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Martial Arts and Survivors of Abuse

posted Jul 26, 2012, 7:38 PM by Joanne Johnson   [ updated Nov 24, 2012, 4:02 PM ]

As a Martial Artist and a survivor of abuse, I have found Martial Arts to be beneficial in my healing journey. But I have also found some instructors and students don't know how to use this knowledge to their own benefit. There are some things that survivors, therapists, and martial arts instructors need to be aware of when considering martial arts training.

Abuse comes in many different ways. There is physical abuse, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, psychological abuse, and sexual abuse. Abuse can be a one time occurrence or go on over years. Abuse affects a person in many different ways, such as low self esteem, depression, nightmares, flashbacks, and post traumatic stress disorder. Some impacts can be seen, others are hidden deep inside. The trauma will always be a part of the person's life, and will never go away.

Martial Arts training can help abuse survivors to regain some control over their lives, increase self esteem, and learn how to prevent themselves from being a victim again. But there are a few things you should be aware of, about abuse, both as a teacher and as a student.

As a Martial Arts teacher you will notice from time to time that your students might not behave in a way you would expect. Perhaps a student suddenly seems to lose control and go berserk on their training partner. Or perhaps the opposite happens and all of a sudden they pull completely away and withdraw.

Both of these are examples of how a person might react when a traumatic memory is triggered. The best way to describe a trigger is something, person, place, smell, touch, or even emotion that suddenly reminds the person of past abuse and this causes the person to become trapped in their mind back when the abuse was happening, and not in the current situation. In their mind their training partner has become their abuser. This causes a fight or flight response.

So what can you, the teacher, do in this situation. First of all try to give the person space and time to get themselves back under control. Do not touch them, unless you need to prevent them from hurting someone else or themselves. Remind them they are in the present and not stuck in the past. Tell them they are safe. Encourage them to take deep breaths from the diaphragm. Afterward, do not pressure the person to talk about what they are dealing with, as this can trigger them as well. If a student does talk about the abuse, and you are willing, listen, be supportive and not judgmental. Be aware of your own needs and know when hearing someone's story may be traumatic for you the instructor. Be aware that if a minor student does share about abuse it must be reported to the authorities.

There are some ways to make a safe environment for abuse survivors: Always ask before touching someone, or let them initiate the contact. Never force someone to work with a partner, especially on close contact and grappling techniques. If you know a student is a survivor, you can give them advanced warning of when you are working certain self defense techniques. This way they are prepared ahead of time, but be aware some people may use this information to stress and worry till the next class. If you are working a technique the student does find very triggering, partner them with a more experienced martial artist who is aware of the situation, and can handle any difficulty if it should arise. You can also offer classes and workshops specifically focusing on the needs of abuse survivors. These would have a larger focus on self defense, and prevention.

As a Martial Arts student there are somethings you can do to make your martial arts training safer and more effective for you. When starting the martial arts take time to check out several styles and clubs before choosing a club to train with. No two clubs are exactly the same. Look for a club you feel comfortable in. Watch how the instructors treat the students, and each other. Most martial arts clubs will allow you try a class or two for free before signing up, though you will have to sign a liability waiver.

If you are comfortable, tell the instructor you are an abuse survivor. You don't need to give details. This allows the instructor to to be aware of your needs and know how to react in situations. If you are seeing a counselor or therapist, let them know about your martial arts training. Your counselor or therapist may suggest you avoid certain things till you are further along in the healing process.

You should also learn what triggers you. You can use this knowledge in two ways: you can avoid the things that trigger you, or with the help of a more experienced martial artist and counselor or therapist, learn to work through the trigger. For example if a choke hold is triggering, you can work with a partner on ways to get out of the choke hold. This allows your body to re-learn how to react to the situation.

Martial Arts is a wonderful way to help in the healing process of abuse. Survivors can go from being a withdrawn, scared person with low self esteem, to a strong, powerful, in control person who can face the world head on.

My own personal experiences in martial arts have been mostly positive. I discovered once I had mastered the basics of a form, the repetition created a meditative state, that helped me to focus on something other than the memories of the abuse. To this day I still use forms as a method of calming and focusing myself when dealing with strong emotions. I did and still do have some issues doing groundwork with male partners, other than my husband. I am continuing to slowly work past these and continue on the healing journey.

Written by Joanne Johnson

Joanne Johnson has been studying various martial arts since 1993, when a counselor suggested martial arts training might help her deal with her own past abuse. Joanne holds a 1st degree black belt and is an instructor and club manager at Living Water Martial Arts(2011-present). She also is a brown belt in Wado Kai Karate and helped her husband Dave Johnson run the Olds Wado Kai Karate (1996-1998) and NW Arkansas Wado Kai Karate ( 2004-2009). She also co-leads a woman’s recovery group for survivors of abuse. She has been married for 15 years and has 2 children.

This article was published in Karate For Christ International July 2012 Newsletter and the Shintani Wado Kai Karate Federation Sept 2012 Harmonizer.