Embodied Healing for Trauma Survivors

It has only been about 20 years since a consensus was made regarding the biological alterations stress and trauma induce on the body. For over a century before that, psychiatrists had been noting visible abnormalities of extrapyramidal motor responses and general body function on the victims of trauma. Symptoms such as exaggerated and erratic reflexes, a change of posture, speech impairments, constipation, heart palpitations and much more. Now, it is understood that these symptoms are due to profound alterations of hormone secretion and memory processing, and not purely psychological. (B.A. van der Kolk MD)

Similar to the US, Israeli therapists mainly relies on talk-therapy as a means of treating trauma patients. EMDR and Somatic Experiencing are also widely practiced, while methods such as creative expression therapy (art therapy) and Animal-assisted Therapy are becoming more popular as western practitioners start to explore more holistic approaches to psychological healing. Among these new innovations is a method that one Jerusalem nonprofit is just beginning to use. El HaLev is a center for violence prevention and safe community building in Israel. Through dynamic self-defense and martial arts programming, they empower women, girls, children, people with special needs, the elderly and other vulnerable members of the population. In partnership with therapy experts, they are kicking off a new course for survivors of trauma by utilizing the program they are known best for, IMPACT. Rikki Davies, MSW, is one such expert involved in creating El HaLev’s first IMPACT empowerment self-defense course for trauma survivors.

Rikki is a practicing therapist in Jerusalem. She treats clients in private practice, and works for the Family Institute of Neve Yerushalayim and a High School for girls-at-risk. Her private practice actualizes what she knows and personalizes her work, while her work at the two institutions helps to broaden that perspective. “It’s really important to me to develop a broader perspective of the issues that are facing people,” she says.

As part of the effort to broaden her perspective, Rikki recently completed an IMPACT workshop for therapeutic professionals with El HaLev. The experience had a profound affect on her and she realized the potential of collaborating with El HaLev to create a program for the trauma survivors she works with. IMPACT is an internationally practiced method of self-defense, that utilizes live simulations with a male instructor trained to simulate “assaults” the participants under various conditions. These instructors challenge the participant’s thresholds in steadily increasing increments so as to expand stress tolerance, while not overwhelming them. All of the instructors are trauma-informed. Beit El HaLev provides a safe environment with clear boundaries, and is balanced with lots of social support from the instructors and the other participants.

Self-defense training has been supported as being an effective intervention for survivors of trauma, especially for those who have experienced domestic violence and sexual assault. Due to the simulations involved in the course, the IMPACT method is one that can be highly stressful for an individual in a vulnerable psychological state. However, it is precisely due to the “adrenaline-training” combined with social support involved in the instruction that Rikki believes it has the potential to be so effective. “The instructors aim to challenge them right at their limit. When they effectively master the threat with a movement-based protective response, rather than the previously learned freeze response, the system is rewired. IMPACT has the potential to address their needs in the most direct way,” Rikki explains. The participants’ skill sets are slowly expanded, under increasing increments of pressure, thus improving their tolerance and ability to function under higher levels of stress. From there, she believes that participants will be able to revert to action instead of paralysis when facing threatening situations (a common symptom of PTSD).

This is the specific need Rikki saw in many of her clients. Even after a lot of verbal therapy work, there remained a missing piece in the healing process. “There was a certain disempowered response that seemed to be embedded in the body, and would express itself in different situations,” she explains. Disempowerment contributes to paralysis, mentioned above, and Rikki saw her clients perpetually repeating certain “freeze-based”responses to threat, stalling any sort of integrated change. Utilizing the physical self through body language and voice to express boundaries, psychologically rewires one’s relationship with potentially triggering situations, as well as with one’s own fear response.
The first course in Israel of this kind starts next week for eight sessions.  For the sensitivities of the participants, the course is modified to include more discussion and exploration of “gray areas” (uncertain situations) than relying solely on intensive physical self-defense like the normal IMPACT course, and will be taught by El HaLev’s most experienced IMPACT instructors who have backgrounds in therapy work. With their support, participants will learn to use their bodies to practice self-defense while building an internal confidence and respect for themselves. With this strength, they can engender healing in their lives through the embodiment of a new source of positivity to carry with them wherever they go.

About the Author
Leviah Landau is an aspiring optimist, new parent, and "olah" from the Pacific Northwest. She is the founder Lashal Memoirs and works as a personal and family historian creating "life portraits" in prose for clients. Her first privately commissioned book is soon to be printed.