Burnout – Jeffrey Johnson

The first 2 times I attempted to write this piece, I couldn’t. Writing about the burnout I had experienced literally brought back the brain fog, the emotionally drained state of mind that dragged my body down with it, the ocean of grief and guilt I was drowning in during the worst months and years of my life.

In late 2011, I was working in a dysfunctional behavior school, separated from many of the teacher-counselors from my previous school who I viewed as family. This included my teaching partner Callahan, who became a brother and best friend through some really great and difficult times. I was feeling out of place, angry, and disrespected by the leadership of the organization for various reasons.

Then, in October, my maternal grandmother suffered a major stroke that paralyzed her on the left side of her body. We’d grown much closer after the passing of my mother in 2009, and all the grief I’d swallowed down so I could function during mom’s death was resurfacing uncontrollably in the ER and eventually the ICU of Hillcrest Hospital, watching with uncertainty while my gentle and loving Gramma was hanging on by a thread. By Thanksgiving, I found myself in a depressed stupor and barely able to talk.

By day I was getting cursed out, roughed up in physical restraints, and generally extremely frustrated by problematic leadership and in the evenings I was watching my grandmother’s body and mind betray her bit by bit. I remember when her dementia started, when she had confused me with my younger brother. I thought this was her usual confusion of my name with my brother’s or my uncle’s name. It wasn’t. She really thought I was Micah and she realized it. “Oh Lord, I’m losing my mind…” It was like another knife in an already gaping emotional wound.

To top it all off, I’d failed at romance once again and descended into a spiral with self medication. Every evening I lived in a cloud until bedtime. I stopped hanging out with most of my friends and wasn’t returning calls. When I did talk to them and they asked how I was doing, I was always “fine man, I’m good.”

I was dealing with grief, trauma, loneliness, financial hardship, and embarrassment that I couldn’t get things to work right. Eventually, I was burned out.

Burnout feels just like it sounds. It’s like your insides are literally charred and smoldering-your brain, your lungs, your heart, your gut. It feels like your whole Self is balled up and buried under layers of confusion and loss.

Eventually I retreated into the computer room as a daily routine. I drank and smoked and escaped into random YouTube videos and whatever else you find on the interweb once the rabbit-hole has sucked you in.

The shame you experience makes it really difficult, because you won’t reach out for help, or talk to someone about how you are feeling, for the most part. It wasn’t until a couple of friends were hearing how bad a time I was having and suggested I take leave from work that I decided to talk to anyone. I had to talk to a counsellor and get assessed in order to request FMLA, which I ended up not needing since I had so much sick-time left to use.

If you see yourself in what I just described, you are burnt out and it is affecting your work and your social life. It is making you hard to live with. It is sucking all the motivation out of you and making you a slave to your problems. It’s causing you to be complacent about your health, your finances, your long term goals and dreams. I’m not blaming you at all. I just want you to be real about how badly this is crushing you. I want you to pull out of the nosedive.

You have probably lost interest in things you used to enjoy. You probably lose patience quicker than you used to. You probably feel like there’s nothing you can do to change work, or home, or whatever other situation there is. You are probably doing a lot of escaping into nostalgia, trying to get a hold of feelings from a bygone time when things were easier (Youtube videos of old Transformers episodes was where I went. My mother used to like to watch that with my brother and I). Escaping is probably making you ignore some very real obligations like paying college loans or doing cleaning around the apartment. You are literally sick right now. You need to get healthy and you need to be proactive and assertive about that.

We work in crisis. We see blood, urine, feaces and phlegm. We get screamed at and threatened, experiencing the vicarious trauma that comes with dealing with traumatized clients and mental health consumers. Our bodies crash into other bodies, bone hitting bone and flesh twisting and skin rubbing off on concrete. We examine the scars we get in the mirror and try to sort out the thoughts and feelings. And we are expected to bounce right back from every episode like we aren’t affected. We see things that we can’t unsee. We often feel like no one could relate to our stories. That is sometimes the case. We have to be aware that it’s easy to martyr ourselves and that being a martyr is not heroic. It’s messing up your access to a life that has a lot of beauty and goodness in it.

It’s making you sloppy on the job as well. People are counting on you to keep them safe, whether they are your colleagues, clients, or the general public. You have to operate within very strict protocols on the job-program rules, state and federal laws,Medicaid billing, etc. If you are getting sloppy you can make a career ending mistake, or a mistake that gets you or someone else hurt or killed. If you find yourself not caring, you need to step away.

You are going to have to do some things you might not normally do or have never done before.

Go camping. Start taking yoga. Paint. Write poetry. Find a support group and talk to other people who know what you are going through. Eat whole foods. GET ENOUGH SLEEP. Take walks often. Go to the art museum. Visit friends and family you don’t often get to see. GET ENOUGH SLEEP. Drink more water. Go hear a live band. If you are religious at all, find a good house of worship with a good community. GET ENOUGH SLEEP.

I bet everything I suggested is stuff you already know to do.

When you are burnt out you get stubborn. You’re stubborn because you feel like that will protect you. You are in survival mode, and survival mode is only good for dealing with imminent danger. You do anything that confirms the world view that nothing can change, that all is basically lost. It’s basically emotional self-harm. You make statements and engage in behaviors that perpetuate the burnout. You know you are doing it, too. You have to interrupt it. You have to do something new. It will be uncomfortable at first, mainly because you are challenging your own personal reality, the story you tell yourself about who you are and what the world is like. You are confronting all the terrible things you tell yourself because of the terrible things you have endured.

Don’t self-medicate as a long-term strategy, it doesn’t work. Don’t rely on a new lover to rescue you from your thoughts and feelings, you’ll be sorely disappointed if they let you down. Also, if you attract someone in that state, you are probably attracting someone going through the same stuff. That’s a lot of unhealthy stuff in a relationship. Don’t stay up til 3am every night. The lack of sleep is making you more depressed, and it’s messing with your metabolism. Don’t isolate yourself. Don’t stick it out at a job if you don’t have to. Don’t stay indoors all-day, everyday. Don’t ignore it when your friends and family tell you they are worried about you. Don’t avoid sunshine and fresh air.

Again-you know all of this. You have to get proactive. You have to make the changes.

I don’t self-medicate at all any more. I workout every other day. I am stretching my hands into as many spaces for training in and teaching martial arts and self defense as I can so I can do what I love and earn cash in the process. I am staying close to people with high energy and lots of ambition. I’m not trying to press religion on anyone, but for me that helps to order my existence and have something firm to stand on when everything else feels like it’s going haywire (it usually just feels that way). I get outside when the sun is shining as much as I can. I take B Complex vitamins and Omega 3 supplements. I drink lots of water. I get lots of rest. I hang out with friends who keep encouraging me to be my best self. Otherwise that burnout from 5 years ago will creep back into my consciousness again, wreaking havoc on my internal process and progress. Life is not perfect, but I’m more clear headed about what I can do to make the best of what I have. I feel the bad stuff resurfacing every few days, but I’m a lot better at pushing past it to do something-anything-productive and healthy.

You know this stuff. And if you didn’t know, I hope this gives you some ideas so that you can manage your burnout and rise above it.

What I experienced cost me relationships, shot holes in personal goals, and left me feeling like a loser. If this is where you are, you have power to change it. It may take a gargantuan effort. It may take a longer time than you planned. It may guide you in completely different directions than you planned. That’s fine. Be open to the process. It’s ok to have weaknesses. It’s ok to fail. It’s not ok to quit on yourself. Burnout convinces you it’s over, or close to over. But you still have power. Use it.

Youth – Jeffrey Johnson

Before getting too deep into this second part on crisis intervention with youth, I want to remind the reader that this is far from an exhaustive treatment of things to know. I’m sure one point I make here could easily be dedicated to a full chapter in a book on the subject. This is really basic, and I would encourage anyone reading this to study for themselves and, more importantly, align themselves with the nearest veteran staff member working in your program/unit/facility/school. The perspective of a veteran staff with a rep for doing good work is invaluable and more often than not the ideal example to follow.

Read this scenario. This is a textbook example of how a crisis might start in your setting.

Danny, can you take a seat?”


Why not?”

Don’t fuckin talk to me.”

Ok, but you can’t stand in the middle of the classroom while I teach math.”
FUCK this CLASS.” (Pushes books off of your desk)

I want you to re-read that and really imagine it. I want you to note how the situation made you feel and what you thought. This is what will inform your decisions, and your decisions can make this easier or way more difficult. I want you to think about whether you imagined “Danny” as white, black, latino, Asian, or any other background. I want you to note whether or not you imagined this young person as big or small, athletic, skinny, or fat. I need you to consider all of this because your expectations will alter your choices.

I also want you to note whether you took it personal. If you take it personal, you will not be effective.

To be truly effective you have to have a lot of background knowledge. I said in part one that you should already know the objectives and guidelines of the organization you work for, what the rules and expectations of the classroom/unit are, what the enforceable consequences are and what qualifies in your organization as aggressive behavior. You should know the case history of the young person if that is possible. You should have some familiarity with family and community issues. The more you know, the better chance you have at making decisions that don’t blow up in your face. Even knowing how the weather might be affecting your clients is valuable. Our clients got restless around winter and the holiday season. The times that are stressful for the rest of us can impact youth with emotional problems much more significantly.

In a public school, a teenager sweeping the books off of a teacher’s desk in a threatening manner would be a huge deal. It was a huge deal in the schools I worked in, but for us, detention, suspension, and expulsion were not options. We had to deal with  these situations and attempt long-term strategies to change the behaviors so that this young person might become a functional adult. In the program I worked in, we were also authorized to use physical restraint-a “last resort” decision that sometimes was the only option when things went south badly.

Time and Space

If you are too angry to be rational, do you want to have conversation with a manager at work that is always enforcing rules and checking up on you to make sure you are doing your job? The answer is obvious.  These clients often have a difficult time trusting adults because the adults have failed them. In some cases, adults have severely abused them physically, sexually, or through neglect. They have been made promises that have ended up broken. They have learned that authority figures like teachers, case managers, police officers, magistrates and judges are only present to crack down on them.

Giving a young person time to calm down (note: do not EVER use the phrase “calm down.” It comes off as condescending and only makes people more aggravated) and space away from you or others can start to de-escalate the situation. There must be boundaries to this, however. For example the young person can stay in THIS room with me and one other staff member. When he calms down enough, we’ll ask if he wants some water just to feel out how he is responding. We issue directions only with the goal in mind of helping the young person to get calm and collected. If there is no need to touch him, DO NOT touch him. If talking to him about your expectations will agitate him, don’t. Just have the plan in mind. But be ready to change the plan if necessary. Holding on to a plan concretely can cause some problems.

In the above situation, I might start with asking “Danny” if he would please just leave the room so that the rest of the clients could have math class. Obviously, this doesn’t always work, especially if you haven’t caught on to the problem in time (there are a lot of distractions in a classroom). Next I might have other staff escort the remaining clients out of the space to take away the audience. If the client doesn’t want a major situation, then he will stay in the classroom alone. If he makes a move for the door (which you and at least one other staff member should be standing at, ready, anyway), then obviously you have to physically intervene (remember to ask yourself if this is allowable in your organization. Don’t put yourself in a bad legal situation or in the unemployment line because you didn’t think things through.) He may amp up as soon as I start making directions, and depending on what he is doing we may have to move in and limit his space. We need to send a message that this isn’t ok and we won’t stand for it, but we’re not just moving right into using force. And if he starts getting physical, then your restraint training will be necessary. Be keenly aware of the rules for this and the physical safety of the client and others around you.

I hope you are noticing how many different twists and turns this all takes. That’s why I say not to be bound to the plan. Being aware of multiple strategies, multiple possibilities, not taking it personally and keeping safety as the number one objective is all crucial. Otherwise, you are making your job impossible and creating dangerous circumstances for yourself and everyone working with you, as well as the clients you are serving.

Physical Intervention

There is a range of physical interventions that are appropriate for dealing with these kinds of situations. As I said before, if touching the client isn’t absolutely necessary, don’t. If you do touch him, then be ready to get really physical really fast. You are probably dealing with a trauma survivor. It’s possible that touch can trigger a traumatic  reenactment and push the client even further into aggressiveness and irrationality.

But you have boundaries and a right to protect them, for sure. It should ideally start with a verbal command and an assertion of what you feel your boundary is. The client should be made clear what he is allowed to do.

Danny, you have this whole room to use if you need, but I can’t let you in my space. You need to back up.” If the client is amped up, pacing, you are likely standing at this point anyway. If you are, you may want to position yourself in a way that makes it easier to respond to whatever happens next. You may want to take a step back with one foot, leaving one side of your body more forward than the other (my right side is dominant, but I always step back with the right as a habit of martial arts training. I feel more comfortable with my strong side “chambered,” even though I don’t intend to use any strikes at all). I don’t raise my hands to chest level unless the client is close, so if I can I keep my arms extended with my hands no higher than my belt-line. High hands can signal a desire to fight, or make an excuse for the client to become more aggressive. Stepping back as opposed to stepping forward implies that I don’t want a conflict, but I’m wary of what is happening and readying myself.

If the client has gotten too close, I may use my left forearm and open palm against his chest with a firm command “You need to get out of my space right now.” I don’t mention the restraint. That’s a challenge that leads to more physical aggression. I don’t have to make eye contact with him to see him. I may keep my eyes trained on his chest or at the wall or floor keeping him tracked in my peripheral vision. Meeting eyes is a challenge as well. Being mindful of all the non-verbal communication is really important, because you can set yourself up for an unnecessary altercation by looking through to the back of a client’s head because he just called you a bitch.

Often when we become frustrated we take in a deep breath and let out a heavy sigh. It’s just this kind of breathing we should practice in times of calm and use as soon as situations begin to get stressful. We’ll be more likely to maintain level-headedness despite the dump of adrenaline, which often leads to a dry mouth, spaghetti noodle knees, a shaky voice and even shakier hands. At least that’s what happens to me. These symptoms can be frustrating for someone used to that adrenaline dumb since they appear to be signs of fear. Looking fearful can be a button that an aggressive person uses to push and manipulate you. Breathing can still help to keep you rational enough not to make major errors in your tactical thinking. You will likely be getting called every name imaginable, threatened, and eventually even assaulted, and you can’t afford to let upset be the major motivating factor in how your intervention plays out.

In the program I worked for, we were trained in TCI-Therapeutic Crisis Intervention, which has it’s own approved restraint techniques. Make sure you know well what is trained in your program and do your best not to deviate from that training. I am often asked if I used my martial arts training in this kind of work. Aside from being physically more fit and acclimated to physical aggression, I always answer, emphatically, “no.” Obviously striking is 100% unacceptable. Joint locks could lead to major injuries, and throws on a concrete floor could kill a client. I think I reacted quickly because of the training I received, and could change what I was doing relatively easily in response to whatever the need was, but knowing how to hurt people was only useful in helping me know what NOT to do at work. Sensitivity training was useful though, because you could tell what someone was intending to do based on how they moved against you. It’s important to know the difference between an attempt to scratch an itch and an attempt to grab a handful of skin from your abdominal region.  

I won’t advise anymore on physical intervention because your organization will have it’s own rules regulating the use of physical intervention. Know them, follow them, and do what you can (within reason) to prevent needing to use them. But when you have to use them, don’t be hesitant. That can lead to injury for you or the client and make the situation more explosive.


In the aftermath of a physical intervention it’s important to debrief with a client, peers, and supervisors to review what worked, what didn’t work, and what everyone can do differently in the future to prevent the need for a physical intervention. The debrief with the client is separate from the one with coworkers, even if all of your co workers were present during the crisis and the debrief with the client.

Debriefing with the client might look like this:

Ok Danny, can you tell me what happened?”

I was mad about what Steven said to me in the bathroom so when I came to math I wanted to fight someone.”

Ok. What did Steven say to you that made you want to fight?” (This statement reflects that I heard what he has already said)

He said I looked gay in the shirt I’m wearing.”

Oh…that really bothered you, huh?”

Nah, not really, but when I tried to leave the bathroom he touched my arm and I told him don’t do no shit like that.”
Do you think you handled this the best way you could have?”

What could you have done differently?”

Asked you to let me sit in the hall until I calmed down.”
Do you feel comfortable telling me what’s going on before we have a problem?”


Can we try that next time?”

Ok. Now you know this situation was serious. You will have to deal with the consequences of what happened. I don’t want to hold this against you for long though, but we have to be fair.”
I know.”
Ok. So in the future what can you do?”

Tell you what’s going on and ask to leave the classroom til I calm down.”

That is really oversimplified, but essentially what a debrief with the client looks like. It is to ensure that all parties are on the same page, understanding what is expected going forward and united towards the same goals. It certainly doesn’t always go smoothly and depends a lot on rapport between client and staff.

Debriefing with colleagues looks similar. What happened? What can we do differently? How can we prevent this? Who else can help? What is our plan for tomorrow when Danny and Steven see each other? What other staff members need to be informed so they can be prepared as well? Are you okay? How can we help you next time? This is also a good time to own up to mistakes. This builds trust with colleagues and lets them know you are invested in what they are trying to accomplish with their clients.

Again, this is too brief to really do justice to the topic, but I think it provides the reader with a good place to start. Again, genuine care for the job and the clients, being aware of your organization’s  expectations, rules and policies, knowing when to talk, when to shut up, when to give space or limit it, and the appropriate physical interventions is all key to success working with young people who are severely emotionally disturbed.

Intervening with Youth – Jeffrey Johnson

Crisis Intervention with youth is far too vast a topic to do justice to in a short article. There are too many anecdotes, too many rules and laws to remember, too many configurations of teams in so many diverse programs and schools that do this kind of work to really cover it all adequately here. Instead, I will try to give a rough overview of the topic to give the reader a decent framework to begin operating from as he or she approaches this kind of work.

You Must Care

This is hard, often thankless work that most people don’t get fairly compensated for. If you signed up to work with young people who have major emotional and behavioral issues, you have an important job that can be highly stressful at times, and highly rewarding at other times. You will hear, see, and experience things most people have no frame of reference for understanding. You will meet people who have been through a lot of really horrible traumatic circumstances, and who may have committed horrible acts themselves. You have to care about the young people you work with, and you have to put your pride aside and make sure that the right thing happens every time. And you have to accept that the right thing doesn’t always happen every time.

When you are threatened, or even assaulted (being spat on or kicked for example), you have to remember that you have a job to do and people to keep safe. Taking it personal and not learning to cope with stress and emotions will lead to making mistakes, and a split second bad decision can lead to people being injured, property being destroyed, and you being handed your walking papers. Or worse. Lawsuits and jail time are not out of the realm of possibility. If you have become vindictive, careless, or are lying to cover your ass, you are making huge mistakes that can be costly.

My best piece of advice is to align yourself with whomever is a veteran of the program you work in who is ready and willing to show you by example the best way to do the work. I was blessed to be around a lot of people who knew very well how to do their job and I had a lot of support from coworkers and administrators.

Know Your Environment

You need to understand where you work. When you are part of a team you have backup, a closed in environment, and hopefully some consistent plans and strategies for preventing aggressive outbursts and dealing with unsafe situations as they come. You also have state and federal laws (HIPAA is an example), company policies and ethics, and the professional culture of your setting. Are you in a hospital setting? Partial-hospitalization? A behavior unit of a public or private school? A detention facility? You need to understand the setting and the options and limits you have when confronted with crisis. Otherwise, what you do could prove disastrous for you professionally and physically, and may have consequences for your co-workers and the young people you are responsible for.

Next you have to know the physical layout of the place you work in. You need to know where youth are allowed to go, where they aren’t allowed to go, where they like to hide or where stolen items might be stored, etc. You need to know what doors are kept locked at all times, where utility closets are and what is in them, and you need to be aware that objects that are available to be used as weapons may be. In my experience, the vast majority of occasions where a chair was grabbed or a stapler was held it was just a threat, but there have been times where the improvised weapon was used. Keep scissors in drawers if they are not being used, and be mindful of who is using whatever implement to participate in whatever activity.

Know Your Team

This makes or breaks everything. A good team always assumes that a solution is possible, that there is always room to improve, and that supporting each other is absolutely crucial. A good team consists of people who will put quality of work before any ego or recognition, and are always ready to help whenever possible. A good team builds rapport with each other proactively, getting to know each other and probably considers each other to be friends as well as work colleagues. They will listen to and protect each other, and will verbalize regularly that they are available to help in any way possible. Anything less means that “the inmates will run the asylum.” And if that happens, your job will become nearly impossible.

Synergy with team mates means we can communicate with non-verbals, we can predict each others’ intentions and actions, and we can monitor each other and step in and switch-out with someone to make a bad situation calm down. A lack of synergy means that we make decisions that undermine each others’ authority, and can show clients that we are not a unified front. Once that happens, there will be some who exploit the gaps in our cohesion. The manipulators are the ones that exploit these holes the most, and that creates more disunity within a team.

Team building exercises, retreats (we used to have a program wide camping in-service), and simply meeting after work for food and shenanigans can help a team build rapport. Joke, smile, and laugh whenever there is time for it.

Know Your Clients

Your setting may call them clients, consumers, students, or whatever term is most appropriate. In any case, knowing as much as you can about them is very helpful. New intakes are especially tricky if you have never read any of their information, and you have to be ready to deal with a client that behaves in a way that is totally inconsistent with what has been reported. Sometimes the previous staff who worked with a client, or their parent or guardian, has such a bad relationship that all they write is negative, and the client turns out to be genuinely good hearted, polite, and desiring to make positive changes. Other times someone will have completely omitted that the client has a history of sexual predation, a key piece of information that can completely change how he/she is monitored. I had teaching partners who had worked with adolescent sex offenders and were able to spot problem behaviors that were invisible to me at first. I heeded the warnings. It pays to listen even if you don’t always see what someone else is seeing. It probably protected some vulnerable clients.

For small children, crisis episodes tend to be high frequency, low intensity. This means that you may have to deal with lots of instances of verbal and physical aggression, but due to the size of the client, it presents a relatively low amount of danger (Danger is still danger. A 6 year old can still stab me with a pair of scissors). In adolescents, crisis episodes tend to be low frequency, high intensity. This means that the instances of verbal and physical aggression are low compared to very young clients, but are typically much more dangerous and volatile. These kinds of situations are the ones that may result in police intervention and can have a lot of spill-over into and from the community (i.e. gang related issues, neighborhood conflicts, etc.). This is a range of averages, and not any kind of perfect predictor of behavior in an individual young person. Read the files, talk to parents or guardians, and familiarize yourself with different behavioral profiles. A sexual predator has a certain list of personality traits and behaviors to look for. So does a neglected child or one who was beaten severely by an adult. No 2 clients are exactly the same, but you will see variations on themes if you stay with this kind of work long enough.

To understand the type of client that ends up in a program that deals with severe behaviors, whether this is a unit within a school or a residential facility or a youth detention facility, one has to have some background on the causes of the behaviors. The clients I worked with typically had a brutal trauma history, lived in economically depressed areas, and experienced marginalization due to cultural and racial factors.

As a result, the world in their experience was a small place where yelling, cursing, and aggression are cultural capital, and not being able to communicate with at least the threat of violence could and would lead to being bullied, jumped, robbed, and otherwise ridiculed. When we professionals are coming from very different environments than this, it can be difficult to understand the clients we serve. And understanding is key in helping them.

Cultural capital is a big deal. Most of my clients came from inner-city Cleveland, and most were African American. I came from the suburbs and was at least 7 years older than most of them when I started. I had to listen and observe them a lot to get a handle on the slang they used, the body language that told me that a fight was on (pulling up pants was an indicator that a fight-or at least grandstanding like tough guys-was about to happen), or what type of intoxicant they might have used before coming to school that day (this can be key, because what they used may have had some serious physical effects as well as mental.

An assumed increase in blood pressure and heart-rate due to drug use can change how we approach a physically aggressive person. A physical restraint could have dire consequences if a heart is already abnormally pounding out of a client’s chest). You have to piece together a puzzle sometimes. On client looks quizzically at his peer while another laughs at him. Another asks “you gone of that lean, ain’t you?” The client in question seems amped up. Is he high? What is our protocol when we suspect drug use in a client?

As you can start to see, lots of different kinds of knowledge and pieces of the puzzle begin to come together and overlap each other, and you have to gather all of this info in a short amount of time and already have in mind the policies and procedures for handling situations legally and ethically, all the while doing your best to keep everyone as safe as possible.

Other things to be aware of…has the client had neighborhood issues? Domestic abuse issues? A history of sexual or physical abuse? How stable is the current home environment? Has the client and his/her family had to move recently or frequently? Are there siblings or other family members living with the client? Are there any intellectual delays? Is the client currently medicated? What medicines is he/she on? What are the medicines for? And on and on…

Training Students with Trauma – Jeffrey Johnson

The body is the armature of the self, the physical self around which the psychological self is constructed.” -Psychologist Nicholas Hobbs

Trauma can alter the relationship between the psychological self and the physical self. A violent event can turn the body into a foreign place, with all human interaction becoming somewhat distant and strange. Martial arts training, traditionally conceived as a mind-body practice, has helped many people to bridge the gap between their psychological selves and their physical selves. As a professional with experience counseling survivors of trauma and teaching self defense, I am proposing a method for self-defense instructors to approach their students who may have experienced trauma, as well as a subject for therapists and counselors to explore as a means of helping their clients to reclaim their bodies and heal.

This is intended as a brief introduction to the topic and the proposed approaches. Understanding fully that self-defense instructors are not clinical therapists, I am not suggesting that a person attempt to take on more responsibility than they are professionally qualified to handle. I am hoping to help instructors to empower their students and avoid re-traumatizing vulnerable individuals.


How trauma impacts people can vary from person to person. What can prove to be a debilitating emotional experience for one person can easily be shrugged off by another.  Everyone is composed differently, so professionals should be careful not to rush to judgment over how a person has internalized the event(s) they have experienced. We don’t get to qualify or disqualify the magnitude of a troubling event or series of events in the life of another person. We don’t get to tell them to “get over it.” Not if we are trying to help them.

I have had to develop a thick skin when hearing the stories. Vicarious trauma can occur when we internalize the stories of trauma survivors, but it can be a bigger problem if those survivors’ residual behaviors cause distress for us. We begin to emulate the psychology of those we have been tasked to help. Know what your limits are with regard to how much help you can give and where it ends and the help from other professionals (domestic violence centres, rape crisis centres, etc.) begins. Know when to step back from situations beyond your expertise and abilities.

Trauma can affect the brain in similar fashion to a blunt force injury. The brain will often re-wire itself in an attempt to cope with the injury and the “new reality” of danger and fear. Trauma survivors (note that I avoid the term “victim.” How we frame events and our definitions of ourselves has a lot to do with how we cope and heal) may experience a range of emotions connected with the trauma, such as depression, anger, feelings of hopelessness/helplessness, hyper-vigilance, and any other emotion or combination of emotions. Again, most self-defense instructors are not clinical professionals, so know the limits of the assistance you can effectively offer.

Triggers and reenactments are things that a person with no personal trauma history will not easily understand. A smell, a spoken phrase, a noise, or any other seemingly random and unrelated stimulus or bundle of stimuli can cause (or trigger) an emotional response that acts like an echo of the original traumatic event. One might assume that the males in the room are planning to physically harm him. Or one might tighten her fists and breathe rapidly anticipating an attack. The first response is a paranoid hypervigilance while the other is a physiological response. I have seen re-enactments run the whole gamut of wild possibilities at work, but thankfully nothing overly dramatic at the dojo. Having a sense of what may trigger a student is important, because we don’t want to re-traumatize (essentially recreating the traumatic event, causing even more emotional damage) anyone. For instance, a person who was robbed at gunpoint may not be immediately ready to do gun defense techniques. I am not saying that a trigger is always reason to avoid necessary training. I am saying that it may take some time and finesse to help a student reach that level of trust with you and comfort in their own readiness to deal with body language, object reference, and maybe even phrases that replicate a very bad experience.

Teaching Method

The challenge for all self-defense instructors is to help students become stronger, more competent, and more confident people with each class. To succeed at this, we have to do a lot of listening and observing our students, cross-referencing what we see and hear with what we know and have experienced. We mustn’t make anything up to fill gaps; we are obligated to give the best of what we know to our students because someone’s life and person may depend on what we have taught. A trauma survivor may come to us with “pieces” of their narrative missing or damaged due to physical, emotional, or sexual assault/abuse. We are trying to help them to fill in their own gaps on their own terms.

We are dealing with disturbing behaviors of a criminal element. This means I have had to explain to very young children that they have to establish safe boundaries, always tell trusted adults when these boundaries have been crossed, and what to do if someone makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe. This means discussing even what to do if someone attempts to touch private parts or other such disturbing and inappropriate behavior. I can’t pull answers out of thin air. I have had to read books by professionals who work with children dealing with this same disturbing subject matter. I have had to discuss with professionals what the best practices are for dealing with what children report. All of this applies to adults, whose stories have been, in my experience overall, more terrifying and disturbing and more psychologically damaging. Knowing something about the best practices regarding what your students might report to you (i.e. A child reports that a cousin has kissed him on the lips and made him feel embarrassed or a woman reports that her ex-boyfriend has been showing up unannounced at her home. These are stereotypical examples, I have heard far more bizarre and disturbing stories and I advise instructors to learn what they can to help their students) is key and aids students and their loved ones tremendously since very few people have any idea how to handle these situations. In other words, I know where my role ends and where a rape crisis worker’s, or police, or a lawyer’s begins.

Training methods can be very fun, very rewarding, and very empowering for students and instructors alike. Survivors are pretty brave already if they are coming to your dojo/gym to learn how to overcome the events that they are struggling with, and we have an opportunity to help add strength to that bravery. There are some major keys to remember when developing your training methods for these and all students:

  1. DO NOT EVER give someone the “you should have” lecture. In my experience, survivors have said “I should have…” and I listen first, but I always encourage them not to beat themselves up over how the events occurred. Sometimes my advice-my good, tried and true advice, like don’t hang out with people known for unsafe, reckless behaviours, or don’t continue dating someone who has little respect for your boundaries and tends to be controlling-is grounds for my students to feel guilty and ashamed. They replay events and can see and hear what I am describing in vivid clarity. I might say, “you did the best you could given what you knew then. Let’s plan for the future and use what you know now to help you make the best choices for you and your family.” Trauma can steal a person’s faith in the future. I try to get them thinking ahead, using the past as a learning tool only.
  2. Know your students. I try to anticipate their feelings when we run a new or difficult drill. I try to use some emotional intelligence to get a sense for how relaxed, stressed, tired, etc., my student is. All of this can impact how they feel about their own ability to perform, which of course alters performance. If they are having trouble, I slow down. If they apologize, I encourage them to forget the need to apologize and focus on being here NOW. If they are survivors of trauma, they may be experiencing strong feelings of insecurity, defeat, embarrassment, and their self-consciousness can cause them to pack their things and leave in the middle of a class (I have seen this happen). We instructors like to yell to get the energy up in a group. Some students don’t need yelling, but instead our confidence in them to improve with every class. In my experience as a behavioral counsellor, I used a “10 to 1 ratio” rule for encouraging statements to corrective statements. Most people don’t need 10, but some people do. Know who needs some more attention and encouragement.
  3. Breathe-I incorporate breathing from Qigong and Tai Chi for my more nervous students (I also use this for my hyper kids. It helps them to focus in the same way.). When I run a drill where they have to close their eyes and wait for me to attack them with the pad, they practice the breathing I taught them so that they can get some control over their adrenal and fear response. It worked for me in a lot of situations as well. It didn’t mean I had no fear or that the adrenaline stopped pumping. It just took the edge off enough for me to still be able to think and observe during a crisis. A student may experience a reenactment during intense drills and not tell you. I had that happen with a woman whose ex-husband used to turn the lights off and beat her. This I learned after running the “close your eyes” drill I mentioned above. I would not have run that drill if I had known that at the time, but thankfully she reported feelings of empowerment since this was the first time she’d ever confronted that memory. In getting to know her, I always knew when she was getting nervous, filling up with disturbing memories. We would take some time to breathe together, every class if we had to. It helped to get her focused on pushing through the drill.
  4. Push students to a level just above their competency. My intention isn’t to make it too easy, because then they don’t feel challenged. I also don’t intend to make it too difficult, because that is defeating. Defeat for some trauma survivors is so familiar that it can be a default emotional space, entered in to upon the mere scent of impending failure. If I know they can give me 10 palm strikes, I might have them give me 2 more at the end. If I know they can give me 5 strong knee strikes, I ask for 2 more at the end. If they say they can’t, I respond that they can, it will just take some time and effort. Most people get it during class, some might take one more class to get the mechanics of a technique or drill. I assure them that I look and feel just as foolish when first learning something new. I have to relate my own power to them as something they can attain to.
  5. Ask for permission. You don’t have to literally say, “can I grab your wrist for this technique?” as obviously they have given you an automatic degree of permission just by signing the waiver for class. What I mean is making sure you are checking in with them when it is appropriate to make sure you aren’t pushing them so far in to their discomfort that it is harmful. Some people will quietly suffer, assuming your word is law because you are the authority and they want to be respectful. Encourage them to speak up about their boundaries. I used to tell the kids I taught that not even I had permission to make them feel unsafe or uncomfortable with themselves.

I hope this serves as a good starting point for many instructors who will certainly have some students coming to them seeking help in regaining their wholeness. Reiterating that we can only do so much in our roles as self defense instructors, I encourage the counsellors among us to explore the potential therapeutic benefits of realistic self defense training from quality instructors.