10 Ways to Boost Trauma Recovery: 6. Self Defense Training

Are you in therapy to recover from a bad experience, and wish you could see more progress faster? Well then, welcome to the sixth post of this blog series about different ways to boost the effectiveness of trauma therapy. I am interviewing professionals in the Boulder, CO area who provide services that experts recommend to help you optimize your recovery from trauma.

For this sixth interview, I spoke with Rachel Mahloch of Battlemom about self defense. She has a 2nd degree black belt in a mixed martial arts self-defense system and a 1st degree black belt in Shaolin Kempo, as well as a passion for teaching self defense.

How Self Defense Helps Trauma Recovery

Peg: Thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed.

Rachel: Thanks so much for interviewing me!

Peg: I’ve been wanting to talk about self defense in the context of trauma recovery for a long time. I thought maybe we should start by talking a bit about how self defense can directly help people in the process of recovering from physical traumas. Then I want to talk more about how and what you teach, and what you've noticed about trauma recovery in your students.

Rachel: Right, self defense to help with trauma recovery is something we've talked about that is really interesting to me. 

Peg: And there are more ways that it helps, too. I've mentioned in previous interviews in this series four components of trauma recovery that different mind-body practices can help with: 1. Calming the nervous system, 2. Reconnecting mind and body, 3. Reactivating the thinking brain, and 4. Discovering a strong sense of self. I think self defense especially helps with #2 and #4, reconnecting mind and body and rediscovering a strong sense of self

Obviously there is a lot of work with the body during self defense training. You've also been talking about how important it is to pay attention to what's going on in the mind and how that affects what the body can do in a critical moment. And vice versa. 

Rachel: That is why so much self defense is based on martial arts. When we train in the martial arts we are constantly thinking about the connection between the mind and body; how to control our body’s movements (speed, power, accuracy, agility) and our body's involuntary functions (breathing and heart rate).  I can do a speed drill, obtain a very high heart rate and through breath control and focus get that rate down within seconds.  This is an important skill in self-defense because keeping calm and focused during a violent or potentially traumatic event is key to reacting quickly and getting to safety.

Peg: Also, physically traumatic experiences often result in feeling very physically disempowered, because they usually involve being physically helpless. I also think working on a set of skills that are specifically designed for self defense is a fantastic way to find a feeling of personal empowerment again. I know I love that feeling of power when I've felt my body moving in a way that I can tell would be effective in a self defense situation.

Rachel: I have so many thoughts about that. It’s counterintuitive, but the smallest physical movement can have a huge impact.  One example would be the act of simply getting out of the way.  This requires speed and focus without taking too much consideration for size disparities.  When I think about empowerment, I try not to let size be an issue.  It’s a mental game for me because although I am only actually 5 feet tall, in my head I am 6 feet tall.

Rachel's Approach to Self Defense

Peg: Can you give me a brief description of your approach to teaching self-defense?

Rachel: My approach to self-defense is based on the premise that it must be simple. My techniques are not fancy because they don’t need to be and if you can’t remember it, then you can’t do it.  I also truly believe that the most important thing about self defense is that through self-confidence and a heightened awareness of people and surroundings it is possible to avoid most confrontations

Rachel: When I talk about my approach, I think it’s important to note that, as a woman, I understand how women have been programmed to think, act, and react.  I understand the physical disadvantages we have, and I know how we can learn to use our bodies efficiently and effectively.

Peg: What would you say are the main outcomes you want your students to have from your classes?

Rachel: What I have found true for myself and what I have seen coming out of my classes is that through the act of just learning to hit specific targeted areas with intentskill and precision can boost a woman’s confidence.  At first many students seem afraid to hit even a pad, but by the end they are forcefully striking while visualizing an attacker and generating great power with their mind and body. 

Peg: How do you work with people who are timid about using self-defense? 

Rachel: Yeah, this is really an interesting phenomenon because most women want to learn self-defense on one hand, but some are afraid or embarrassed to strike another human, even one who means them harm. I’ve found, though, that once women have permission and they accept the fact that there may be people out there who will want to hurt them, they really embrace the process. This is why I feel it’s important to begin my classes with a straight-up talk that involves real-life scenarios of things that have happened to myself and women I know. This usually gets the group talking about things that have happened to them, the decisions they made and how they dealt with it in the moment.  This open conversation fuels the fire and desire to learn some skills for the future.

Self Defense Skills

Peg: So, let’s get into some nitty gritty details. Exactly what type of skills do you teach?

Rachel: I think the most important thing I teach is that the reaction is as important as the technique. If you can react quickly by doing something and NOT completely freeze, you are 90% there. I tell my students that there are no rules in self defense and there is no wrong answer when it comes to the technique.  If they have to use what I have taught them and they don’t do it exactly the way I taught them, I am not going to jump out, yelling, “WRONG”.   I like to begin by teaching several basic strikes and kicks that are easy to learn and to remember.  We start by practicing these to the air, then we graduate to hitting pads, a punching bag and humans because they all have a different feel to them. This is where the students learn what strike feels good and natural to them.  Everyone has their personal favorite. After we’ve learned all the strikes and kicks, I teach techniques for common attacks on women.  I demonstrate the techniques on my assistant and then talk about how it won’t look like this when the students attempt it. Not only that, but it won’t look like this in real life, but this is our building block. I like to see what each person’s strengths and weaknesses are and try to encourage them to do what feels right based on the foundation I give them. While watching each student learn and practice the technique, I can see what their natural tendencies are and encourage them to swap out one strike for another.  It all goes back to the permission to do what you think is right, trust your gut.  This is the moment I see a lot of lightbulbs and eyes begin to sparkle as the confidence is boosted. 

Peg: How much time investment do you think students need in order to develop a good set of self-defense skills? 

Rachel: There are no rules in self-defense other than getting away safely.  In order to be able to implement moves successfully, though, they need to be practiced and internalized. It’s supposed to be that you need to practice a move at least a 1000 times for it to become a part of you. That’s a lot, but I recommend practicing each strike 10 times (to the air, in front of a mirror, or with a partner), 3-5 times a week. It really only takes a few minutes of your time and can be done during your regular workout. I also developed a workout routine that incorporates strikes and moves from techniques that my students can do at home

Peg: Can you tell me what classes you’re offering right now? 

Rachel: Currently I offer a 3 hour seminar that first examines mind set, self-awareness and making smart decisions, learning and practicing basic strikes/kicks and putting it all together to learn techniques against some common attacks specific to women (hair grabs, bear hugs, wrist grabs).

I am in the process of developing some follow up classes:

  1. Common attacks on women II, which will include those attacks not taught in the current seminar;
  2. What to do if you are fall or are taken to the ground during an attack;
  3. Getting attacked 101, which basically gives you the opportunity to get attacked out in the open and practice your techniques in a safe simulated environment; and
  4. Classes specific to young girls and teens that will examine the issue of saying NO without feeling awkward or embarrassed and when it’s appropriate to use force if you feel threatened.

Peg: It’s nice to see that you’re getting into some specific stuff. 

Rachel's Background

Peg:  I’m curious about how you got involved in teaching self-defense. What is your experience? 

Rachel: I began my training in the martial arts about 12 years ago just for the workout. Since then I’ve earned a 2nd degree black belt in a hybrid jujitsu based system as well as a first degree black belt in Shaolin Kempo. 

By the time I achieved my first black belt, I was very effective at thwarting most attacks by any sized human. Between my first and second degree black belt I studied and focused on the art of self-defense. I remember on one test having to defend myself against approximately 70 attacks (including weapons) with no breaks.  I did it, it was exhausting and I loved it.  I gained confidence and was/am in great shape.  I began fielding questions from women at my kids' schools as well as at my job about what to do in certain scenarios.  I had women tell me that I was an inspiration to them and I began to hear my young sons brag about my skills and I thought this was an opportunity to share my knowledge with others. 

How to Take Rachel's Classes 

Peg: What should people do who are interested in learning self-defense from you? How do they contact you, learn more about you, or sign up for your classes?  

Rachel: The best way to know what Battlemom is doing is to visit my website.  You can join my mailing list as well as check in to see if there are any classes being offered.  I am always seeking out new and interesting venues, so if anyone would like to host a class or knows of a venue, please reach out to me via my website. 

I am currently in the process of filming videos of what I teach I the classes that will be posted to the website, as well as holding classes at the Bixby School periodically.

Intro to Self Defense for Trauma Resolution

Peg: I want to mention here an idea that we've been tossing around for a workshop that combines a presentation about how self-defense can be helpful for trauma resolution and anxiety management with an introduction to self-defense exercises and demos, and then some general skills for grounding and calming.

Rachel: I hope we are able to put that together and offer it soon! I think it's a great combination that makes a lot of sense.

Peg: Readers, stay tuned for more information about that offering. Rachel, is there anything else you would recommend for someone who is interested in learning self defense?

Rachel: Give me a call, and let's talk about how I can help! I also like to direct women to the nearest dojo to train in the martial arts, so they can begin to learn about the mind/body connections in that environment.   

Conclusion & Contact Info

Peg: Thank you Rachel! It was great to talk with you about self defense. You are such an inspiration.

For anyone who would like more information about Rachel's offerings or approach, you can visit her website at battlemom.com.

Was this interview helpful to you in your journey to heal or help others heal? Is there anyone else you would like me to interview, or additional information you’d like to see in these posts? Please add a comment below!