Training Students with Trauma – Jeffrey Johnson (Conflict Manager AUGUST, 2015)

The body is the armature of the self, the physical self around which the psychological self is constructed.” -Psychologist Nicholas Hobbs

Trauma can alter the relationship between the psychological self and the physical self. A violent event can turn the body into a foreign place, with all human interaction becoming somewhat distant and strange. Martial arts training, traditionally conceived as a mind-body practice, has helped many people to bridge the gap between their psychological selves and their physical selves. As a professional with experience counseling survivors of trauma and teaching self defense, I am proposing a method for self-defense instructors to approach their students who may have experienced trauma, as well as a subject for therapists and counselors to explore as a means of helping their clients to reclaim their bodies and heal.

This is intended as a brief introduction to the topic and the proposed approaches. Understanding fully that self-defense instructors are not clinical therapists, I am not suggesting that a person attempt to take on more responsibility than they are professionally qualified to handle. I am hoping to help instructors to empower their students and avoid re-traumatizing vulnerable individuals.


How trauma impacts people can vary from person to person. What can prove to be a debilitating emotional experience for one person can easily be shrugged off by another.  Everyone is composed differently, so professionals should be careful not to rush to judgment over how a person has internalized the event(s) they have experienced. We don’t get to qualify or disqualify the magnitude of a troubling event or series of events in the life of another person. We don’t get to tell them to “get over it.” Not if we are trying to help them.

I have had to develop a thick skin when hearing the stories. Vicarious trauma can occur when we internalize the stories of trauma survivors, but it can be a bigger problem if those survivors’ residual behaviors cause distress for us. We begin to emulate the psychology of those we have been tasked to help. Know what your limits are with regard to how much help you can give and where it ends and the help from other professionals (domestic violence centres, rape crisis centres, etc.) begins. Know when to step back from situations beyond your expertise and abilities.

Trauma can affect the brain in similar fashion to a blunt force injury. The brain will often re-wire itself in an attempt to cope with the injury and the “new reality” of danger and fear. Trauma survivors (note that I avoid the term “victim.” How we frame events and our definitions of ourselves has a lot to do with how we cope and heal) may experience a range of emotions connected with the trauma, such as depression, anger, feelings of hopelessness/helplessness, hyper-vigilance, and any other emotion or combination of emotions. Again, most self-defense instructors are not clinical professionals, so know the limits of the assistance you can effectively offer.

Triggers and reenactments are things that a person with no personal trauma history will not easily understand. A smell, a spoken phrase, a noise, or any other seemingly random and unrelated stimulus or bundle of stimuli can cause (or trigger) an emotional response that acts like an echo of the original traumatic event. One might assume that the males in the room are planning to physically harm him. Or one might tighten her fists and breathe rapidly anticipating an attack. The first response is a paranoid hypervigilance while the other is a physiological response. I have seen re-enactments run the whole gamut of wild possibilities at work, but thankfully nothing overly dramatic at the dojo. Having a sense of what may trigger a student is important, because we don’t want to re-traumatize (essentially recreating the traumatic event, causing even more emotional damage) anyone. For instance, a person who was robbed at gunpoint may not be immediately ready to do gun defense techniques. I am not saying that a trigger is always reason to avoid necessary training. I am saying that it may take some time and finesse to help a student reach that level of trust with you and comfort in their own readiness to deal with body language, object reference, and maybe even phrases that replicate a very bad experience.

Teaching Method

The challenge for all self-defense instructors is to help students become stronger, more competent, and more confident people with each class. To succeed at this, we have to do a lot of listening and observing our students, cross-referencing what we see and hear with what we know and have experienced. We mustn’t make anything up to fill gaps; we are obligated to give the best of what we know to our students because someone’s life and person may depend on what we have taught. A trauma survivor may come to us with “pieces” of their narrative missing or damaged due to physical, emotional, or sexual assault/abuse. We are trying to help them to fill in their own gaps on their own terms.

We are dealing with disturbing behaviors of a criminal element. This means I have had to explain to very young children that they have to establish safe boundaries, always tell trusted adults when these boundaries have been crossed, and what to do if someone makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe. This means discussing even what to do if someone attempts to touch private parts or other such disturbing and inappropriate behavior. I can’t pull answers out of thin air. I have had to read books by professionals who work with children dealing with this same disturbing subject matter. I have had to discuss with professionals what the best practices are for dealing with what children report. All of this applies to adults, whose stories have been, in my experience overall, more terrifying and disturbing and more psychologically damaging. Knowing something about the best practices regarding what your students might report to you (i.e. A child reports that a cousin has kissed him on the lips and made him feel embarrassed or a woman reports that her ex-boyfriend has been showing up unannounced at her home. These are stereotypical examples, I have heard far more bizarre and disturbing stories and I advise instructors to learn what they can to help their students) is key and aids students and their loved ones tremendously since very few people have any idea how to handle these situations. In other words, I know where my role ends and where a rape crisis worker’s, or police, or a lawyer’s begins.

Training methods can be very fun, very rewarding, and very empowering for students and instructors alike. Survivors are pretty brave already if they are coming to your dojo/gym to learn how to overcome the events that they are struggling with, and we have an opportunity to help add strength to that bravery. There are some major keys to remember when developing your training methods for these and all students:

  1. DO NOT EVER give someone the “you should have” lecture. In my experience, survivors have said “I should have…” and I listen first, but I always encourage them not to beat themselves up over how the events occurred. Sometimes my advice-my good, tried and true advice, like don’t hang out with people known for unsafe, reckless behaviours, or don’t continue dating someone who has little respect for your boundaries and tends to be controlling-is grounds for my students to feel guilty and ashamed. They replay events and can see and hear what I am describing in vivid clarity. I might say, “you did the best you could given what you knew then. Let’s plan for the future and use what you know now to help you make the best choices for you and your family.” Trauma can steal a person’s faith in the future. I try to get them thinking ahead, using the past as a learning tool only..
  2. Know your students. I try to anticipate their feelings when we run a new or difficult drill. I try to use some emotional intelligence to get a sense for how relaxed, stressed, tired, etc., my student is. All of this can impact how they feel about their own ability to perform, which of course alters performance. If they are having trouble, I slow down. If they apologize, I encourage them to forget the need to apologize and focus on being here NOW. If they are survivors of trauma, they may be experiencing strong feelings of insecurity, defeat, embarrassment, and their self-consciousness can cause them to pack their things and leave in the middle of a class (I have seen this happen). We instructors like to yell to get the energy up in a group. Some students don’t need yelling, but instead our confidence in them to improve with every class. In my experience as a behavioral counsellor, I used a “10 to 1 ratio” rule for encouraging statements to corrective statements. Most people don’t need 10, but some people do. Know who needs some more attention and
  3. Breathe-I incorporate breathing from Qigong and Tai Chi for my more nervous students (I also use this for my hyper kids. It helps them to focus in the same way.). When I run a drill where they have to close their eyes and wait for me to attack them with the pad, they practice the breathing I taught them so that they can get some control over their adrenal and fear response. It worked for me in a lot of situations as well. It didn’t mean I had no fear or that the adrenaline stopped pumping. It just took the edge off enough for me to still be able to think and observe during a crisis. A student may experience a reenactment during intense drills and not tell you. I had that happen with a woman whose ex-husband used to turn the lights off and beat her. This I learned after running the “close your eyes” drill I mentioned above. I would not have run that drill if I had known that at the time, but thankfully she reported feelings of empowerment since this was the first time she’d ever confronted that memory. In getting to know her, I always knew when she was getting nervous, filling up with disturbing memories. We would take some time to breathe together, every class if we had to. It helped to get her focused on pushing through the drill.
  4. Push students to a level just above their competency. My intention isn’t to make it too easy, because then they don’t feel challenged. I also don’t intend to make it too difficult, because that is defeating. Defeat for some trauma survivors is so familiar that it can be a default emotional space, entered in to upon the mere scent of impending failure. If I know they can give me 10 palm strikes, I might have them give me 2 more at the end. If I know they can give me 5 strong knee strikes, I ask for 2 more at the end. If they say they can’t, I respond that they can, it will just take some time and effort. Most people get it during class, some might take one more class to get the mechanics of a technique or drill. I assure them that I look and feel just as foolish when first learning something new. I have to relate my own power to them as something they can attain to.
  5. Ask for permission. You don’t have to literally say, “can I grab your wrist for this technique?” as obviously they have given you an automatic degree of permission just by signing the waiver for class. What I mean is making sure you are checking in with them when it is appropriate to make sure you aren’t pushing them so far in to their discomfort that it is harmful. Some people will quietly suffer, assuming your word is law because you are the authority and they want to be respectful. Encourage them to speak up about their boundaries. I used to tell the kids I taught that not even I had permission to make them feel unsafe or uncomfortable with themselves.

I hope this serves as a good starting point for many instructors who will certainly have some students coming to them seeking help in regaining their wholeness. Reiterating that we can only do so much in our roles as self defense instructors, I encourage the counsellors among us to explore the potential therapeutic benefits of realistic self defense training from quality instructors.


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