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  • Pamela Armitage

An Uncomfortable Reality: Trauma is at the Core of Violence Prevention and Self Defense Education.

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

When I first began in the self defense industry, I wasn’t your typical teacher. I was not a martial artist and I’m still not, thankfully! I’m not tied down to tradition or BS misconceptions. I don’t have military, security, or police training. What I did have was firsthand experience in emotional and psychological abuse, sexual assault, bullying, and family and friends struggling with and losing their lives to substance abuse. At the core of all of this was what I’ve become known for in this industry: Trauma.

“Trauma” has become a buzz word over the last few years and while many roll their eyes, dismiss it, or think it is overused, I am elated it has come into such focus. And that focus isn’t going anywhere! *Insert happy dance here. A strange thing to happy dance about but this focus is where positive change happens!

I was diagnosed with CPTSD in 2016. My journey to this diagnosis is a long, winding one, full of emotional abuse, a sister with a heroin addiction, her death, and so many other things you can’t believe. What pushed me to confirm my suspicions was my yoga teacher training in trauma sensitive yoga. As we dove into the topic of trauma and went through the list of symptoms of PTSD, I realized I was checking off nearly all the boxes. “Holy shit, this is me!”, I realized. It also left me asking about other things I was experiencing (the differentiation of CPTSD and PTSD).

A year prior I had been diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder (GAD), was briefly medicated but had worked very hard on finding other tools to help me manage. I wanted to have as many tools as possible to try and avoid having anxiety attacks. I wanted to try and manage it without medication. Let me pause here and say that there is nothing wrong with needing medication, for anything. I recognize and fully support those who struggle with mental illness and need medication to help them. I accepted that this was a possibility for me but wanted to at least try and not need it. Counselling, yoga, and meditation were life savers for me. So was leaving an emotionally abusive marriage!

This was the start of many lightbulb moments and all those moments had one underlining theme: Trauma.

Why did I develop GAD? From living in an unsafe, unstable home for nearly a decade and constantly worrying about my sister. Anxiety is a symptom of my CPTSD, as is depression, guilt, and Fawn/Fight Coping mechanisms in my case. Trauma.

Why did my sister struggle with drugs and alcohol since her late teen years? Why did she lose her life to this struggle? Childhood sexual abuse (at the hands of another child aged 14), sexual assault, physical assault, bullying. Trauma.

Why were so many of my exes, emotionally abusive and struggle with alcohol and drugs? Childhood trauma, including abuse in many forms. Trauma.

I could go on with the “Whys” that lit up my lightbulb moments but the answer to ALL of them was “Trauma”.

What is Trauma? Yes, all those examples above are traumatic experiences: childhood abuse, sexual assault, bullying. They are also war, poverty, systemic racism, prejudice in its many forms, illness, even being a witness to loved ones going through abuse, addictions, illness and so on. Let’s not leave out loss; death of a loved one (including pets), loss of a relationship, loss of a pregnancy, financial loss and so on. Trauma is ANY single experience, ongoing experience, or multiple experiences that are too much for the individual to process. It overwhelms the individual’s mind, emotions, and body. It is the aftermath of said experiences. There is no experience that “doesn’t qualify”. It is not up to anyone but the individual experiencing it to decide if something is a traumatic experience. Everyone will experience things differently. What may be catastrophic to one individual, can be easier for another to process. I know we as humans like to compartmentalize things (Hello, trauma response!), but when it comes to traumatic experiences, there are no boxes here. And news flash: there is no single human being walking this earth who has not gone through some kind of traumatic experience. Hell, being BORN can be traumatic for some! Imagine trying to come into the world and you nearly die?!

So, back to self defense! WHY is Trauma at the core of self defense? If you haven’t figured it out already, let me say it bluntly: Trauma is the CORE ROOT of all violence. It is Ouroboros: the snake or dragon eating its own tail. Trauma causes violence and violence causes trauma.

Why does a narcissist or sociopath become what they are? They are made through childhood trauma.

Why does someone become abusive? They grew up in an abusive home or have some other traumatic experience in their past.

Why do people get into physical fights over stupid things? Unresolved anger stemming from unresolved trauma. Normal, stable people don’t get into fights or kill each other over road rage, spilt drinks, or being bumped into. That is misdirected anger and where do you think that misdirected anger comes from? Trauma.

I could go on and on with examples, but you should get the point by now, I HOPE! For more research showing the adverse effects of childhood trauma, see “ACE Study”. The Relation Between Adverse Childhood Experiences and Adult Health: Turning Gold into Lead - PMC (

I would also highly recommend reading “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk.

So, we teach self defense and we talk about protecting ourselves, defending ourselves and preventing violence (hopefully focusing mostly on the latter). But how many of you are aware that there are individuals in front of you (whether long term or new students) that have checked off at least ONE of those ACE boxes or have experienced something in adulthood? How many of you are aware that the very way you are teaching is triggering and potentially retraumatizing a student? Let’s look at groundwork, as one example. Imagine being a survivor of sexual assault or rape and you go to a self defense course and are thrown right into a ground defense drill. No safety, no consideration of an individual’s autonomy, just thrown into a position that replicates to some degree what you survived. Some may go in prepared and ready, but many do not. And they do not return to class. They shut down more. That shut down makes them more vulnerable. How many of your students do you think have unresolved trauma and aren’t even aware of it nor are they aware of the misplaced anger they have? Or the trauma coping mechanisms they utilize in their day-to-day life, making them vulnerable, physically and mentally ill, not to mention prime for a predator’s pickings. Or, if they have misplaced anger, you are giving them skills and justification to seriously harm or kill someone just for looking at them the wrong way. That’s not self defense. That’s assault and manslaughter. Your ego doesn’t need to be defended. It needs to be healed.

Now, what about you, Teacher? Are you aware of your own unresolved trauma? Maybe you are aware of what you went though but awareness is only part of your dealing and healing! “Unresolved” doesn’t mean unrecognized. We can recognize our pain and still not do what is needed to resolve it. What do I mean? You may recognize the hell you went through which is SO important. And you may have some tools that do help you to a degree. But those tools may only be working as a band aid solution. Punching a bag, yoga, meditation, cold plunges, journaling are all GREAT tools (I utilize all of these myself). But if you are not self-aware, self-analyzing and not seeking out expert support to work through what you went through, those tools may not be enough.

Finding a trauma informed therapist (and a grief counsellor, separately) was what I needed to truly understand myself and what my trauma did to my mind and body (the body truly does keep the score). A big one for me was learning my coping mechanisms! WOW! I am a combo of Fawn and Fight. I Fawn (Please and Appease as it is now commonly referred to), to keep the peace, to prevent anger and violence, something I learned in past violent relationships. Keep the abuser happy and at peace and you are safe. My fight response comes out when I get pushed past my tolerance threshold and I lash out in resentment. And then I am sick with guilt afterwards. This understanding combined with the self-awareness of triggers, working on changing my responses was that push I needed to not just MANAGE my symptoms but retrain my body and mind to recognize that I am safe, loved, and capable. The physical tools help in a somatic way, to release the trauma caught in my body and help me recognize the physical symptoms to warn me of an impending anxiety attack so I can “nip it in the bud”.

When it comes to the self defense industry, the most common coping mechanism I have witnessed, by far, is Fight. There are a lot of angry people in this industry, some looking to punish. The “alpha” male or female! The “nobody is going to fuck with me (again)” attitude. “Come at me bro!” and so on. I see right through it. You are a hurt, scared human being who was hurt by other human beings. Probably by the very people who were supposed to protect you! A bullied child who will no longer be bullied. Toxic masculinity and the toxic feminist who thinks men are the ONLY part of the problem in the topic of violence. That is no way to live. It certainly is no way to teach either! Spreading anger and aggression? That's not helping our species or our society. The research behind the toxic effects anger has on the body is endless and staggering: How Anger Affects the Brain and Body [Infographic] - NICABM (see info graphic photo at the end of this post).

People caught in Fight may fixate on social justice. Sometimes justice for themselves or someone they love but often it involves them finding a cause they are passionate about, putting all their energy into it and even possibly jumping ship to another cause if they feel frustrated or that they aren’t getting anywhere with the original social cause they were once so passionate about. This fixation can be amplified if someone is dancing on the borders of “Hero Syndrome”. “Watch me save the world!” and burn everything in my path if it’s in my way - including myself.

So much unresolved anger in this world. It is as stifling as the ever-increasing global temperature! Anger is a useful tool but my DOG people (I’m an atheist dog lover), get a grip on it and learn how to use it and express it in a productive and healthful way!

So, you read all this and (hopefully) have decided to seek out support through a therapist. Or maybe you tried, and it was a massive letdown. Been there, the first one I went to kept looking at his watch! I had to try a couple of therapists till I found a great one. Not all therapists and counselors are created equal. They are human and humans are, well, human! Complicated, damaged, ignorant, apathetic, and so on. Think of your time with a therapist as a trusting relationship. Just like a friendship, business partner or intimate partner. With these relationships, we must try a few to find the right fit. We date someone for a while and find it isn’t a good fit. But we keep trying, right? We don’t just date once, break up and throw our hands in the air and say “Well! I guess that’s it! I will never date again!”. No, we keep trying! With a therapist, we must find the right fit, the right chemistry. Please know that you can interview potential therapists as well, to see if they check off the green flags check list. Questions you can ask include, but aren’t limited to:

- What does trauma informed care look like to you? (Words such as collaborative, trust, comfort, autonomy should be used) - Are you in therapy yourself? (If they say no, red flag) - Do you keep yourself up to date on the latest trauma research? (Yes!) - How do you communicate with your clients? - What is your training? - How do you handle difficult situations and challenges that may come up?

Here is a simple, short article on a few other potential questions to consider: How to Interview Your Therapist | Psychology Today

I could go on and on about the topic of Trauma and its relation to self defense and violence prevention. However, I know our attention span as a species is that of a goldfish now! So, if you made it this far, HOORAY! You’re not a goldfish! I will tell you this: once you dive down this rabbit hole, you can't unsee the things you will see. You will start to understand why people do the things they do. You will have a greater understanding of yourself, your loved ones and our society. You will also come to understand what is truly needed to make our society better. You will find that rather than getting annoyed or angry at people for certain things, you will have compassion, understanding and work at adjusting how you interact, communicate and manage conflict.

If you want a real deep dive into this, you can find information on our Foundations of Violence Masterclass here:

If you would like more information on taking my trauma informed teaching course on its own (it is included in the Masterclass above), please reach out to me as this is best taught live in person or over zoom. If you need more convincing on training with Rich and I, see our testimonials section!

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