Months ago, I wrote about my experiences at my dojang, a place of instruction for Tae Kwon Doh. I promised a follow up to continue the important discussion of how martial arts can rewire our brains and help us in our daily lives.
My dojang is still a big part of my life. I go several times a week, train, learn, clear my mind, meet goals. My fellow students range in age from 5 to 67 and all are respected. Each of us has a place, a rank, a predictable level of knowledge that is clearly indicated by our belts, our confidence, our ranks. One of my favorite teachers is 8 years old and another is 17. There is an egalitarian atmosphere that seems strange in a place where everyone has a rank. We are all the same, there to learn, there to support, there to be the lesson or to watch the lesson.
In the last article, I was very technical about how Tae Kwon Do effects our brains, particularly ones that have been traumatized. Here, I’d like to talk about how it can protect us from trauma that may occur in the future.
When our instructors ask us to do bag work or forms or ‘instructor says’, we push ourselves hard, imagine our opponent—we are pretending to attack and be attacked. When we pretend in such a realistic manner, we trigger parts of our brain that are used for flight or fight—such as cortisol release, stress hormones, aggression responses. We train our brain and our body to respond to an attack, while experiencing ourselves in control and safe. Then we break, take a deep breath and calm ourselves. We control our reflexes, train our bodies in a stressful situation, stimulate our stress response—but we are in control. Our body learns to think, react, and respond to stress in a safe environment, in a regulated way. This allows us to, when we are in a real dangerous situation, to know what to do, to be in control of our choices, and to deal with the emotional aftermath without severe consequences like PTSD.
Studies show that a regulated, predictable, and ‘safe’ level of trauma, stress, etc can in some sense immunize us to stress and can be very healthy for us.
My favorite story to use illustrates this idea. Transporting food fish is a tricky business. Keeping them fresh is always hard, and freezing effects the texture and sometimes taste of the fish. I heard a story about a very innovative trucking company that wanted to transport their food fish, live. The first time they tried it, they put a large tank with only the food fish they wanted in the tank. The fish were alive at the end of the trip but when they were cooked and eaten, had a strange, soft texture. The second time, they tried to figure out how to get the fish to move in the tank. They tried a few different ways, but ended up putting in predatory fish. Yes, they lost a few fish along the way, but the fish tasted a lot better.
My less favorite, but perhaps more apt, story is this. My instructor can be intimidating. He has a deep voice, is taller, and is very strong. In class, he asks me questions, challenges me, requires my full attention and respect. I used to freeze when he would call on me. Testing days were nerve-wracking and I would always feel like a failure. Now, with the confidence and training I’ve received, I can answer easily his questions, I no longer freeze up, and I’ve seen this translate into stressful situations at work. Court can be very stressful for lots of reasons. Testifying is part of what I do, but with the training I am getting at Tae Kwon Do, I am finding it easier to answer hard questions, to control my fear, and to respond the way I want to, with control, respect, and thoughtfulness.
My family and I will most likely become black belts this year. Our success in reaching that goal will be something to be proud of and something that will give us confidence. However, the journey will teach us more than the belt ever will.