Examining subspace and subdrop

Altered mental states fascinate me.  They have for most of my life. I have explored the same subject matter from as many possible perspectives as I could find.  My university work was dominated by this pursuit. The very nature of consciousness is something that I ponder daily, and I keep searching for models that more accurately describe things as we can understand them.  I have approached the problem with models taken from philosophy, psychology, neurology, medicine, religion, even mathematics and information science.

I have designed and conducted experiments of my own – though admittedly scientific rigor was not usually my foremost goal in these situations.  And though all of this, I have also solicited help from you – my readers – through the comments to my original blog posts on subspace and subdrop.

Over the past four years or so, those posts have garnered a significant number of comments and if you have a genuine interest in the subject, it would be worth going back and reading the original posts (here and here, respectively) and comments that follow.

For the purposes of this post, I will be using the terms: submissive, s-type, and bottom to refer to the person who is experiencing these effects (subdrop or subspace) and: Dominant, D-type, or Top to refer to the other partner in the dynamic being examined.  The terms we use for these things are D/s specific – subdrop and subspace – but the conditions are not.  They can be experienced by bottom partners in a wholly S/m setting with no power exchange taking place, though for some reason that still seems to elude my grasp, the addition of the power exchange elements does seem to increase the likelihood of them occurring.

For every person brave enough to post a publicly accessible comment on the subject, I’ve probably received around five or so direct emails.  This is something that I expected – not everyone feels comfortable putting their own private experiences out there for everyone to see – and for that reason I will not be making any specific references to any of those emails that were sent to me in confidence, but I can make some generalizations and note a few interesting, and in some cases, surprising, observations.

First of all – both conditions are extremely common.  Since I solicited feedback from people who were already interested in the topic, no data can be extracted from the responses in terms of how often they occur within a more general group, but I did receive some responses from people who were curious about one or the other of these two topics without having experienced either themselves.  A true study would select people at random and then ask them about their experiences, of course, rather than what I have done – which is the opposite. I gave people a subject material and then asked them to contact me with specifics. The data were nonetheless revealing in a number of ways.

Including both comments left on the original posts and messages sent to me directly, I’ve received data from 143 unique individuals on the topic of subspace, subdrop, or both.

In this case, I am defining a ‘unique individual’ as either a distinct email address or an anonymous comment from a different originating IP address.  Note that it is entirely possible that some of these data originate from the same source – and I would have no way of being certain – but that I think the probability of such a thing is unlikely.

Of those 143 respondents, 131 have either directly experienced one or both of these phenomena themselves or they relate stories of partners who have.  If I could discount the fact that my respondents self-selected for involvement, that would represent an extremely high percentage. However – my respondents chose to write to me about these subjects, and therefore such statistics are mostly meaningless.

It does go to show that there are great many people who have experienced these phenomenon directly or indirectly though as those 143 messages represent around 10% of the total number of initial contact messages that I have received over the past four years (give or take a few months.)   This leads me to believe that this is by far the most important individual subject matter that this blog has attempted to tackle. However, it should still be noted that this is not a scientifically scrutinizable conclusion – just a gut feeling based on volume and interest.

Bearing this in mind, I would like to share some of the qualitative results that I have seen and been told by others – even if I cannot really make accurate quantitative conclusions.

Among the more interesting points of fact that I was able to glean from the responses are the following points:
  1. It is not necessary to experience subspace in order to experience subdrop
  2. Not everyone who experiences subspace experiences subdrop
  3. There is no panacea for avoiding subdrop
  4. There is no recipe for creating subspace


To anyone who has personal experience with these things, the above statements are almost certainly not a surprise.  However, the answers to those questions represent a significant proportion of the questions that I was asked.

For those of you who have not read the original posts or who are completely new to the concepts, subdrop is a condition that can occur in the bottom partner of a BDSM interaction wherein the affected person experiences what can be sometimes very intense feelings of loss, frustration, anger, sadness, loneliness, or other forms of negative emotional content associated with the person with whom they had engaged in a scene previously.  Sometimes these feelings can surface days or even weeks after the event. They can leave the bottom partner feeling abandoned or upset, even when everything they could possibly expect in the form of aftercare or emotional attachment is present. Sometimes the intensity of these feelings can exceed any of the immediate ‘good’ feelings associated with the scene or interaction in the first place.

I have previously defined this as, “Subdrop is the state of physical, emotional, and psychological withdrawal from an intense interaction with another person.”

Sometimes the symptoms of subdrop can include intense physical characteristics, like: cold sweats, nightmares, heart palpitations, panic attacks, fever, aches and pains, or other flu-like symptoms.  But often it can also be felt as something as simple as longing for the other person who is no longer present.

Subdrop can be a pretty awful thing for anyone who has experienced it – and by far the most common question that I have received since starting this blog has been, “How do I avoid subdrop? / How do I prevent my s-type from experiencing subdrop?”

I can offer a few pointers from my own experience and from those people who were kind enough to respond to me, but unfortunately I think the only true answer to the above question is, “You really can’t always avoid subdrop – no matter what you do.”

This is an important note for a couple of reasons:
  1. People often judge themselves for being unable to prevent subdrop – both tops and bottoms feel this way.  This is harmful to both partners and a little bit of patience and understanding can go a long way to reducing the impact of subdrop.
  2. People sometimes feel like – because it is not always something that can be avoided – that one should not even try.  I disagree with this sentiment quite strongly.


The second point above is particularly worrisome to me.  I think it is very easy for a Top to go from “it can’t be prevented, so why try to prevent it?” to “I can’t help you with this, so I’m not even going to try to provide aftercare,” and while I could possibly forgive the lack of an attempt to forestall it when you have a partner that you know such attempts will not work for, I cannot condone any action that does not hold the Top responsible for follow-up aftercare when subdrop begins to take hold, even if it is days or weeks after the scene that brought it about.

Subdrop often happens as a result of deeply ingrained and somewhat opaque psychological factors that exist beyond the ability of the bottom to control or often to even understand. To be unprepared to deal with the consequences of invoking such a thing is dangerous and harmful.

However – there are some common precautions that you can take which can reduce the likelihood or severity of the subdrop which may occur.  These are some of the things that you can do:
  1. Be consistent and forecast your scene
  2. Be emotionally available during and after the scene
  3. Provide adequate warm-up
  4. Allow for come-down time after the scene and before attempting to re-integrate with normal reality
  5. Be available for aftercare – and make it known that you will be after you part ways

Subdrop occurs most commonly well after the scene is over and you have left the dungeon or parted ways with your partner.  This is not to say that it does not occur even when you stay together throughout the process (and I have first-hand experience and several other accounts besides to state that it does) but a common theme in the cases that I have seen or been informed of is that this is something that happens after the scene is over and an attempt to return to normalcy takes place, even if all parties involved remain in contact throughout via physical or some sort of digital or telephonic means.

I don’t want to belabor these points incessantly, but the first one – in bold – really is the most important from what I’ve been able to gather.  Subdrop can come about as a result of, or be exacerbated by, a feeling of a lack of support from the Top. This can happen as a result of the bottom not feeling like they will be supported through whatever emotional or psychological turmoil they encounter – which can happen if they feel like they will not get the support they need, but is most definitely increased when they feel like they do not know what to expect from the beginning.  And it is this necessary grounding that makes consistency so important.

Consensual non-consent scenes are – in my not-so-very-humble opinion – some of the hottest scenes that are possible, and during such scenes, it will not be possible to remain consistent as you may normally be, but this is a further argument (among the many that I have already made) that such scenes should only be attempted by persons who have had time to establish a durable trust between them.  For all non-CNC scenes, and most especially scenes with persons who are new to you, I would strongly recommend that you negotiate all points up front, that each transition be preceded by obvious cues about what is going to occur.

This level of attention – remaining consistent with established or negotiated behavior, being emotionally present (as long as your dynamic allows for such), providing adequate physical warm-up (which is also important in helping your s-type to achieve subspace), allowing for time after the most intense aspects of the scene before you try to re-engage with the ‘real world’, and remaining obviously available in the hours, days, and weeks that follow the scene can go a very long way to removing the anxiety that can precipitate subdrop, or in ameliorating the deleterious effects of the condition when it occurs.  Because it is important to remember – no matter what you do, there will be occasions where subdrop occurs, and to have such a thing happen does not mean that you are incompatible as a Top/bottom pair, or that there is anything wrong with the scene or with either participant’s actions.

Personally – I have experienced this (as the Top) through the feelings and actions of my submissive partner on more than one occasion.  Despite all attempts to reduce the likelihood of subdrop occurring and employing extreme patience as it relates to before and after-scene care, my submissive partner occasionally becomes extremely agitated and even downright hostile in the days following a scene – even when the scene might not be particularly intense.  However, armed with the understanding that this sometimes just happens, despite our best efforts to avoid it, and knowing that we have the patience and skills to deal with it when it does occur, we are steadfastly able to weather these things and to continue to maintain our close relationship even through the worst of events like this.   For some people, encountering subdrop can mean that they won’t want to do another scene with you, and should that occur, you must respect that, but if you follow the above guidelines you can help to avoid it, or if you cannot avoid it, you can turn the experience into something that creates or strengthens your bond – rather than detracting from it.

There are also physical things that can be done to reduce the long-term impact of an intense scene.  Especially in the case where there is bruising or deep-tissue impacts, it is important to remember to drink lots of fluids, get enough calories, and get lots of rest.  Treat the aftermath of an intense scene like getting the flu – you can’t necessarily make the impact go away any faster, but you can do some things to improve your body’s ability to heal.   So far – I’ve talked mostly about subdrop and the title of this piece is Examining subspace and subdrop – so where is all of the information about subspace?   Well – thank you for sticking with me this far…  the two things are more closely related than I would have initially thought – or at least, so they seem to be in the things that I have learned through personal experience and the experiences that have been shared with me.

Many of the emails that I receive talk about both of these conditions – and I suppose it makes sense that they would be linked in the minds of participants – but it wasn’t until I started to receive those emails that I really linked them in my own mind very strongly.  Of course, there is some intrinsic linkage in the words themselves, and I may have polluted my results by calling out the difference between the two things explicitly in my post on subspace – where I mention subdrop but don’t yet define it.  And yet, linked though they may be, they do not have to occur together, and I have received a proportionally higher number of comments and questions about subdrop than I have subspace – though both seem to be of very high interest for people who identify as s-types.

Subspace, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the BDSM sense of the term, refers to the altered mental state that an s-type can encounter when submitting or being driven to the point of forced submission through pain, either in scene or as part of a perpetual D/s dynamic.

When I have previously spoken about subspace, it was with a certain amount of naïveté and limited by my own personal experiences with the subject. For me, it has almost universally been connected with a very powerful D/s dynamic – but I have received many emails and comments that point out the fact that this can happen even in purely S/m dynamics, where there is perhaps a brief power exchange, but that the primary avenue for attaining subspace comes from a purely physical and Sadomasochistic approach, and that no psychological or emotional exchange needs to take part.

I find this fascinating – for reasons not the least of which is the fact that this has never worked for me in this way.  I have guided many submissive partners to subspace, employing a variety of different means – everything from just modulating the timber of my voice and changing the content of what I am saying to brutally beating my submissive bottom to the point of physical and emotional overload – but these have always included an element of psychological power exchange for me.  So strong was this connection in my own mind that I think I actually dismissed the first dozen or so messages that I received telling me that this power exchange element was not necessary to their own path to subspace.  I think I thought that the two mental states – what I thought of as subspace and what these people were telling me about – were two separate notions entirely.


One of my friends is a neurologist, and he wrote an excellent piece on the effect of physical contact – both ‘rough’ and ‘sensual’ – on neurotransmitters in the brain, and how those might help to explain how it is possible for some people to achieve the transition from what I often refer to as ‘crisis mind’ into a comfortable state of subspace.  I am leery of making connections from here to fetlife – but less leery of going the other direction – and if you are interested in reading that post, please reach out to me directly and I can send you a link.


I mention this because it is a good example of the physiological components that go into making subspace work – something for which I am not really qualified to speak.  However, my own focus has nearly always been on the psychological aspects of what causes subspace, and I feel slightly more comfortable with those terms.

I do believe that there is a common misconception that subspace requires physical contact – and especially intense physical contact at that.  It is commonly referred to as ‘flying’ or as a ‘bottom-high’ and it shares an awful lot in common with what you might experience when you talk about a “runner’s high”.


The descriptions that you hear from people are all very consistent with this: they describe feeling ‘spacey’ or ‘floaty’, they talk about feeling as though they are somehow detached from their own body, that the sensations of pain that normally accompany deep impact are temporarily replaced with nudges to the psyche that merely reinforce the already existing connection with your body – but that are not painful of themselves any longer.  One submissive from my past has described it as something akin to this – I am paraphrasing – “I feel like I am closer to one-ness with the universe, everything around me is awash with a pleasurable glow, and each hit lets me know that I am still attached to my body, but also sends me into a higher orbit – further from my own center, yet paradoxically closer to the center of everything.” But not everyone experiences something quite so profound. For some people it is merely a warming sensation that travels throughout the body and makes the pain easier to take, while for others, there are very few physical components at all, if any, and it is instead a significant alteration of their view of reality – it becomes more difficult to focus on any one thing in particular, but nuance of things that might normally go unnoticed becomes more profound.


If this sounds a bit like a chemically induced altered mental state – that is probably because there is good evidence to show that it actually is.  The neurotransmitters involved are all of the usual suspects: dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, oxytocin, and epinephrine. The physical and psychological things that we do cause these to be released in different than normal amounts, and the way that the brain interprets these things can lead to altered perception.


And so – while I have always felt that some form of psychological power exchange was necessary for me to help my s-type achieve this state – I did, until relatively recently, also believe that physical contact was necessary to induce it.  However – personal experience as well as anecdotal evidence in the form of messages sent to me shows that this is not the case at all.


I have known others for which this was also the case, but it is particularly potent with my current submissive partner.  I can induce a state of subspace for her with nothing more than a look or a word delivered at the right time, with the right pitch to my voice, and the right intention behind it.  I can induce her to orgasm from across the room with nothing more than a look and a command, and while orgasm and subspace are also not intrinsically linked – they do seem to occupy a lot of the same space in the brain… because, let us not forget, every experience that we have can be reduced to nothing more than the interaction of a few networks of neurons with the networks that control the things to which we are consciously aware.  The potential for mind-numbing (literally) pleasure exists within your brain at all times – it only requires some sort of catalyst to bring it to bear, and while chemicals that affect the synapses and can cross the blood-brain barrier are certainly the simplest way to achieve this – the brain is fully capable of reproducing every single one of those experiences with nothing external added at all.

For every aspect of subdrop that seems something to avoid, there is a complementary aspect for subspace that is clearly worthy as an ideal to pursue.  And so – this leads some people to chase it.   However, just as there are no surefire ways to avoid subdrop, there is no surefire recipe for creating an experience of subspace.  There are a few things that can help though:
  1. Be consistent and forecast your scene
  2. Be emotionally available during and after the scene
  3. Provide adequate warm-up
  4. Allow for come-down time after the scene and before attempting to re-integrate with normal reality
  5. Be available for aftercare – and make it known that you will be after you part ways
 
Hmm – that list looks familiar, doesn’t it?

I admit – that is partly just a somewhat clumsy attempt to create a neat tie-in on my part… it isn’t explicitly important to the fostering of a subspace reaction that you have adequate come-down or aftercare planned for, but I do believe that they contribute to the thing which is the most important for that to occur… …and this is the real epiphany for me here.  While I never really made the explicit link between subspace and subdrop in my mind, and while I have firsthand knowledge that not every person experiences both (some lucky souls get to fly and never drop, while some unluckier ones end up the opposite way), the data that I have gathered and that have been provided to me have shown me the common thread:

Treating your submissive partner well, establishing trust over a long-enough period of time, and consistently working to maintain that trust will work to both establish a strong foundation for subspace to occur within and limit or reduce the intensity of subdrop if and when it occurs.

I have stated it elsewhere before and in slightly different terms, but this remains one of my strongest truths: Trust is the foundation of all things BDSM and the cornerstone of any functional relationship.  The deeper your trust, and the more you work to achieve and maintain it, the stronger the bonds and sensations you open yourself up to and can achieve.

The deeper the trust that you have, the harder you can push things, physically, mentally, and emotionally.  The harder you can push things, the deeper into the realm of the mind you can go, and the more of those all-important neurotransmitters you can coax out of the body and into the brain.

It will never be the case that I can look across the room and say, “cum for me,” to just any person and have it work, and while it will never be the case that I can tie just any person to the cross and beat her for an hour to have her flying high, both of those things can occur for me very easily as a result of the time and effort that I have invested with the people in my life.

When I’m asked for a recipe on how to achieve subspace, I still maintain that there is no one path to get you there – that it isn’t even necessarily possible for every person to get there at all – but that the most certain way to accomplish this is through applying the things that I value most: patience, persistence, and trust – along with a heaping help of Dominance and physicality.   –  Rant
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