Character Development Beyond Violence & Trauma
This is the second blog entry in a three-part series on character development through martial arts, self-defence, and Positive Psychology. If you missed the first entry and wish to read it, please click here.
If respect and "good character" are the lessons that Japanese martial arts teach first, it is what happens when those traits go missing where self-defence and violence start.
The following blog entry continues personal reflections on research around character development through martial arts, self-defence, and Positive Psychology. It focuses on the experience of violence and trauma and the role that different types of physical training and movement may have on post-traumatic growth.
From a research perspective, my first hypothesis is that the character of a person who experiences violence and subsequent trauma is affected, for better or for worse. They may grow post-traumatically, or they may atrophy. They may strengthen, or they may weaken. There is no middle ground (Coker, 2020).
From a psychological perspective, when violence is followed by post-traumatic stress, a "shattered self" can emerge. The person's core assumptions of who they are and what they perceive of the world around them (including other people) is altered (Janoff-Bulman, 1992). Whether they are conscious of it or not, they develop "shattered assumptions" particularly around justice, benevolence, predictability, competence, and worth. Loss of meaning and low self-esteem then follow (Edmondson et al., 2011).
In this state of loss and uncertainty, everyday life is perceived as a threat, creating an anxious state.
A biological reason for this is that the traumatised person is experiencing a continual or frequent state of "fight-flight-freeze", which is a physiological response to danger. When we don't stand up for ourselves (fight) or escape (flight), and instead panic or shut down (freeze), our bodies don't have the opportunity to process the chemical response that is triggered to help us act.
While the freeze response (tonic immobility) may be an evolutionary response designed to help us survive (Schmidt et al., 2008), in the long-term it can lead to anxiety and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress (Seltzer, 2015). Some trauma psychologists and psychotherapists have drawn parallels between humans and animals here, highlighting that wild animals may also freeze when attacked if they sense they can't outrun their attacker or fight back and survive. If they do survive the attack, they will stand up and shake the freeze off quite literally, and return to "normal" (Levine, 1997).
Unlike humans, it appears that animals do not suffer from post-traumatic stress, or at least not in the same way. This is due to differences in how our brains function. An animal may remember a violent incident and react to protect itself if it feels it may happen again (e.g. through a flinch response of a dog who has been hit), but there isn't a narrative to interpret it. Their body "remembers" and responds but there is no mind to create a story.
A human brain, meanwhile, is wired to process experiences at a cognitive and somatic level. As a result, we have the ability to "re-live" past experiences in our minds and bodies. This can have a positive affect and effect when we are remembering positive experiences (Fredrickson, 2001, 2013) but also the exact opposite can occur when we are remembering negative experiences. Any intervention to help us to recover therefore needs to take into account the cognitive and somatic aspects.
My second research hypothesis is that "freezing" in such a moment (i.e. not taking action when threatened to fight or flee) will become a learned fear response that will pervade other aspects of life, eroding mental health and wellbeing. A feeling of helplessness may emerge, compromising the person's sense of self and capacity to engage in positive change. Without a positive intervention or experience, the person's character strengths may atrophy. This will limit or stall their potential for growth.
Freezing as a habit can have a devastating effect on a person's mental health and wellbeing. The loss of physical power and intense experience of fear and vulnerability during a violent attack is made cognitive after the event (i.e. turned into thoughts). Assumptions are typically made (e.g. I'm weak, others are stronger) that can turn into a conscious or unconscious self-concept and self-narrative, usually around guilt and shame. These negative thoughts can then manifest in negative habits.
Negative thoughts prompt negative emotions. Given that emotions play a role in motivating behaviour (Spielberger & Reheiser, 2009), this increases the likelihood for negative habits and behaviours to form. For example, shame and low self-esteem have been associated with codependent behaviours in relationships (Wells et al., 1999) while negative emotions such as anger and anxiety have been linked to depression (Freud and Darwin, cited in Spielberger & Reheiser, 2009). Emotional states can also impact our relationships with others and our environments through body language and voice or sound (Van den Stock et al., 2007), and through broader movement patterns. Movement in turn can also influence emotion (Brooks & Stark, 1989).
For those who are exposed to repeat situations of physical violence from which they cannot escape, and where fighting back isn't an option (e.g. for a child) or may lead to greater danger to life (e.g. domestic violence where the victim cannot leave the home), the only option left is to flee. When that is not possible, the person may submit themselves to the violence and develop coping strategies such as dissociation (i.e. disconnecting from thoughts, feelings, memories, and identity) and fantasies of a better life. Both responses may be helpful to some extent but they will not end the violence.
This is where most animals and humans differ. Our brains are wired to process events intellectually to try to make sense of them. We then have emotional responses to those thoughts.
One of these responses is an ongoing state of fear, which translates to anxiety as a cognitive and somatic response. While animals and humans may share a natural fear of death and physical harm, and to a certain extent fear of separation or isolation (safety can come in numbers in the wild too), humans also experience the fears of loss of autonomy or control, and ego death (Albrecht, 1997).
People who are still recovering from a violent attack may try to curb their resulting anxiety through attempting to re-establish control. Without a positive intervention, this can continue as a habit for years after the violence has ended. The control may be limited to self (e.g. in relation to eating or exercise habits) or extended to other people around them (e.g. by attempting to limit loved ones' exposure to violence) and their surroundings (e.g. through installing CCTV cameras).
They may also avoid situations that provoke a fear-based response or highlight their lack of physical power or feeling of vulnerability. This includes various forms of movement and exercise, particularly those that demand cardiovascular fitness or physical strength. This contributes to post-traumatic atrophy, not just in terms of character development and the ability to recover but quite literally at a muscular level. As the physical body weakens, the emotional, cognitive, and spiritual or creative selves may diminish.
Bottom line: Humans and animals share much in common but when it comes to violent trauma recovery, it may not be as simple as taking inspiration from animals in the wild. Instead of studying animals, we should be studying what the human body is made for and how it is designed to move (e.g. running, jumping, walking, hanging, lifting, and lying down).
My third and final research hypothesis is that to "unlearn" this habit of freezing, character development is required. In order to restore the physical power and action that was missing during a violent attack, physical rather than cognitive engagement in character development is needed first. This physical engagement must contain "hard" and "soft" elements. After this, cognitive reflection and synthesis of the experience may take place to integrate and empower the person's "shattered" self.
Given that fear and hope are polar perspectives, any fears around death, physical harm or injury, separation or isolation, loss of autonomy or control, and ego death will naturally elicit a hope for the opposite; hopes for existence, health, connection, autonomy or control, and a healthy sense of ego (Coker, 2016a, 2016b).
Cultivating hope in these five areas as a character strength may therefore serve part of the process of recovering from violent trauma. For example, a person may explore what is meaningful and purposeful in their life (existence), take positive steps to regain their health, seek out positive connections with other people and foster a sense of connection with themselves, take charge of certain areas of their life (autonomy) and repair their shattered "self" (ego). All of these may contribute towards healing.
For those who have been physically violated, a cognitive and emotional exploration of hope may not be enough. This is because somatic responses "learned" during the intensity of a physically violent attack require a physical process to "discharge" or "release".
In other words, the process of recovery needs to be embodied as well as cognitive, and embodied approaches could potentially fare better coming first and as a long-term strategy for maintenance of wellbeing and mental health once the recovery phase is over. Various evidence-based somatic and movement-oriented therapies oriented towards the "soft" side have emerged to support this process, for example:
Somatic Experiencing, or SE, which uses interoception and proprioception through gentle movement as a way to recover from trauma through discharging physical tension associated with traumatic memories (Payne et al., 2015). SE may be used in isolation or as an adjunct to a cognitive therapy such as psychotherapy.
Experiential Play Therapy, or EPT, which uses play to process somatic responses to trauma in children (Norton et al., 2011). EPT may help the child to express traumatic memories that the therapist may identify in their movement patterns, and guide the child towards patterns of play that may help to facilitate trauma dissipation.
Dance Movement Psychotherapy, or DMP, which uses dance and movement to address the connections between thoughts, feelings, neurobiology, and somatic responses in a traumatised person (Levine & Land, 2015). DMP uses movement to help people to access the mind and become more aware, which can aid the journey to recovery.
While the above approaches have their value and effectiveness, my opinion is that for some people, they could be incomplete. The next part of this blog entry reflects on my personal experiences with violence and recovery to explain why I disagree with movement-based recovery methods that do not include intense experiences I find relevant for healing and growth through somatic and cognitive character development.
To support this enquiry, research is emerging that suggests the relevance of vigorous-intensity exercise and recovery from trauma. For example, in one particular study those who engaged in vigorous activities such as running or cycling over moderate exercise appeared to experience fewer experiences of numbing or avoidance and hyperarousal (Hegberg et al., 2019). Other studies have shown a positive outcome for trauma recovery through moderate and gentle exercise. My question is around combining both along with cognitive processing elements in the intervention of a person recovering from violent trauma.
My experience of violence is direct and secondary. Sexual assault and domestic violence were both direct, the former being a single episode and the latter multiple and sporadic episodes over a period of eight years. Witnessing and documenting the impact of violence (e.g. torture, rape, physical assault) through my humanitarian work in prisons was secondary. This took place over a period of five years with a further five years of violence coverage outside of prisons (e.g. in hospitals, refugee camps).
While violence may be emotional and psychological (not to mention structural and systemic), it is physical violence that this blog entry is focused on.
In this regard, only my direct experiences of sexual assault and domestic violence are relevant to the research I am conducting on character development. The impact of violence I witnessed in others did affect me (e.g. increasing anxiety or rage, triggering feelings of guilt and shame that I couldn't protect them) but I did not perceive my life to be threatened and had no need to physically fight back or escape.
Feeling as if your life is threatened (or remembering how it was) is a very different experience to feeling outraged that another person has been violated. For me, it resulted in shallow breathing and a cold feeling in my legs. It was as if my heart stopped beating as I waited for death or injury to arrive. One time, after the incident was over, my legs gave way and I sat shaking on the floor, as if powerless to move.
My last personal experience of physical violence was over a decade ago. Since then, I have explored multiple healing modalities to recover and grow. These included one-to-one somatic therapies such as DMP and SE, women's yoga and meditation practice, and various therapeutic yoga teacher trainings. All offered gentle ways to activate emotional and energetic healing, and valuable lessons on how to soothe and rebalance an anxious nervous system. They formed an integral part of my emotional recovery.
These gentle movement practices fall within the "soft" side of physical engagement for character development. They offered a safe space to breathe, move, and explore, and taught me to embody character strengths such as love, kindness, hope, and spirituality, and how to self-regulate after stressful experiences. They offered a way to build emotional resilience through being mindful of and honouring rather than repressing my feelings. This encouraged self-awareness and ultimately, self-acceptance.
"Soft" movement practices offered a way to re-evaluate my "shattered assumptions" of the world around me. From that place, the world seemed kinder.
Through facilitated group work, I listened to the experiences of others whose boundaries had been crossed in various ways, including physical violence. Listening to each others' stories after movement practice with a rebalanced nervous system helped me to identify and re-evaluate my assumptions at a cognitive level. This was a gradual process over several years. There were no epiphanies that led to a personal transformation; rather, my "shattered" assumptions were gently and lovingly worn down. I no longer carried an emotional armour into situations where none was needed.
Parallel to this, I have been a stand-up, throwing, and grappling martial artist who is used to challenging movement patterns and has engaged in intense physical training. I have also been a self-defence practitioner who has experienced prolonged and pressure-tested situations where I have had to fight back or escape in a state of fatigue or exhaustion, and resist a habitual urge to give up just before a situation becomes too intense and deeply uncomfortable. I have also experienced panic in such moments, as well as a broken elbow, both of which could have left me dead in the real world.
"Hard" movement practices offered a way for me to transform "softer" aspects of my character that led to being victimised in the first place.
For example, an over-use of the martial virtues of compassion and loyalty - particularly around people whom I considered more vulnerable or less fortunate than me - made me a target for violence. Without good judgment, boundaries were relaxed and in those moments, physical boundaries were crossed. A habit of taking the moral high ground after violation emerged, leading me to be silent and creating further opportunity for the attacks to happen. Silent and passive victims pose no threat to their attackers, nor the impetus to change.
Much research has been conducted on "soft" and gentle somatic approaches to healing from violent trauma yet very little has been conducted on the potential benefits of "hard" and intense somatic approaches where noise is welcome. The average martial artist or self-defence practitioner, and perhaps those who engage in intense physical practices that pose a physical threat (e.g. a higher risk of injury in rugby or snow-boarding), may find this surprising. For some of us, it may be a no-brainer yet research that can be translated to therapeutic practice is still catching up.
When a person has an intense physical experience and emerges out of it in one piece, either by way of escape (which may involve running) or confrontation (which may involve fighting back or in the rugby example, tackling), they walk away with a lived experience of physical power in their bodies. In other words, they experience an embodied state of power which may be second nature for some people but for those recovering from physical violence, is a frequently missing phenomenon. Once this power is felt, a vital part of the healing and growth process can emerge.
When an intense physical training experience is followed by positive reinforcement, the person may experience a peak moment or outcome that can change their perception of self as "shattered".
My observation through personal experience and witnessing the process of healing and growth in others through teaching self-defence is that instead of feeling "shattered" and subsequently low in self-respect and self-esteem, the person traumatised by violence now views themselves as someone who is "strong" and capable rather than "weak" and powerless. Their respect for self is re-awakened and their expectation of what they could achieve next grows. These realisations take place at a cognitive level alongside their earlier somatic experience during and after an intense physical experience.
When peak moments following intense physical training are repeated, they offer the opportunity for "re-conditioning" a person's relationship to themselves and the world around them. One peak moment can be powerful but multiple peak moments can offer a lasting effect. The person develops a greater endurance for discomfort without falling into habits of helplessness or freezing. As their discomfort threshold increases, they realise that they can outlive them by taking action. This can lead to positive changes in thought, emotion, and behaviour.
They also develop physical resilience and are subsequently better able to regulate their nervous system under stress. This happens as a result of challenging and increasing their physical strength and cardiovascular capacity while they feel threatened, not at a later date when that threat has passed.
As it would be unethical to tell a person to walk back into danger to achieve this experience, high-pressure situations where a person has to take physical action need to be created to allow for this type of resilience and positive growth to emerge.
The physical pressure should be proportionate to the person's baseline of intensity as the point of such an exercise is about the embodiment of character development under pressure rather than achieving a particular skills or performance-related outcome. Predicting this baseline requires experience and training. This may come through observing a person's physical fitness levels and patterns of learned behaviour such as shutting down or avoiding intensity over the course of a day or a longer period of time.
Challenging the person's threshold for the mental, physical, and emotional stress that can accompany the experience of intensity in physical training is linked to observation. The effects of violent trauma do not exist in isolation. They are there, along with the everyday stresses and strains that every person goes through. Push someone too hard and too soon and there could be negative consequences. Hesitating and not following through on "hard" training can also hamper the potential for healing and growth.
To only work with the "softer" side of movement as a way to heal is to miss out on the benefits that the "harder" approaches to movement can offer.
The person traumatised by violence may feel better, but are they more capable of fighting back or escaping should the need to defend themselves arise again? By taking refuge in soft movement practices, do they run the risk of avoiding future threats and thereby risk limiting their potential for post-traumatic growth?
Likewise, to only engage in the "harder" movement practices without experiencing the "softer" ones could lead to other types of imbalances.
For example, an inflated sense of ego, particularly as a person develops physical strength and skill, may follow intense physical training where the person has emerged as "victor". Where a victim once stood, without the cultivation of softer character strengths such as love and kindness, an aggressive person may now stand in their place.
Engaging in hard and soft training is not a new concept in Japanese martial arts. Take Goju Ryu Karate, for example, which contains the hard-soft elements in its translation from Japanese to English. Other Japanese martial arts, such as Seido Karate, include intense training followed by meditation.
These martial arts also emphasise character virtues as part of training. For example, through training principles and dojo kun. The bushido, or Samurai code, includes courage and compassion alongside honour and self-control, and many engaged in softer arts such as tea ceremony and calligraphy. They understood and practiced the wisdom of cultivating harmony by weaving together the hard and the soft.
Life is full of difficult moments. What separates them from the more enjoyable ones is perspective. Taking the hard with the soft, or the rough with the smooth, is part of living an integrated and empowered life.
Moving forwards with my research, I will be exploring character development through intense physical training experiences followed by peak experiences. These will be balanced with character development through gentle physical practice. The study will narrow and focus on the fundamentals of more challenging human movement patterns (e.g. lifting, sprinting, hanging, jumping, hitting, rolling), rather than a particular type or style of movement (e.g. martial arts, self-defence, or yoga). It will encompass somatics and kinaesthetics, with a cognitive aspect for synthesis.
The third and final part of this series will address this research area through the lens of Positive Psychology, questioning if there is a place for such a "hard-soft" physical intervention for character development within this field as a means to process negative states such as violent trauma and take steps towards post-traumatic growth.
Claire Higgins is the Director of Inner Athletics. She is a Positive Psychology Practitioner (L7) with a Masters degree in Exercise & Sport Psychology, and leads operations, education and research at the Positive Psychology Guild.
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