Self-defense and traumatic memory

Prevention and trauma healing – training must empower, not re-victimize

Self-defense training with a trauma-informed, mindfulness-based perspective can not only protect people against future attacks but also help them heal from trauma.

Many people don’t seek self-defense training until after an assault. Almost every workshop I’ve taught included participants who had been attacked at some point in their lives - some recently, some many years ago. Most trainees, but not all, suffered trauma.

Awareness of the extent of sexual crimes and harassment has increased enormously over the last years; yet many people, including some self-defense trainers, still don’t fully understand the nature and extent of the trauma caused by such assaults.

As used here, trauma refers to the effects of physical, emotional, and mental attacks that overwhelm a person’s ability to cope in healthy, effective ways. When people can actively cope with an assault by escaping or protecting themselves, even if they are injured, they usually recover more quickly, with less severe mental and emotional scars.

Whether a threat causes trauma depends on what abilities people have to react to the particular situations they are confronted with. We know that an assault causes trauma when we are overwhelmed due to a perceived lack of effective responses, especially when we feel trapped. But we now also know we can heal from trauma by physically practicing self-defense, replacing neural memories of restraint and defeat with new memories of active coping and successful defense. Neuroscientists have discovered our neural systems are plastic, meaning they can and do change.

Trauma-informed self-defense training can restructure our subconscious body memories to help us heal from trauma in addition to increasing our violence prevention options. On the other hand, training by well-meaning, but uniformed self-defense instructors can re-victimize instead of empower trainees by inadvertently reinforcing traumatic memories and experiences. Good intentions aren’t enough; it’s essential that self-defense trainers use trauma-informed approaches to teach effectively without further damaging their trainees.

Prey animals like deer or antelope often illustrate healthy threat coping mechanisms. Such animals encounter frequent threats but don’t endure lasting trauma. They instinctively freeze to avoid being detected by predators. If they are spotted, their flight instincts kick in. By outrunning a predator they discharge the stress hormones and electrical signals in their bodies that had been activated by the threat. Further, having escaped to safety, prey animals often shake their whole bodies, completing the physical release of stress. Having successfully coped and having discharged the physical sensations of the attack, their bodies return to equilibrium with no lasting trauma.

Most of my trainees who had been attacked knew their aggressors who were people such as spouses, partners, friends, professors, coaches, and neighbors. Only a few trainees were attacked by complete strangers. Many of them froze as they were attacked, even though they were outspoken, capable, and strong women from all walks of life - marathon runners and other champion athletes, accomplished artists, and business executives. Freezing isn’t limited to weak or fragile people. Freezing and even tonic immobility in response to a threat are innate, autonomous survival mechanisms which evolved over eons to protect us when other options don’t appear to be available. And freezing is exacerbated, and can evolve into tonic immobility, when people are attacked by those they know and trust. Our bodies resort to tonic immobility when we perceive a severe or lethal threat with no chance of escaping or fighting back. The body then goes limp, natural analgesics are released, and you may no longer be able to speak or move. Tonic immobility had important evolutionary purposes. They included a mercy response: flooding you with pain-killers when you were about to be torn apart by a Sabertooth Tiger. Another potential benefit was that with a body appearing limp and dead already, a predator might decide to leave you alone rather than get food poisoning from carrion.

Besides innate threat responses, like freezing and tonic immobility, over eons, our memory functions were developed to assure our survival. Rather than treating freezing and traumatic memories as signs of weakness or of damaged brains and bodies, we should acknowledge them as successful evolutionary adaptations. Moreover, we should encourage our trainees to celebrate their intuition to survive modern threats.

Trauma-informed self-defense training takes into account the effects of trauma on memory formation, storage, and retrieval. As noted trauma specialist Bessel van der Kolk explains, the body keeps the score. Trauma influences the type of memories that people can form, retain, and consciously retrieve. Victims often lack structured, consciously accessible memories. While victims may not retain any conscious memories of traumatic attacks, their bodies remember so that they can react quickly against similar threats in the future. This makes sense for survival purposes.

Often victims of traumatic attacks have only hazy, fragmented memories: shreds of sensory impressions, like sounds, smells, or touch, but no “story.” They can’t provide a chronological account of what happened to them. The hallmark of traumatic memory is that it isn’t consciously retrievable and that it isn’t structured and stored in articulable story form. There is no tale with a beginning, a middle part, and an end.

While the cognitive brain seems to block out the story part of the attack, the body often retains vivid shards of memories – sensory impressions such as sounds, images, or smells. Victims often retain a clear, sharp memory of the face of their attackers, but may not remember details such as how they got home after the attack was over. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. The purpose of traumatic memory is to keep you safer in the future. It imprints and stores salient information such as the face of the attacker and discards information that it doesn’t deem crucial for your protection in the future, like how you got home after an attack. Returning home didn’t constitute the danger; that’s why evolution didn’t deem it necessary to take up memory space for this information. But the face of the attacker, his identity, are crucial for future protection. That’s why evolution made sure you can recall that type of information. That’s why it makes complete sense that Dr. Blasey Ford was 100% certain that Brett Kavanaugh had been her attacker while she may not have remembered details such as how she got home after the attack.

Traumatic memories also include subconscious memories that may trigger automatic bodily reactions. For years after the initial assault, sensations that the body associates with the original attack can trigger involuntary responses. Traumatic experiences imprint subconscious, cellular memories in the survivors’ bodies that continue to trigger reactions to similar stimuli long after the original threat has passed. When a person perceives something, for example a touch or a smell, that reminds the body of the traumatizing attack, the body will react as if the attack were happening again in the present.

Thus, when catalyzed in self-defense training, traumatic memories can cause reactions such as panic or withdrawal that may make it difficult or impossible for trainees to learn or even to participate in triggering drills. When such drills are introduced without proper groundwork, trainees are likely to be re-traumatized rather than empowered.

For example, body memory often activates intense fear and automatic physical reactions when women are practicing strangulation defenses. When I worked as a client advocate for a domestic violence organization, I had to log the type of attack for every reported incident. Almost every caller reported strangulation, often in addition to beatings or sexual assaults. Many violence survivors retain body memories of the pressure on their necks. Without foundation, strangulation defense drills can make trainees relive horror rather than teaching them new skills. Indeed, any simulated attacks that evoke subconscious traumatic memories without proper foundational training can re-traumatize participants. Trauma-informed training needs to take into account how trauma affects memory and how it can subconsciously trigger reactions.

We now also know that we can heal from trauma through active physical practice. As neuroscientists have discovered over the last twenty years, our neural systems are plastic. We can restructure our neural systems and our body’s cellular memories. Thus, in addition to offering violence prevention options, trauma-informed self-defense training can also help people to restructure their body memories so that they can recover from trauma.

At the right stage in recovery, trauma-informed training allows participants to consciously access their memories. Through a step-by-step approach, trainees can process their memories and fears without feeling overwhelmed. Training needs to begin in a sensitive, safe, and supportive environment, and by keeping the trainee grounded in the present environment. Trainees need to be allowed to learn and practice physical drills with graduated levels of intensity appropriate to their individual comfort levels. Some may need to start by discussing their experiences with the trainer and then observing others before directly participating in physical training. Most of my trainees are eventually able to perform drills at full intensity, such as in low or no light, at full speed, and with significant stress and fatigue simulations. Self-defense helps these trainees supplant their body memories of helplessness and paralysis with new sensations of control and power.

No one should have to remain a victim. Like deer that escape from predators and continue with their lives, alert but not traumatized, we can also emerge with new strengths and our sense of well-being restored. When trainees’ trauma-based needs are respected, they can heal from trauma, acquire new skills, and leave self-defense training re-empowered rather than re-traumatized.

Trauma-informed training can help trainees supplant their body memories of helplessness and paralysis with new sensations of power and control, promoting trauma recovery and healing.

Brigitte Schulze