ESD as a Tool for Trauma Healing

"Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies. (They) may live in a body that is always on guard. In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-

awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past."

- Bessel van der Kolk, author The Body Keeps the Score

It’s no secret that ESD has been shown to increase self-confidence/self-efficacy, perceived control, and assertiveness. ESD does not restrict women’s behavior, and reduces self-blame and increases the likelihood of disclosure.

All of these factors, combined with increased physical competence, lead to healing.

As self-defense instructors, we often weave healing elements into our classes naturally. But it’s important to think about how we can do so in a more intentional way.

Clara Porter MSW, director of Prevention. Action. Change. is here to explain how and why.

Q. What are the key elements of ESD training that specifically lead to healing?

A. While there isn’t (yet) a lot of research on ESD and its impact on trauma healing, there is research on yoga and mindfulness that we can draw from.

Similar to these practices, ESD helps us learn interoceptive awareness, which means becoming more aware of our body’s signals and what they can tell us about what we want, need, and feel.

In addition, patterned movement, such as strike drills, breathing, and meditation all may help rewire parts of the brain that have been affected by trauma and create new, healthier pathways.

The gradual way in which ESD classes build skills such as assertive boundary setting, where we may start with a call and response and move to one liners then to scenarios, are key to helping participants manage adrenalin successfully and helps people who have experienced trauma regulate their nervous systems and find new ways of coping.

Perhaps most importantly, ESD classes clearly shift blame from the survivor to the perpetrator, put violence in a broader social context, and help participants gain connections with others who have shared experience.

The connections, the “sisterhood,” and community feel of an ESD class help everyone - not just trauma survivors - feel stronger.

Q. How can we create an environment in our classes that’s not only safe but conducive to healing?

A. Choice.

As ESD practitioners, we work to create an environment where participants can make choices in an ongoing way. People have the opportunity to decide if and how they want to participate. They may participate by watching or cheering someone else on, or by doing all or part of an exercise.

For example, when we practice grabs, we demonstrate the techniques in two ways - with and without touch. We present both options as normal and equal, and ask participants to articulate and declare what they want (air or touch) at the start of each exercise. Not to ask one’s partner what they want, but to declare what they themselves want.

The opportunity to set a boundary and have it be respected is incredibly powerful. Not just for survivors, but for all of us.

Q. Please tell us about an activity that you find particularly healing.

A. In “yes circles,” which we take from IMPACT, people take turns saying their names, pronouns and answering a question, such as “What helps make me strong?”

After every turn, everyone responds in unison with a clap and a yes. Besides getting so many positive affirmations into the room, the anticipation of waiting for their turn, of speaking when it arrives, and grounding afterwards through the clap, again helps students experience success in managing adrenaline.

It’s a very quick up and down that allows us to experience a positive charge and discharge in our system.

It’s a small exercise that plays a big role.

We also practice natural movements that show how our bodies generate power. We pretend to pick up heavy loads off the ground or push a refrigerator. Thinking about how we move helps people who aren’t martial artists or physically oriented understand what their bodies are built to do.

We then use that strong body connection to use our voices and to generate strikes.

Q. You often use the word “activate” instead of “trigger.” Can you explain why?

A. In all of our classes, we work hard to normalize stress responses.

Trauma is simply an extreme form of stress. The word trigger implies a complete shut down, a return to the traumatic event. By using the term activation, we’re again bringing the focus to the body and the charge and discharge of our nervous systems. Sometimes this feeling is stronger than others and sometimes may be linked to trauma but the system that is engaging is the same.

Particularly in the case of sexual assault, many survivors may have experienced a freeze response or tonic immobility, which occurs when our system is completely overwhelmed, making even fight or flight impossible.

We again work to normalize this response as the body’s way of taking care of itself. In fact, it’s the ultimate form of self-protection and self-care.

I want my students to understand that whatever they’ve experienced in the past, whatever their bodies have done in the past, or even currently do, is normal. And that we can train so that we can have more flexibility and choice in how we respond in stressful situations.

That’s why we spend so much time learning grounding techniques that help us when we’re activated. Reaching a state of overwhelm is scary, but learning what’s happening in their systems, connecting with the body’s responses, and learning to manage the adrenaline response replaces that fear with understanding and confidence.

Q. How do you handle situations in which a student does reach a state of overwhelm?

A. It’s important to begin every class by setting ground rules. I tell students that if they feel activated, they are welcome to sit out or step out, and that I trust that they are doing what they need to do to take care of themselves.

For safety reasons, I follow that by asking that they tell me if they are planning to leave to the space entirely.

If somebody does step out, I check in, ask if there is something we can do to help, and offer water. I say things like, “Do what you need to do to stay present.” and “Come on back in when you’re ready.” putting the control in their hands and acknowledging that they know what works best for their situation.

If other students look over and show concern, I assure them that whoever is taking a break is doing what they need to do.

To keep everyone present and get the most out of each class, we take time to “shake it out” and ground between activities to move the adrenalin out of our systems and regain focus before transitioning to the next exercise.

Q. Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?


I often say that the best feedback I ever received from a participant was, "I no longer blame myself for what happened to me."

Empowerment Self-Defense works because it is designed to be trauma-informed and survivor-centered. Understanding how and why ESD works as a tool for healing is a critical part of both teacher training and of building alliances with other healing practices.

Thank you so much, Clara!

Clara Porter MSW has over 20 years of experience in the field of violence prevention. She is the founder of Prevention. Action. Change. in Portland, and Maine, which works to counter harassment, assault, and abuse through safety strategies, verbal and physical skills, increased confidence and awareness, and promotion of healing and growth. Porter holds a Masters of Social Work, is certified in Empowerment Self-Defense with the National Women's Martial Arts Federation and Center for Anti-violence Education.

Prevention. Action. Change. offers training for individuals, organizations, and businesses in Empowerment Self Defense, Active Bystander Intervention, Workplace Safety, Assertive Communication. Over the past two years, Porter has developed an 8-10 week training series for women who have experienced trauma titled, Healing Through Empowerment.

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