Pain Processing

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Pain Processing is the ability to translate harsh (typically unpleasant) physical sensations into pleasurable and/or tolerable experiences. This skill is predominantly used by masochists during SM impact play, but may be used in other scenarios as well, such as finding joy in humiliation and other forms of play. Please note that masochism and SM play is not a requirement for all power exchange relationships.


The mindset with which the bottom attempts to process and manage stimulus may alter the feeling towards the pain significantly. Methodology may include elements of ignoring/detaching from pain, fighting and overcoming pain, compartmentalization, dispersion or burying of pain and the accept, process and release. Different bottoms will have preferred methodologies that work best for them as individuals, and each method has it's own merits and draw backs, though many suggest the accept, process and release method.

Factors Affecting Pain Tolerance/Threshold

Pain itself is a relative construct. How pain is felt will vary drastically between individuals. There are many factors that affect this such as:

  • Intention to Process: Having a prepared intention to process pain, such as knowing one is entering a negotiated scene rather than being surprised by pain, can drastically affect pain tolerance. It is unlikely that even a dedicated masochist is likely to respond to a sudden and unexpected pain with masochistic glee.
  • Physical Endurance: Physical endurance gained from exercises of various sorts such as distance running, swimming, yoga, weight lifting and similar, will all directly impact overall physical health and pain tolerance as physical endurance is a form of pain tolerance.
  • Nerve Damage and Pain Threshold: Damaged nerves and disorders that cause nerve sensitivity or desensitivity (such as fibromyalgia and various chronic pain) can significantly affect when and how much pain is felt and processed. It is important to be aware of any nerve disorder as nerve disorders can increase chances of serious injury dramatically if not properly accounted for.
  • Skin Conditioning and Nerve clusters: Areas that are dry and calloused are easier to endure sensation on than particularly soft and thin skinned areas. Further, any areas that are concave, especially near bones, are likely to have nerve clusters that are pressure points and can cause intense pain if directly stimulated.
  • Mental Conditioning: Conditioning techniques can be used to reinforce behavior regarding pain processing. In many cases, background culture may have already instilled some conditioning regarding pain tolerance. Some bottoms may also be conditioned to think they have poor pain tolerance when in actuality they have moderate or large capacities for pain, which can impose an emotional limitation through anxiety and fear. Aftercare can not only help mitigate drop from anxiety, but also can serve to mentally condition a bottom.
  • The Sex of the Bottom: According to scientific studies [1], biological males on average demonstrate a greater ability to process pain than biological females. Reasons for this are speculated but not confirmed by scientific rigor.
  • Age and Time: Relative age of a masochist and time between play scenes and strokes of stimulus can drastically affect pain tolerance for better and worse. Those that are elderly however, are more likely to require greater recovery time between strokes and between scenes than younger/healthier counterparts. Rapid strokes strung together are less likely to be as easily tolerated as giving a moment between them. Lots of time between scenes can decrease pain tolerance and having scenes closer together (minding healing times) may increase pain tolerance.
  • Breathing Technique: Breathing slowly and in a controlled fashion will prevent hyperventilation and help reduce panic/anxiety. Often breathing through the diaphragm (where the stomach extends, not the chest and shoulders) is recommended for those that can manage to do so. Please note that bondage in some particular positions can cause difficulty with breathing due to positional asphyxia, and even cause panic attacks for some through induction of anxiety.
  • Biological and Neurological Health: Much of pain processing relies upon the biological release of a hormone cocktail of Dopamine, Serotonin, Adrenaline and Oxycontin throughout the body from the brain. If the body cannot process these chemicals correctly, or the brain cannot distribute them correctly, or they are inhibited by various chemical means such as mood stabilizers or narcotics, this can drastically affect the ability to process pain for the bottom, both mentally and physically. It is not advised to dose oneself with pain medication before a scene to increase tolerance as this can have many long and short term health consequences. It is recommended that all parties be properly rested, fed and hydrated before intense play begins.
  • Repeated Exposure: It is widely believed that repeated exposure to stimulus will increase conditioning to the stimulation. While this is mostly true, there are rare instances and studies that show that repeated exposure can lead to extra sensitivity rather than desensitization, a process known as secondary hyperalgesia.
  • Mental State and Anxiety: Being in a good mental state and not being especially emotionally sensitive can help mitigate the effects of pain. Anxiety itself will drastically reduce pain processing capability. Having proper breathing technique and safe words and signals as well as trust in the intent and skill levels of your partner(s) can drastically reduce anxiety levels.

Pain Processing Techniques

  • Shared Motivation: If the Sadist and Masochist both share a clearly defined intention for the scene (such as to achieve suffering for sadistic pleasure, orgasm, subspace highs, cathartic emotional release, service satisfaction, or other notions) the shared intention can serve as a motivation to increase pain threshold for the bottom, and a guide for how to proceed for the top.
  • Mantras: Use of repetitive mantras said repeatedly in the head of the bottom over and over again on repeat that relate to the scenario intent such as "I am a good little painsult", "I refuse to give in", "I live to serve" or simply counting to ten can help to serve as a focus point to distract from painful sensations, and even motivate to take more/eroticize pain.
  • Passive and Active Support: Having someone talk you through and encourage you to breather or process or offer appropriate encouragement, or to suffer alongside you can also offer drastic benefits to pain processing ability. What is appropriate encouragement will vary drastically as some will prefer positive or negative reinforcement, verbal or non verbal communication, and may or may not wish to communicate. Discuss with your partner extensively about how the bottom and top prefer to communicate during a scene as part of negotiations.
  • Role Play, Objectification and Fantasy: Role Play, Objectification and fantasy may help either disassociate or distract a bottom to help mitigate pain.
  • Visualization: Visualizing pain as light emissions or fireworks, heat sensations, colored energy or some other concept other than "ouch" can assist in processing of stimulus through compartmentalization, dispersion, distraction and other methodologies.
  • Placebo Effect: Believing and thinking positive, smiling and/or laughing, snarling/growling, screaming and fighting, a mixture of laughter and crying, silence and stillness, moaning/viewing pain as erotic or sexy, acceptance of pain (such as with Buddhist meditation techniques), and familiarity and feeling trust in your partner can all positively enhance pain processing abilities.
  • The Masochist Dance: After a particularly heavy handed stroke, a masochist may engage in a shift in body posture, footing and general writhing and wiggling for a moment. This is precisely a pain processing technique where they are dispersing the pain to be spread throughout the nervous system on a wider basis by contorting their body while simultaneously offering a distraction. Please note this is not the same as the body tensing and remaining tensed as that would likely indicate anxiety/distress. Many suggest allowing the masochist dance to complete before continuing with the scene (it usually only lasts a few seconds) as interrupting it with more stimulation can easily lead to mass overstimulation and unpredictable mood swings for the bottom.
  • Pain as Fuel: In some instances masochists may learn to translate pain directly into excitement, increased awareness, and engagement. This might manifest as Bratting or Primal savage/violent/sexualized behavior.
  • Topping Technique: Tops can help manage pain processing through their technique. Many suggest using the Low and Slow method regarding speed and intensity of strikes (and gradually increasing with the intensity of the tool used), yet breaking it up slightly by offering a ramp up of intensity that isn't entirely predictable, yet has some rhythm to the progression (ie, not entirely chaotic). A chaotic rhythm will not allow the bottom to gauge expectation of the next stroke, and thus they may lose the ability to time their breathing and/or they might build anxiety. Further, strikes in fast repetition and intensity too early on may not allow them to benefit from the biological hormones their body releases by not allowing enough time to deliver the chemical effects. By giving surprises regarding the occasional intense stroke that is a notch or two above the present plateau, this will give the bottom a sensations that isn't entirely overwhelming, but also prevents them from tuning out completely, and also spikes their hormone cocktail, by having the body try to mitigate that stroke.


Focussing on pain is a technique that is not only used when working to accept pain, but it can also be used to keep the bottom present in the case that something such as subspace or endorphin shock are decidedly against the goal of the scene (often as a form of obedience training).