When I was little, my dad told me everything in the dark was the same as in the light. Therefore, I didn’t have to be scared. By demonstrating this by turning on and off the lights, my dad gave me the tool to understand my fears and modify my reaction.
In the same way, once people understand why their bodies have a reaction to trauma, it helps them understand and handle those reactions better. Given the stigma on mental health, we don’t often discuss why traumatized people often struggle to handle stress, or help them be aware of the tools available to help them cope.
So, the first question is, why do traumatized people have that reaction?
When we are in danger, we either fight, take flight or freeze. Our autonomic nervous system takes over to help us get to safety by flooding our bodies with hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that make us briefly strong enough to either fight back or run away. Another part of our automatic nervous system, the parasympathetic system tries to calm down the body from the stress. However, since it relaxes the body which is still dealing with the hormone surge, this process makes people freeze up completely in a time of stress.
This isn’t a weakness. Even a trained combat soldier who is mentally and physically prepared for their mission can still freeze in real life when overwhelmed. Since our bodies are trained to react to past stressful experiences, experiences that seem similar to past traumas can trigger the same reaction as the actual stresses themselves. People who have a lot of traumas have a brain that is very protective, and wants to keep the person safe.
I like to give an example of a mental smoke alarm. Every apartment should have one, for fire safety. Of course, the alarm is only good if it works properly and only alerts us to actual smoke. If it goes off randomly, we live in fear, since we don’t know when things are dangerous or a false alarm. We all have that mental alarm, which nature gave us in order to alert us to danger.
Now, if the alarm is going off randomly, the solution isn’t to turn off the smoke alarm or become terrified every time it goes off. Instead, we need to fix it and make it sensitive to the right dangers, while able to ignore what isn’t dangerous.
So, how do we retrain our bodies? There are many ways, and one of the most efficient ways happens in every Krav Maga class I teach.
In training, practitioners learn to use techniques under conditions of stress and high intensity. The goal is to simulate safely what real-life threats feel like in training.
For example, when we practice a choke defense, we close our eyes in order to be surprised by the feeling of being attacked. By repetition of reacting under stress, we learn what real danger feels like, allowing our brains to become more sensitive to what is an actual emergency, instead of reacting badly to every stress.
The fears and anxiety during our daily life at work or home are less scary than we think, when we compare it to a rear naked choke hold. Therefore, our bodies learn when they should release the hormones, instead of overloading the body when it’s not appropriate. This is especially true of people who live with trauma.
In society, we are told to choke down our fears or not talk about them, something that is terrible for our mental health. Krav Maga provides a safe environment for people to work through their fears and relearn how to handle stress in a safe manner. The practice also encourages a healthier lifestyle, with self-care techniques such as diet changes, regular exercise, and the community that builds between students.
All of these tools help people dealing with trauma realize they have nothing to be ashamed of. With the proper support, they can overcome the feeling of helplessness and modify their thought process from one of fear to one of awareness and security. This isn’t just me saying so, this is the findings of Alison Willing, a USF Center of Aging and Brain Repair professor who studied the issue clinically.
Over my thirteen years as a Krav Maga instructor, I met countless people who experienced abuse and violence, and came to Krav to regain their confidence. On long days when I feel exhausted after back-to-back classes, I get so much strength from the feedback from my students. I see how their thought process shifts for the better in how they perceive themselves and how they treat others during their daily life.Even during Covid-19, I’m still teaching online.Hearing how grateful they are for the ways Krav Maga changed them for the better makes me so grateful for my job.
For me, every day at work is World Mental Health day. My goal is to empower as many students as possible, with tools to create a new personal image and transform their mindset from a victim to a survivor.