Ten ways martial arts training can help survivors of abuse

Warning: Some of the content in this article may be triggering to some people.

Some people come to martial arts training hoping to heal and move on from their experience of physical and/or sexual abuse.

This doesn’t always work out, as the experience can be overwhelming or triggering, or unsuitable in other ways for some individuals. However, if all goes well, here are ten wonderful benefits that training can bring for such students.

Please note that training with and/or teaching abuse survivors can be complex, and feel intensely difficult or risky for the survivor. Part Two of this article is a response to a reader (see below) who asked for advice on whether to tell her sensei about her traumatic history.

 

  1. Learning that power can be good and not necessarily abusive

lotus-978659_1280Paul Linden explains that some survivors may resist acquiring their own personal power:

[This] relates to their early experience of power. They experienced brutality and saw it as power. Since they believe that power in necessarily vile, they reject gaining power even while they desperately wish to be powerful enough to feel safe. Often survivors are afraid that if they become powerful, they will act like the “powerful” adults who hurt them.

It is important for instructors to point out to survivors that there is a difference between counterfeit power, which is harsh, rigid and insensitive, and true power, which is cultivated in aikido and which is kind, yielding and empathetic. When survivors can see and understand that it is possible for power to be ethical and nurturing, they can practice aikido without rejecting their own increasing power.[1]

A good dojo can be the ideal place to model and transmit this “ethical and nurturing” form of power for survivors – as this is essentially the core of what we do.

 

  1. Getting in touch with your fighting spirit and ability to express emotion

Abuse in early life can affect your ability to process and express emotion. For human babies and non-human primates alike, this can show up as an inability to “use” your cries / calls to express emotion and get your needs met, in the way that a “normal” baby or monkey would.[2] As the person moves into adulthood, the inability to manage emotions can persist. In its extreme form it can be labelled Alexithymia:

a clinical condition typified by a reported inability to identify or describe one’s emotions, is associated with various forms of psychopathology, including depression. Highly alexithymic (HA) outpatients are more likely to be female, less likely to have children and are characterized by more somatic-affective symptoms of depression and interpersonal aloofness.[3]

Martial arts may be able to help survivors with their difficulty to express emotion. Research has shown that learning is easier, quicker and more long-lasting if lessons involve the body as well as the mind.[4] This is called embodied cognition. Learning kiai (a shout uttered while attacking) is a good example. 

Jeese Enkamp writes, The quickest way to teach fighting spirit – to anyone on any level – is as brutally effective as it is surprisingly simple. Practice the kiai […] Then let it transform you […] it will kickstart your fighting spirit like nothing else can. [5]

This is great advice for anyone. But for a survivor who is still at heart the baby who couldn’t cry properly, it could be a complete game-changer.

 

  1. Learning to set and maintain boundaries

Paul Linden writes,

stacking-stones-667432_1280Imagine what it would be like to be a child and be hurt by the adults or older siblings on whom you depend for love, nurturance and support. When children are demeaned and injured rather than respected and nurtured, they do not develop a sense of their own power and an ability to maintain their own boundaries. Instead they learn that they are weak and defenseless.

[…] They learn that they have no boundaries, that other people can do what they want to them. Sexual abuse, especially incest, drives home this message most brutally because the child learns that even inside her or his body there is no safety.

We’ve already seen that learning through your body can be extremely powerful and effective – often much more than just learning something through words.

Being told they need to set and maintain better personal boundaries can be pretty much meaningless to someone who doesn’t understand what these words mean in practice, and wouldn’t know where to start. This can feel frustrating and demoralising for them.

But physically practising things like maintaining ma’ai (combative distance), and keeping attacks out can have a very deep impact on the student, as the learning penetrates your whole being, and starts to transform your whole personality.

 

  1. Learning to relax

Intense, repetitive, prolonged abuse (such as domestic abuse) can lock someone into a permanent, hypervigilant, fearful state. Spending too much time in hyper-arousal, with constant adrenalisation can cause physiological damage such as shallow and incomplete breathing, armouring (chronic muscle tightness), sleep problems and digestive problems. [6]

Systematic stretching, yoga, meditation, martial arts and so on can help people learn to let go of unnecessary body tension.

And martial arts in particular can teach survivors that it is possible to relax and still feel (and be) safe; indeed it is desirable to relax in order to strengthen your technique.  

 

  1. Overcoming disassociation

Paul Linden writes: The most pervasive method of handling abuse is mental dissociation and body numbness […] Just as the pain of surgery is made bearable by anesthesia, so children suppress their physical and emotional pain by mental and physical anesthesia.

Dissociation is a process of “spacing out.” Survivors can walk and talk and do kotegaeshi but not really be there. They can be experiencing the process at a distance. They aren’t really concentrating on their movements, and they can hurt themselves or others as a result.

Martial arts can be very difficult for such students, as their mind is not properly connected to their body, and they can find it hard to make their body move in the way the teacher is showing. Again, this is where learning through your body can be powerful. Practising basic movements over and over again until they are hardwired, can be an excellent way to start to restore that shattered connection between mind and body.

 

  1. Experiencing “flow”

buddha-1279902_1280“Flow” is a term coined by the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In an interview with Wired magazine, Csíkszentmihalyi described flow as: being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.[7]

Flow leads to a complete loss of self-consciousness and absence of emotion – although interestingly, in retrospect it the experience will often be described as enjoyable.

This can be a true blessing for people suffering from a condition such as Complex PTSD, as a flow experience can release them from their worries and pain for a period of time.

And martial arts training can be an ideal way to achieve a state of flow. At its best it easily meets all the conditions Csíkszentmihályi describes:

[…] a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted […]

Research has also shown that flow is highly correlated with happiness. It has also been found that people who experience a lot of flow regularly also develop other positive traits, such as increased concentration, self-esteem, and performance.[8]

 

  1. Practising self-care

Self care is important to help a survivor relax and reduce stress, as they recover and heal from abuse or an assault. Investing in your own study of a martial art can be a wonderful way to take care of yourself.

Dr Kathleen Young writes,

I see the beginning of trauma therapy as focusing quite a bit on developing good self-care skills. This is the groundwork that paves the way for later trauma processing. Engaging in self-care activities may stem from already feeling love for yourself. More often for survivors, engaging in these activities may be part of your journey to learning to love yourself.

[…] Good self-care is a challenge for many people and it can be especially challenging for survivors of rape, sexual assault, incest and sexual abuse. It can also be an important part of the healing process.

[…] Exercise is one of the most overlooked types of self-care. The CDC recommends at least 30 minutes of exercise 5 times a week. Exercise, even if it’s just a quick walk at lunchtime, can help combat feelings of sadness or depression and prevent chronic health problems.[9]

As well as the benefits of physical exercise, martial arts training can also bring many other self-care benefits – learning to relax, making new friends, having fun and so on.

 

  1. (For those who have been assaulted by men) – Safe, structured socialisation with men

phoenix-1440452_1280This need can be just as acute for those who have been abused by women. However, given that dojos tend to be so heavily male-dominated, there’s a definite potential benefit for survivors (male or female) who are frightened of men – that is, if and only if they feel ready to take this step.

Most people are basically good; but it can be hard to understand that if the people who should have cared for and protected you failed to do so. The experience of training alongside men who have the power and ability to hurt you should they choose – but who in fact want nothing more than to keep you safe and help you to become more confident and powerful – can be miraculously healing for a survivor who is scared of men in general.

The regular experience of non-sexual physical touch with other students can also be extraordinarily beneficial to a student who has survived abuse, although for others it will not be tolerable.

 

  1. Experiencing “reparenting”

People who are abused by their parents as children can often benefit from “reparenting”, to provide the trustable love and protection that were missing in earlier life. Pete Walker writes:

Reparenting at its best is a yin/yang dynamic that balances the mutually enhancing processes of reparenting by others and self-reparenting.

Some people can gain reparenting by others through immersing themselves in books. Another model is what Pete Walker calls reparenting by committee, which can come from authors, friends, partners, teachers, therapists, therapeutic groups or any combinations of these.

Paul Linden sees martial arts training (specifically Aikido) as potentially having an important role to play here:

Teaching abuse survivors is almost a process of re-parenting. The focus of such teaching must be to empower the survivors to know and respect themselves and to be able to defend themselves against intrusions and attacks. The dojo should be one place where survivors are seen and respected as conscious beings and helped to develop their awareness and strength. [ibid]

 

And finally . . .

  1. Learn to defend yourself from future physical attacks . . . ?

I’ve added a question mark to this one, because it’s not altogether straightforward.

Of course martial arts training can and does save people from assault. And of course it’s important to teach people how to defend themselves.This can be especially pertinent to women, who are often conditioned into meekness, and alienated from their own power.

However, there are (at least) three things to be wary of, before you promote this as a core benefit to students who have survived abuse.

 

Firstly, not all martial arts classes effectively prepare students for real assault situations. Even without getting into debates about the relative effectiveness of different arts, the physiological effects of assault is a huge issue here. As Rory Miller often says, we tend to gravely underestimate the effect of stress on our ability to use what we’ve learned.

When this affect hits, your body and mind change. This is one of the hardest things to address in training. The mind you train with will not be the one you have when attacked […] Skilled technique degrades under stress. It degrades a lot.[11]

 

Secondly, focusing on physical self-defence skills can be a red herring when talking about physical / sexual assault. Most attacks are not perpetrated by a stranger jumping out from behind a bush; indeed an estimated 90% of those who are raped know the perpetrator prior to the offence. Jennifer Lawler and Laura Kamienski write,

The reality that women are usually assaulted by a known assailant means that self-defense skills for women should primarily include learning skills to recognize and defend against assaults committed by a trusted friend, neighbour or intimate partner. In other words, classes should account for the emotional and psychological dynamics of the common relationships between victim and perpetrator

[…] Commonly taught self-defense tactics – such as gouging an attacker’s eyes out […] are ludicrous to the woman who is defending herself against her father or her son’s football coach. Ask yourself if you could actually imagine using a particular technique against a friend or lover before thinking of teaching it as a self-defense maneuver. [12]

 

bridge-53769_640 (2) smallThirdly, focusing on the physical self-defence aspects when someone is still fragile from abuse or assault can be counter-productive. Unexpectedly simulating rape or other attack scenarios in class, or saying something like: as a woman this technique might be useful to you if someone’s trying to rape you can be insensitive and triggering.

It’s not as if the student isn’t already well aware of the associations, if you are practising defences from straddling each other on the ground for example.

There’s also a risk that the survivor will feel inadequate when told about ways to fend off an attack, if they don’t feel they would be capable of doing it themselves in a similar situation.

This could be especially true if they have firsthand experience of the psycho-chemical effects of stress when attacked or abused, and yet these effects are never acknowledged in training. This can make a survivor feel that their own debilitating stress response under assault was abnormal and represents their own personal failure to stay calm and handle the situation.

 

 

This is a very complex topic, and nothing in this article should be treated as gospel for any given student. However, I hope the areas covered are broadly helpful to you.

The second part of this article is some advice to a reader (see below) who wasn’t certain whether to tell her sensei about what she’d been through, or not.


References:


[1] Paul Linden: Abuse Survivors in Aikido Class 

[2] Effects of Early Traumatic Experience on Vocal Expression of Emotion in Young Female Rhesus Macaques 

[3] Is Childhood Sexual Abuse Linked to Inability to Express Emotions in Adulthood? 

[4] Want to learn quicker? Use your body 

[5] Jesse Enkamp: What Every Karate-ka Should Know About “Kiai!” 

[6] Peter Walker. (2013 ). Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving: A Guide and Map for Recovering from CHildgood Trauma (Book). Azure Coyote Publishing

[7] Wikipedia entry on MihalyCsikszentmihalyi

[8] The Pursuit of Happiness – Flow 

[9] Self-Care and Trauma Survivors 

[11]  Rory Miller. (2008). Meditations on Violence: A comparison of martial arts training and real world violence (book). YMAA Publications. Pages 57-8

[12] Jennifer Lawler and Laura Kamienski. (2007). Training Women in the Martial Arts: A Special Journey (book). Wish Publishing. Page 25

6 Responses

  1. Wow – a lot to think about here. Thanks for tackling this tough subject. I appreciate your insight and practical advice.

  2. I found this a very insightful article which reflects my own experience – thank you for writing it. I wanted to ask you what you think the benefits of sharing a personal history with my sensei might be. I don’t want to burden them with unnecessary information, and am also quite private, but if there is anything that might be of use, I might want to tell them. For the record, I am the (adult) child of a concentration camp survivor (so big issues around power, safety and masculinity). I was sexually abused at boarding school, and have very mild post- traumatic stress (hyper vigilance in particular). Do you think it would help to tell my sensei? I am quite used to safe touch in a social dancing environment, and teachers making adjustments. Anyway, any thoughts would be welcome! I just started Karate, by the way.

    • Emma, I believe that most instructors are compassionate. If your instructor is not compassionate consider finding one who is.
      I used to own a karate school, I had 2 students (sisters) come to my school because 1 had been abused for 4 decades, and the other got her out… saving her life. They shared with me at the beginning, what I just shared with you.
      In the beginning, the 1 who had been abused, could only do some very mild stretching. That was enough to completely wipe he out. After 2 1/2 weeks I taught her a way to stand that reduces stress. Two days later she was confronted by a man who was mentally and psychologically “challenged”. All of her previous life trained her to turn and run in terror. This time she changed her stance to what I taught her. Her stress deminished to where she engaged with him for 10-15 minutes (until I arrived). That night she had her most enthusiastic and productive class up until that time.
      I taught her one small thing at a time. As she learned each item her life was transformed. I taught her how to stand. Next I taught her how to breathe. Soon after I taught her how to hold her arms up in such a way that they form a strong “fence”. Shortly after that, at an assembly of over a hundred kids and their teachers and parents, she volunteered spontaneously, to get up in front of all of them and to break a board. She did break that board. That was something we had never done in class.

      I tend to meet my students where they are, individually.
      All good instructors should be like that.
      My knowing my student’s background was very helpful… most importantly, for me, was that it allowed me to never become frustrated at her rate of progress. Instead, it enabled me to rejoice with her at each stage of her growth.

      • Dear Richard, thank you so much for sharing your experience in this way, for others to read about. It’s inspirational to hear how successful the sisters were in learning your art. Very best wishes Kai

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