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Mind-Fucking in BDSM: Safety, Consent and Learned Helplessness

Updated: Jan 28, 2023

Can mind-fucking trigger flashbacks, break consent or induce learned helplessness?


Man in a hoodie and a puppet.
Shutterstock 2010567164 by SvetaZi.

Safety

Establishing when mind-fucking in BDSM is safe, sane and consensual can be particularly tricky. While these things are pretty clear when it comes to physical activities like impact play or bondage, when we deal with metal stuff, we are on mushy territory. What is perfectly okay for one person could be traumatic for another.

Mind-fucking presents unique challenges and safety issues that should not be taken lightly. If things go wrong, it can produce a great deal of emotional harm. While physical damage usually heals, emotional damage can last a lifetime.

The main danger is to awake old trauma by hitting emotional landmines. These are triggers that cause the submissive to flash back to traumatic or abusive situations. Often, the submissive is not aware of what those triggers are, so they cannot be tagged as limits during the negotiation of the scene. In the hypersensitive state induced by mind-fucking, anything can become a trigger: a certain act, a phrase, an object, clothing, etc.

Should people with psychological trauma do mind-fucking?

People with a history of abuse and psychological trauma would do best to refrain from undergoing mind-fucking. At least, they should proceed gradually, with mind-fucking sessions that are short and mild.

Even people without a history of trauma should be mindful of the effects that mind-fucking is having on them, not just during the scene, but in their emotional life afterwards. Are they becoming more resilient or more sensitive? Are they acquiring a docility that is sapping into their professional and social lives?

All this places a big responsibility on the dominant who does the mind-fucking. The dominant has to be fully empathic with the submissive, constantly reading their state of mind. Mind-fucking can and elicit completely unexpected responses from the submissive. The dominant has to be ready to stop the mind-fucking and bring the submissive back to reality when there are signs of trouble.

Consent

According to Planned Parenthood, consent should be freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic and specific (remembered with the acronym FRIES). Mind-fucking presents some problems concerning ‘informed’ and ‘specific’ because they would require that the submissive is fully informed of anything that will happen in the scene. But, since mind-fucking is often based on deception, providing some of this information would give away the game.

Since mind-fucking is negotiated without the submissive knowing what is going to happen, it could be considered to involve a certain amount of consensual non-consent (CNC), because submissives have to give blanket consent about things they don’t know about. However, this is not necessarily true since the submissive still has the ability to set up limits about what may and may not be included in the mind-fucking. Submissives should be informed that the scene will include surprises, tricks, misinformation and lies. They can still give a list of limits, which should be discussed in terms of emotional boundaries.

It is highly advisable to use a safeword that the submissive can use in case his or her emotional distress become overwhelming. Still, safewords are not completely reliable in mind-fucking because, to use them, the bottom has to know what is going on, and that is often not the case. This doesn’t mean that safewords are useless. Together with negotiation and limits, they should be considered as layers of protection. Negotiation should focus on any triggers, emotional landmines and past trauma of the submissive.

Consent is not valid if the submissive has a warped view of reality. This means that the submissive needs to be brought out of mind fucking before negotiating the next scene. This is why I think that prolonged mind-fucking (lasting several days) present ethical problems. The ability of the submissive to withdraw consent may be compromised. It could be ethical in a consensual non-consent set up. Still, there are concerns regarding learned helplessness that I will discuss below.

For the dominant, mind control can be a tremendous power trip and a temptation for abuse. Even when the dominant has the best intentions, he may lapse into emotional abuse out of ignorance. The dominant should do some introspection on his or her motives to engage in mind-fucking, considering how it would feel if it was done to them. Some reading on psychological abuse and emotional well-being can be of help.

Any deception should be disclosed at the end of the scene to fully rescue the submissive from any remaining state of confusion - see the section on aftercare below.

Here are some of the problems that may happen with a mind-fucking scene.

Panic attacks

A panic attack is a state of severe emotional distress often accompanied by difficulty in breathing, uncontrolled movements, exaggerated reactions and inability to speak.

In another article, I explored panic attacks in BDSM and how to deal with them.

If the submissive had panic attacks in the past, he or she should explain to the dominant how they happened and what are the possible triggers. They should plan what to do if they happen.

However, panic attacks may occur even in people who have not experienced them before. Mind-fucking creates a state of emotional sensitivity that they may have not experienced before.

Freezing

Freezing behavior is a stress reaction present in many animals that consists of becoming unable to move. It’s not a real paralysis. Rather, it is felt as a deep aversion to move or say anything. In the most extreme case, the person feels a block, an inability to decide how to move.

Its evolutionary origin is to hide and camouflage an animal that is being stalked by a predator.

Freezing is different from ‘tonic immobility’, which happens when an animal has been caught by a predator and gives up struggling and trying to escape. It is also different from fainting, which is a ‘vasovagal syncope’ triggered by strong emotions, physical stress, visceral pain and blood loss (Carli and Farabollini, 2021).

Freezing is the opposite of the fight-flight reaction, although both are responses to stress and fear. Freezing activates the parasympathetic system and decreases heart rate, whereas fight/flight activates the sympathetic system and releases adrenaline into the blood, which increases the heart rate (Roelofs, 2017).

Freezing is not very useful in humans, since it prevents reacting to imminent danger and communicating. When freezing, people stop whatever they are doing and become immobile and unresponsive. They cannot say a safeword, much less explain what is happening to them. Freezing may signal an imminent panic attack, especially if it’s accompanied by difficulty in breathing. This should be taken seriously and the scene stopped.

However, freezing is not always a bad thing. It is mediated by a neural pathway linking pain pathways in the parabrachial nucleus with the amygdala - the fear center - (Sato et al., 2015) and the amygdala with the periaqueductal gray (PAG) (Roelofs, 2017), which is the beginning of the neural pathway that releases endorphins to inhibit pain. Different parts of the PAG are involved in fight/flight and freezing (Morgan et al., 1998; McDannald, 2010). Hence, freezing may be a precursor to the endorphin sub-space. However, freezing is different from sub space. A frozen person tends to be rigid and dead-silent, while a person in sub-space is relaxed and makes incoherent sounds.

Freezing happens in mind-fucking when the stimulation or the task that the submissive is doing becomes overwhelming. Strong emotions, like fear, pain and shame, can trigger freezing. The mind becomes unable to perform the task or process the stimuli and shuts down.

Freezing is easy to detect in mind-fucking scenes that involve the active participation of the submissive, like mental games, humiliating or impossible tasks, and humor. If the submissive stops doing the task, then something is wrong. When the submissives play a passive role, like in deception games or predicaments, the dominant needs to pay constant attention to them to see if they go into freezing.

Learned helplessness

Learned helplessness occurs when an animal is repeatedly exposed to an aversive stimulus over which it has no control. The usual aversive stimulus is an electric shock, which is unpleasant but not painful - think of the shock you get when you touch your car after acquiring a static charge. Much less painful than the Violet Wand used in BDSM, for sure.

The initial experiments on learned helplessness were conducted by Martin Seligman in 1967 on dogs (Seligman, 1972). However, most subsequent studies were done in rats and mice. In the basic experiment, animals are tested in ‘yoked pairs’, which means that both animals receive shocks of the same intensity and duration. The only difference is that one of the animals can press a lever to stop the shock when a warning light or sound announces that it’s coming, while the other animal has no control and hence it is subjected to the whims of the first animal. This second animal develops learned helplessness, which consists in that it learns not to try to avoid unpleasant stimuli. Even when placed in a setting different from the first one in which is easy to escape the nasty sensation, the animal doesn’t try to do it. Importantly, animals with learned helplessness showed a decline in their ability to learn.

This would be a great idea for a mind-fucking experiment, wouldn’t it? We would have two yoked submissives. One decides what implement they are going to be hit with, and how hard. The other gets the same strokes as the first, but has no control. Clearly, the second submissive would be mind-fucked by both the dominant and the first submissive, who may decide to get some particularly nasty spanks just to see the second submissive getting them.

The learned helplessness studies were interpreted as meaning that the control that an animal has over its environment is key to determine its mental state and its ability to learn. Some scientists thought that this could be a model for depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which would be triggered when people have to deal with working or social environments over which they had no control.

The modern view is that the helplessness is not learned, but the default mode (Maier and Seligman, 2016). Aversive stimuli cause passivity in the animal, which is mediated by serotonin-releasing neurons in the dorsal raphe nucleus (Maier and Watkins, 2005). Helplessness is already there; what the animal actually learns is that it has control over the noxious stimulus, and this motivates the animal to escape it. The realization of having control causes an inhibition of the dorsal raphe by the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain involved in decision-making.

Learned helplessness does happen in humans, but cognitive processes in the prefrontal cortex play a more important role than in animals. Seligman performed a study in college students with and without depression (Klein et al., 1976). While unsolvable problems caused learning deficits in both groups of students, attributing the failure to the difficulty of the problem instead of the student’s incompetence eliminated this deficit.

A more recent study (Taylor et al., 2014) indicated that activating the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) reversed the cognitive and motivational deficits produced by lack of control over an aversive stimulus. Evaluating the experience of helplessness afterwards reverses its effects (Cemalcilar et al., 2003), perhaps the most crucial fact to keep in mind when considering whether mind-fucking induces learned helplessness.

Does mind-fucking induce learned helplessness?

If this were true, it would bring into question the psychological safety of mind-fucking.

The objective of mind-fucking is to induce a state of defeat and surrender in the submissive, which is precisely what learned helplessness does. Certainly, during mind-fucking the bottom experiences loss of control and is subjected to aversive stimuli like spankings or bondage. In other BDSM activities, the ability of the bottom to stop the scene and the presence of limits provide a measure of control, but in mind-fucking the loss of control is the objective of the scene.

Could mind-fucking trigger depression in submissives? Could this explain the depressive sub-drop that occurs a couple of days after a BDSM scene?

Much as I like mind-fucking, all these scientific studies indicate that it may trigger learned helplessness if we are not careful. This may happen with repeated mind-fucking that constantly puts the submissive in a state of defeat and lack of control.

However, humans have a sophisticated control of the prefrontal cortex over the dorsal raphe nucleus, which mediates learned helplessness. What this means is that the emotional, social and cognitive context in which a scene happens makes a huge difference. Just like we can immerse ourselves in a story or a movie that is enormously upsetting, we can be in a challenging BDSM scene and emerge unscathed.

Aftercare and truth reveal

Mind-fucking should not be allowed to create bad emotional habits of being defeated and subjugated. At some point, the submissive has to be allowed to reclaim his or her self-esteem. This can be done by processing the mind-fucking scene in such a way that it gives back control to the submissive and allows the scene to be registered as a win.

This means that mind-fucking requires a special type of aftercare whose objective is to restore the submissive’s sense of reality, emotional stability and self-esteem.

This involves revealing whatever deception was involved in the mind-fucking, especially if it was something that led the submissive to failure or embarrassment. The submissives should feel good about themselves, because they were ordered to do something difficult or impossible, or to withstand very harsh conditions.

This is also the time to analyze things that the submissive could have discovered about himself during the scene, and anything that could be healing and transformative. The dominant should praise the submissive and emphasize the positive elements of the scene.

One of the best thing they could do is to have a good laugh about what happened.

Resiliency

Repeated mind-fucking followed by fully regain of control and disclosure of the deception could create resiliency towards further mind-fucking and build emotional stability to deal with life challenges.

This is similar to the way we use the stories in novels and movies as training for life stressors. Since the dawn of our species, humans have used stories for learning and to build resilience to stress. Think of the scary stories we were told as children. How they terrified us at first, and then we gradually became immune to the fear elicited by our own imagination. Not only that, but we started to crave the adrenaline rush that they give us.

Similarly, mind-fucking is a simulacrum of emotional abuse that help us build up resilience for when people are mean to us and try to destroy our sense of reality.

Conclusions

  • Consent to mind-fucking does not require that the submissive is fully informed of everything that is going to happen in the scene, but it still requires negotiation to set up limits and a safeword.

  • Negotiating mind-fucking should not be done while deception and mind-fucking is taking place.

  • A mind-fucking scene it needs to have a clear beginning and ending.

  • The possibility that the bottom would suffer a panic attack during mind-fucking should be considered. The procedure to follow should be discussed beforehand by the top and the bottom.

  • Freezing behavior in the bottom should be taken as a warning sign of an impending panic attack.

  • During aftercare, the deceptions involved in the mind-fucking need to be fully disclosed. The emotional reactions of the submissives during mind-fucking need to be processed in order for them to be fully rescued from any damage to their self-esteem and emotional integrity.

  • With these precautions, it is likely that learned helplessness can be avoided.

  • Despite these caveats and dangers, mind-fucking can be a fun and healthy BDSM activity. It can increase the resilience of the bottom towards life stresses.

References

  • Carli G, Farabollini F (2021) Cardiovascular correlates of human emotional vasovagal syncope differ from those of animal freezing and tonic immobility. Physiology & behavior 238:113463.

  • Cemalcilar Z, Canbeyli R, Sunar D (2003) Learned helplessness, therapy, and personality traits: an experimental study. J Soc Psychol 143:65-81.

  • Klein DC, Fencil-Morse E, Seligman ME (1976) Learned helplessness, depression, and the attribution of failure. Journal of personality and social psychology 33:508-516.

  • Maier SF, Watkins LR (2005) Stressor controllability and learned helplessness: the roles of the dorsal raphe nucleus, serotonin, and corticotropin-releasing factor. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 29:829-841.

  • Maier SF, Seligman ME (2016) Learned helplessness at fifty: Insights from neuroscience. Psychol Rev 123:349-367.

  • McDannald MA (2010) Contributions of the amygdala central nucleus and ventrolateral periaqueductal grey to freezing and instrumental suppression in Pavlovian fear conditioning. Behav Brain Res 211:111-117.

  • Morgan MM, Whitney PK, Gold MS (1998) Immobility and flight associated with antinociception produced by activation of the ventral and lateral/dorsal regions of the rat periaqueductal gray. Brain Research 804:159-166.

  • Roelofs K (2017) Freeze for action: neurobiological mechanisms in animal and human freezing. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 372.

  • Sato M, Ito M, Nagase M, Sugimura YK, Takahashi Y, Watabe AM, Kato F (2015) The lateral parabrachial nucleus is actively involved in the acquisition of fear memory in mice. Molecular brain 8:22.

  • Seligman ME (1972) Learned helplessness. Annual review of medicine 23:407-412.

  • Taylor JJ, Neitzke DJ, Khouri G, Borckardt JJ, Acierno R, Tuerk PW, Schmidt M, George MS (2014) A pilot study to investigate the induction and manipulation of learned helplessness in healthy adults. Psychiatry research 219:631-637.

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