they may feel nothing at all. Sometimes a person may have amnesia for the trigger, and thus not know what put her in that state.

Subspace is a dissociative reaction that is more a response to intense stimulation, and is at least partly related to biochemical changes (endorphin release, for example) triggered by the physical and emotional stimulation during a scene. One typically feels some physical after-effects that usually are not regarded as unpleasant, and an emotional effect that is generally neutral to pleasant. In addition, the person is very aware, in general, of how they got there and that something major happened, though they may not be able to recall details and generally don't remember much of what occurred while they were in subspace.

Some survivors of abuse have mixed reactions, which can involve elements of both
states, or uncontrolled switches subspace to trauma-space. Survivors of trauma and their Dominants need to be very careful to not expose the submissive to trigger phenomena while they are approaching or in subspace. Since both are altered states, it is very easy for a person to go from subspace (okay) to a flashback state (not okay). Sometimes this happens spontaneously among abuse survivors, along the same line of their having trauma-related nightmares or spontaneous (non-triggered) flashbacks. This can result in the survivor-submissive being reluctant to enter into subspace in the first place.

How can one try to avoid this switching from a positive, desirable mental state to a very frightening one? First, the trust bond between the submissive and Dominant is even more crucial than ever – the submissive is less likely to switch to trauma-space if she feels safe and protected. Second, awareness of the survivor-sub's triggers and trauma history on the part of both parties can help one not accidentally trigger something. Third, through careful and patient effort, one can sometimes diminish or retrain responses to trigger phenomena; this is not an easy task, however, and if possible it is better to just avoid triggers.

In closing, I should state that I am not among those who believe that sadomasochistic or D/s orientations are uniformly the result of, or in any way related to, history of trauma. In fact, I am not aware of any evidence that BDSM Lifestylers have any higher rate of trauma than do individuals in the mainstream population. That said, trauma in all forms (child abuse, incest, rape) is all too common, and a significant portion of the population has unfortunately had such experiences. Of those who have been traumatized, a fair number have problems with flashbacks and other dissociative symptoms. Thus, I feel it is very important for everyone involved in the BDSM Lifestyle to be aware of these issues.

Yves, Master to His treasure
© 2001, Master Yves ( )



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