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  • Writer's pictureClaire Higgins

Creating a "Positive" Martial Arts Intervention to Confront Fear

This new blog series captures the process of creating a Positive Psychology Intervention on fear, action, and movement.

As I work my way through this blog series on creating a Positive Psychology Intervention for fear, action, and movement, I'm torn between the researcher inside of me who wants to point out each and every article on martial arts, self-defence, fear, and psychology, and the part of me that wants to step away and instead, turn inwards.

I wasn't always an avid researcher. In fact, my preferred approach up until several years ago, was that of lived experience. So strong was my belief that this held more legitimacy than impersonal research studies that I spent several years in various autoethnographic modes of inquiry, and ended up writing several self-narrated books. The problem with that approach, however, is that you can easily swing to the other extreme. Everything becomes personal if you stop looking outwards, and that isn't always a good thing.

Research (of the non-personal kind) helped me to step away from my own rather narrow and repetitive experiences. It turned me back towards the experience of others and gave me a stronger base from which to assess old and new knowledge sources. Now, I find limitations in drawing and building on existing research on martial arts as my interest area - Positive Psychology and Martial Arts - is so under-explored. Aside from a peppering of articles here and there over the past decade, and a well-written book on Martial Virtues (thanks to Charles Hackney), there is little I can draw or build on.

I could certainly pull or drag together various strands of thought from broader psychological research on martial arts and self-defence and like some have done, connect the dots with Positive Psychology theories. But this approach doesn't sit well with me. It feels like lazy and circumstantial research. The kind that gets the "right" nods but doesn't feel good deep down. On the surface, I could cover all expected bases and please all the "right" people (so-and-so says this, so-and-so says that, this could mean this, or it could mean that...). Eventually, I will have to do that for a formal piece of research but right now, my lived experience of both Positive Psychology and Martial Arts says no, no more. This has been done for far too long. It is time to break new ground.


Honouring our lived experience as martial artists without teetering into self-indulgence, ego trips, or warrior fantasies is a tricky balance at times. Martial arts can mean so much to us at various stages of our lives. As a child, it was my "safe space" and a cool space where I might one day meet Jean-Claude Van Damme, or have a life similar to that of Daniel-San on the Karate Kid. As an adult, it provided a place where I could prove life hadn't worn me down, and that I could come back stronger than before. Self-defence, meanwhile, showed that I could be taken advantage of no more.

Our identities inevitably become intertwined with the martial arts practices we come to fear or love. They can become a filter through which we see the world around us. Through karate, I saw the world around me as disciplined and orderly. Through judo, I came to experience its playful and less serious side. BJJ helped me to see its egotistical side and Aikido its harmonious side, while reality-based self-defence forced me to confront its more brutal side.

When I read martial arts research articles, like I suspect other practitioners might, I read through and beyond them. My psychology-trained eye understands and appreciates the limitations of the research methods and designs. How could they possibly capture and measure everything? And why would they waste time debating the history and politics of each martial art? My practical side doesn't. It asks, why bother in the first place if you can't get the starting point right? It also questions the wisdom behind breaking a martial art down into pieces that can be measured. Doesn't that take something away from the whole? Isn't that just following the Western tendency to take holism apart?

This is a new place for me to reach on my journey. Here I am, putting together and testing a Positive Psychology informed martial arts intervention on fear, action, and movement, and instead of turning towards theory or evidence-based literature, I'm turning to my instincts. Yet can I trust them? I might not know if my instincts are right but I do trust my knowledge base. I trust my training in and knowledge of martial arts, self-defence, and fitness. Those won't lead me astray.

Although I am documenting my own experience of an intervention (which I will share below), I have little interest in diving deep within myself to discover something profound. There is no desire for sudden shifts or a great awakening. There isn't even a desire for progress or to prove anything in particular. Just a gentle hunch that the "how" part of creating a "positive" martial arts fear-based intervention lies in the doing, not in the ego-driven desire to achieve or the extensive planning that could come before.

Notice what is wrong, identify simple solutions, take stock of my inner resources (i.e. knowledge, training) and external resources (e.g. environment), make a decision to act, and then follow through. That's pretty much it for the intervention-building!


Several weeks ago, I created my own self-intervention. One thing that I do agree with Positive Psychology on is that our first interventions should always be on ourselves. I wouldn't ask someone to do what I hadn't tried and explored for myself.

I broke my present-day experience of fear down into two domains:

  1. Fear on waking up

  2. Fear on going to sleep

For as long as I can remember, various degrees of anxiety (fear) have greeted me on rising and put me to bed at night. This intervention isn't about understanding why this is the case but rather, shifting this state through action and movement.

One of my real-world and lived observations is that the transformation of fear-oriented states lies at the extremes of movement - both intense and gentle forms of movement. Yet in those states movement is often the last thing we feel drawn to do, particularly if we have yet to override this feeling of inertia and create a new habit through repetition. The reason why we don't feel drawn to it is that we are caught in a by-product of the "freeze" state. When placed under stress, our tendency is to avoid and do nothing.

Doing nothing does little for the build up of stress-based chemicals flowing through our system. Our bodies are designed to run or fight. From an evolutionary (and self-defence) perspective, this makes sense in terms of survival. Yet modern day has mitigated the need for us to do this. Most of us are fortunate not to have to fend of attackers on a regular basis that might be seeking to prey on us as a potential food source that ensures their survival, or other source of gratification and pleasure. Instead, we're more likely to intellectualise our fears through cognitive engagement. That is where anxiety kicks in.

Take, for example, my waking thoughts which typically revolve around the amount of work I have to do that day. Although I love my work and am grateful for it, it comes with tremendous responsibility and juggling multiple balls. We're in a steep phase of growth and with limited hands on deck, I have to turn my attention to multiple tasks ranging in complexity and expertise. Not even out of bed, I feel anxious. The fear is around loss of control - what if I can't get it all done? It is also a learned way of thinking and behaving, and I know that such habits can be broken - not through thought but through action.

The end of the day usually ends well. Control is regained by doing. The boxes are ticked and I feel "in control". At least until tomorrow. Then the cycle starts again, before my head has even hit the pillow. What about tomorrow's tasks? As one reminder after another pops into my head, I reach for my mobile phone, emailing myself each of the things I mustn't forget. I thought I was relaxed and ok but the feeling of "being in control" only lasted so long.


It was obvious. To cope better with fear I needed to act through movement then I could think more clearly. I needed to engage the "fight-flight" over the "freeze" response. I also needed to bypass the thinking part as a first step somehow. Feeling anxious certainly doesn't help. The work gets done regardless of whether I worry or not, so why waste my time worrying and planning when I can just make a decision to show up and do it?

I'm mindful of the need to activate a "rest-and-digest" response to tend to my nighttime fears but for now, I've started with the more vigorous morning intervention. While this requires more effort initially, it is the easiest to tackle of the two as the effect is almost immediate compared to the more gentle movements I could do at the end of each day.

The morning intervention has been simple. For several weeks now, I have been practicing one karate kata outdoors for 10 minutes or so and then going for an uphill run, followed by a recovery jog and foam rolling. The kata offers an opportunity to warm up my stiff body and breathe naturally through movement. It also engages my brain in memory, visualisation, and agility. By the time the run comes along, I find myself ready to "attack" the uphill battle. The result is enjoyment kicking in during the recovery run and a feeling of serenity and gratitude arriving during the foam rolling.

The intervention takes a maximum of 30 minutes but it is very often half an hour well-spent. What has been surprising is the lack of dependency on a sense of achievement. I consider myself to be goal-driven and competitive yet on reflection, goals have rarely worked. Instead, what has worked, is being drawn to do the things I love. That which I love fuels me to engage repeatedly regardless of the outcome.

Did I get better on my runs? I have no idea, nor do I care. Have I improved in terms of my kata performance? Again, I have no idea, nor do I care. Have I enjoyed myself? Absolutely! Do I feel less anxious in the mornings? One hundred percent.

Ironically, the fear of losing control drives me to seek control. Yet actively seeking control over something like work tasks just means I'm fighting a never-ending battle. How will I know when enough is enough when the work tasks don't have a finite end?

The wisdom of taking an alternative route through movement offers me something immediate that I can control. That feeling of control is restored and instead of channeling it into my work, it is taken care of outside of it. I can then approach my work from a less controlling place. I do not need anything from work, least of all to allay my fears or bolster my fragil self-esteem. There is less attachment to the outcome and as a result, it is generally easier to see where to act. That clarity of mind makes all the difference to how I feel and also what does - and doesn't - get done.


If truth be told, I didn't entirely switch my research and theory-oriented mind off.

I was mindful at the start of this intervention of Robert Thayer's work on low moods and high tension. I like his use of the word "tension" rather than anxiety or fear as that more accurately describes the negative state I experience on rising and retreating. Both my mind and body can be tense rather than afraid, which conjures up a higher degree of discomfort on this scale. I also like his term "low mood" as tension over time has a way of draining energy, which can lead to a dip in mood and particularly motivation for me.

I actually tracked both my mood and tension scales (subjectively) on a chart before and after each morning intervention during the first week, where my intervention included only kata practice. That is how I noticed the impact of the kata practice on my mood and tension levels. Usually, I resist running because I feel too tense. It is mostly physical tension (I'm not a natural runner, or so I think - lifting weights comes easier). The kata eased that tension and boosted my mood, and the desire to run came quite naturally. I listened to my body and went with it, and it worked out really well!

I was also mindful of martial arts philosophy and a book I had written in the past on my interpretation of Gichin Funakoshi's twenty guiding principles. I felt I hadn't drilled down into those principles and instead, had gotten tangled in my own experience of martial arts training (the flip side of narrative inquiry is getting lost). So I decided to read a principle at the end of each day. That was great for about 2 or 3 days but I quickly lost the motivation to read. Instead, I felt drawn to staying with just one principle throughout the intervention and deeply reflecting on it.

Funakoshi once wrote that karate is like boiling water - if you do not heat it, it will cool. That principle echoed throughout my self-intervention. Although I trained for many years, a move to the UK left my training in a lurch. Unable to find a dojo within reach where I felt settled, my training all but disappeared. It left a huge gaping hole in my life that left me feeling unsettled. The same happened with judo. As both slipped away, so too did the positive affects of my earlier training. Any physical or spiritual or cognitive practice is like this; the effects will cool if you stop practicing.

Reconnecting with my karate practice in a small way offered "micro moments" of positive states that Fredrickson, a Positive Psychology researcher, would say lead to an upward spiral, particularly when savoured and repeated. By creating such repeat moments, we "broaden and build" our inner resources and capacity to not only cope but also thrive. A positive experience in one area of life can have a knock-on effect in others. The positive state activated by the kata spilled into my run and then into the rest of my day. I felt like I had started my day with purpose that was personally meaningful.

The first kata I chose for this morning intervention (which has become a near-daily habit) was one I had performed for both my first and second black belt gradings. The second was one that I often practiced on the beach. Performing both kata took me back to those positive experiences and this - the mingling of a positive past and present - was key to quelling my anxious thoughts and lifting my mood. The run, meanwhile, offered a way to shake the rest of the anxious energy off while the foam rolling was simply about muscle care and making sure that my body didn't ache the rest of the day.

Several times, while doing the kata and going for the run, I was struck by a sense of wonder or awe. The sky, the rain, the snow, the green fields around me. A lull in traffic for a good minute on the road where I run. Those moments have been precious ones where I feel connected to nature. The small-mindedness of self fades in these moments and having noticed they are happening, there is desire to experience more them. Moments like these are missed when I feel stressed or tense or afraid.

Although I cast aside research at the start of this intervention, I was pleasantly surprised to sit back after a few weeks and see how the dots naturally connected themselves. Fear is a negative emotion while joy, serenity, awe, and gratitude are all positive emotions. This way of understanding my experience feels more holistic than turning my attention to the realms of research in exercise psychology that prove how exercise can reduce anxiety. They are terms that make sense to my martial arts mind and particularly my spiritual side. But rather than seek to define them further, I would rather spend more time lingering in their effects. These are all embodied (dare I say spiritual?) states and I need time to better understand them through direct experience.


What about the effect of this morning intervention on bedtime anxiety? So far, it hasn't extended that far. The intervention seems to have a positive effect of about 10-12 hours. Enough time to start the day, get my work done (peacefully, in an organised manner), and then wind down. I also wake up looking forward to the intervention which has alleviated fear during the morning rise. Could this be related to other positive emotions such as hope, interest, or inspiration? I wonder.

In terms of the evening intervention, I still need time to reflect on how to go about this. My instincts tell me that longer intense training followed by silent meditation to connect with my spiritual side is the way to go. Perhaps training with "Bob", our punch bag, as a way of activating the "fight" response since the morning is all about "flight". Yet heavy lifting and even bodyweight exercises can also activate the "fight" response in another way, so I am still in two minds here. Perhaps I will combine the lot in an extended session as the morning sessions are fairly short.

In the ideal world, my evening intervention would be an actual martial arts class as this would offer a space for social connection, which I suspect (in the right environment) would be a significant anxiety reliever. But in a pandemic-stricken world, this isn't an option right now. Rather, creativity and perseverance is needed a while longer to continue training solo and exploring if martial arts-oriented self-interventions for overcoming fear and shifting into more positive (and lasting) states can actually work, and if so, how.

Another thought I have here on the creative front is taking inspiration from the softer Japanese arts that are complimentary to martial arts. These include flower arranging, tea ceremony, and calligraphy. All of these tasks involve engaging the mind during gentle movement, and I can instantly see the cognitive and emotional benefits there. As an Arabic calligrapher, I have the skills to do one of these arts, albeit not in Japanese. I hesitate to substitute as engaging in Arabic activates other memories and a life I have left behind. But perhaps I could use my artistic side to explore Japanese characters, or maybe I could just focus on making a soothing cup of tea.

None of these ideas are that novel in terms of intervention. They are practical and (calligraphy, tea, and flowers aside) often part of a regular martial arts class with the added benefit of social connection. Yet exploring them in much smaller chunks (a 10-minute kata vs. a one hour of kata training or a 15-minute run instead of a long workout) and in a mindful way seems to have increased their positive affect.

Viewing the experience from a Positive Psychology perspective rather than standard mental health approaches for anxiety also makes the exercise and its outcomes much more enjoyable. That it is tailored to my interests and positive memories makes this even more enjoyable for me and that is where the art of creating positive interventions lies. It is not in the copy-paste of a research study outcome that effective interventions are to be found; it is in the understanding of the person before you and which stories their life tells that will indicate where their personal intervention lies.


Claire Higgins is a Positive Psychology Practitioner & Researcher and Self-Defence Instructor. She holds a Masters degree in Exercise & Sport Psychology and directs Inner Athletics.


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