Exploring the Psychology of Fear, Action & Movement
This new blog series captures the process of creating a Positive Psychology Intervention on fear, action, and movement.
Towards the end of 2020, I realised a few things about myself:
I've been listening to stories of violence, fear, stress and trauma since my early 20's. Professionally, and as a friend. That's a good half of my life.
I've written hundreds of thousands of words documenting the effects of violence. Many were from war zones. Over 100K were related to myself and people in my own network.
My own journey through violence, stress and various degrees of trauma was best travelled through martial arts, fitness, yoga, and self-defence. These offered the most transformative effects yet so rarely did my teachers understand why or how.
When it comes to violent trauma recovery, it is the embodiment of personal power and its expression through intensity of movement that empowers - empowerment is not purely a cognitive construct, it has to be felt, particularly under physical pressure.
My interest moving forwards is in point number 4 and supporting movement, exercise and sport trainers and coaches in developing teaching methods that can offer recovery support to people recovering from stress and trauma.
The last realisation posed a dilemma. In saying that, am I excluding other possibilities? I spent weeks reflecting on this. What about journaling, for example? Or talking to a therapist?
Both of these are valid options that I explored. I journaled for many years and spent 18 months in weekly therapy at one point. Both endeavors entailed (to put it bluntly) the timeless art of "sitting on my bum". I felt stagnated. In contrast, the years I spent processing emotions (rather than talking or writing about them) in physical training environments, and learning and teaching movement, were more impactful.
I also noticed a phenomenon in myself and amongst people I knew. The more we wrote and talked about violence, stress and trauma, the more embedded negative thinking seemed to get. They (and I) struggled to shift perspective. Our ability to shift emotional states also lacked agility. As a result, we found ourselves looping round the same painful bends, searching for a way out.
In my view, being stationary while expressing or communicating negative thoughts and emotions isn't healthy. Both talk therapies and writing require some degree of non-movement. Yes, the hand is moving, the mouth is moving, but there is an imbalance between the effort it takes to intellectualise thoughts, memories, and emotions and the lack of effort it takes to sit in a chair. This lack of activity doesn't allow the body an opportunity to process the chemical aspects of a stress response.
(Side note: if you're in talk therapy and finding the lack of movement a challenge, consider asking your therapist if they are available for a walk-and-talk therapy session outdoors. Being outdoors also has benefits for mental health. If Covid-restrictions in your area allow for this, it could also be a socially distanced way to engage in therapeutic support with a better balance between movement and expression).
As a yoga teacher and self-defence instructor, I also noticed another interesting phenomenon. Stressed out students who lacked energy often backed down. In yoga, this may have resulted in them curling up in child's pose to rest. In self-defence, they may have given up fighting back and allowed their opponent to take over. Instead of rising up, they appeared to have a learned behaviour and habit of bowing out. Meanwhile, some students didn't seem to know when to stop. They appeared to lack an inner alarm system to signal when to step back and give themselves a rest.
Through years of trauma research, I arrived at an ordinary insight that I had overlooked at the start. The core issue wasn't PTSD, anxiety, or depression; it was fear. How we managed fear (or didn't) said a lot about our quality of life. Fear in its most basic form is a biological response to a threat. It may be (or appear to be) life threatening or a situation that (cognitively) exceeds our capacity (perceived or real) to cope.
In fear-based situations, one of three options may happen; we fight, flight, or freeze. Another way of putting this is that we approach, avoid, or hesitate.
When I observed the behaviour of those I knew who sought me out for support or advice, I noticed patterns of avoidance and hesitation in them. While my instinct under pressure was often to approach, theirs' was the opposite. They hesitated or withdrew. Quite often, the former led to the latter, eroding their confidence further. Lack of confidence was a significant obstacles in their everyday life, driving all sorts of unhealthy and unproductive behaviours and social experiences.
I also noticed another pattern in my executive coaching practice among women in particular; a tendency to seek out meaning and/or fantasy. There was often a story (or one to be found) around a past or current stressor. Or a dream or goal that would eventually free them of it. Yet taking action towards those dreams or goals often fell short. Why? Because action required an approach mindset while their mindset was so hard-wired to avoid or hesitate.
Meaning is a tricky one. When we've experienced "hard stuff", the tendency is to ask why. Why us? Why now? For those of us who are curious and love learning, we may naturally seek meaning in what happened as a way to make it easier to live with. For example, "My trauma made me a more compassionate person" or, "My trauma taught me how to be more resilient." Meaning-making might be part of the process of recovery but in the long-term, it can become a habit, driving rumination and patterns of thought that can add to low mood and high tension. We can't relax until we "know" why.
As I've observed people affected by stress and violated trauma over the past decade, I've noticed a difference. Although I also fell into the trap of seeking meaning and finding solace (and rest) in avoidance-based patterns of thought and behaviour, I was fortunate to meet someone who challenged me. At the time, I was struggling to make progress in my physical training. I had reached a decent level for someone who had neglected fitness throughout her twenties and early thirties, but the mental switch around the fear of discomfort in increasing my training efforts was proving difficult to turn off.
This person didn't indulge in my fears (or "excuses", as they called them). A punch to my face during reality-based self-defence training (not "respectful" martial arts training) and my fear that it had broken my jaw? (I swear it felt like it dislodged!). Just an excuse. After a few initial tears, a feeling of embarrassment, and disbelief at the lack of empathy, I continued training. I suddenly felt angry and lo and behold, that's exactly what my training partner was looking for. That's when they could teach me how to access and channel my aggression in training. Instead of being afraid of it, I could let myself feel it.
For all my years of martial arts training, being punched, thrown, pinned and choked, no training partner had pushed me far enough to make me angry. Respect in training (part of dojo etiquette) and a fear of injuring our partners always limited how far any of us would go. Yes I got tired, yes I felt afraid of larger and stronger opponents at times, and yes I got injured at times (a broken shoulder, a nasty scar over one of my eyebrows from a head collision, torn ligaments...). But that level of anger was new to me.
Now this concept of feeling angry as a way to heal and grow isn't a new one, particularly in therapy settings. I remember my therapist once asking me to push a cushion that she was holding. I was a black belt martial artist used to controlling her emotions, and fairly strong in my upper body, so pushing a cushion was well below the intensity I needed to access and feel my anger. I was also afraid of pushing her over so held back. Not example an empowering experience, a confusing one to say the least!
In stark contrast to this, I came out of my self-defence training session feeling empowered. I also walked away with a valuable lesson. Negative emotions in training at a high-level of intensity are part of the process or recovery and growth. Psychological and physical changes can occur during such states, not after them through reflection. Rushing to soothe the client (or training partner) during an intense moment can deprive them of the experience of learning to manage that negative state for themselves.
This trail of thought poses an ethical dilemma for practice. How "hard" should a trainer push a client? And what about the expectations of running a "trauma-sensitive" practice?
What if you push a client "too far"? What if they end up breaking down? Those types of fears when teaching students as a self-defence instructor often plagued me. All too aware that some of my students had been victims of violent crime, and being a former yoga teacher who encouraged people to rest, I experienced high degrees of cognitive dissonance. I knew from my own recovery that intensity mattered. I also knew that intensity and negative emotions plus positive reinforcement and a peak ending could potentially transform a person's self-concept in a more lasting way than any soothing intervention could possible do. But ethically, I held back.
Plenty of research exists in sport psychology around threat-challenge scenarios. Those who perceive a threat in a negative way may pull back while those who see a challenge in a positive light will more likely move forwards. While pulling back may be the right thing to do at times, more often than we might assume (in my view), the best action is to move forwards. But moving forwards very rarely feels good when we're struggling with symptoms related to stress or trauma, and this is where a significant obstacle to recovery lies: discomfort intolerance. Can we teach our clients and students to stay in this zone long enough to create a more lasting change?
Allowing negative feelings and states to continue to dictate an avoidance or freeze response is a surefire way to hold our recovery back in the long-term.
Physical training is one place where we can't hide from such states. While we may be able to mask (to some degree) how negative we feel inside, and give the impression all is well on the surface in our everyday lives, when placed under physical pressure our true emotions will quickly rise to the surface. I believe that how we respond when they do says a lot about our character and our potential to recover from stress and trauma, stop being a victim, regain personal power, and move on.
Allowing a physical training client who has a history of stress or trauma to back down from discomfort may be a limiting factor in their recovery process. Knowing how to manage different degrees of physical intensity and understanding when to back down as a trainer/teacher/coach requires more than gut instinct. It requires an understanding of psychology and physiology of stress and trauma, and how the two interact in movement and training situations.
There is absolutely a time for compassion and rest, and allowing someone to back down and walk away. This may be an expression of personal agency. For someone who has spent years pushing themselves (or allowing themselves to be pushed) in non-training environments, and lacking the agency to stand up for themselves, saying "no" to being pushed in training might be the right call. They're finally setting a boundary - great! Knowing who your client is and their history (e.g. has saying "no" now become a new habit, limiting their growth?) will help you to decide how to respond.
Let's consider the following scenarios:
Three people have a history of violence, stress, and trauma. Each are asked to engage in a task that is physically and mentally demanding in relation to their current fitness and training capacity (e.g. sprint, lift a heavy weight, punch a bag). This task isn't about achieving a performance goal but rather their ability to endure (or tolerate) a relatively negative state.
One person (it could even be the least fit of the three) powers through and completes the task. They are met with a congratulations (positive reinforcement) and feel great. They might even (with the force multiplier of praise) experience a peak moment. They accomplished something hard! The second gives up half-way. Their mind caved in before their body but at least they gave it a shot. Seeing the other person complete a challenging task inspires them to try harder next time. Meanwhile, the third struggles to get started.
As the others take action, the third is still hesitating. Their physical capacity may be greater than the others but their self-belief and ability to activate their personal power is lower, at least in a social setting. Negative thoughts (likely towards themselves) have taken over. That same person may shine in a private training context, where social comparison isn't an option. Or they may find it harder to get started with the trainer's eyes solely on them. It might even be that training alone could be the key to getting them started and believing in themselves once more.
So, what's going on here?
Part of instructing or teaching exercises like these to people who have experienced violent trauma or significant amount of stress that have affected their sense of self is that there isn't a one-size-fits-all. A person who appears to thrive in a social physical training context may faulter when left to train alone, and a person who fears the presence of a group may learn to thrive when training solo.
Understanding how negative emotions can play out during physically demanding tasks offers insights into a person's motivation. So too does understanding their character, and how this may emerge - and transform - under physical pressure.
Taking action through physical movement may be an effective route out of fear-driven states. Figuring out the intensity of that action in a training environment and the optimal environment for a particular client to take action in is another.
Interested in learning more? Stay tuned for several more posts following on from this one over the coming weeks!
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.