Model Mugging and the Impact of Trauma Aware Self-Defense

While many self-defense organizations teach important moves that could protect someone during an attack, those moves are useless if they cannot be recalled in a moment of panic. Bessel Van der Kolk (2014) explains how, in situations of danger or panic, “…the old brain takes over, it partially shuts down the higher brain, our conscious mind, and propels the body to run, hide, or fight, or, on occasion, freeze. By the time we are fully aware of our situation, our body may already be on the move” (p. 54). Because during such a moment of reaction to danger our rational minds are not driving our behavior, recalling complex self-defense moves may be near impossible. Van der Kolk (2014) shares a story of a woman with a fifth-degree black belt in karate, and yet who froze and could not fight back when she was being sexually assaulted. Though this woman had all of the knowledge she may have needed to defeat her attacker, “her executive functions- her frontal lobes- went off-line, and she froze” (p. 220). This demonstrates that her high-level training was not enough to protect her from this situation, and the brain’s reaction to such a highly adrenalized situation played an important role in her inability to protect herself from this attack.

In part due to this experience, the model mugging program was developed to teach people how to react when they find themselves exhibiting a freeze response. Van der Kolk (2014) explains that this works, “through many repetitions of being placed in the “zero hour” (a military term for the precise moment of an attack) and learning to transform fear into positive fighting energy” (p. 220).  Thus, placing participants in a real-feeling situation where their emotional brain is activated allows them to notice what their reaction might be and develop self-defense techniques that account for this reaction in a safe environment. This program was developed in California, but iterations of it can be found throughout the country.

In Boston, the IMPACT:Ability training offered for people who are disabled as well as able-bodied people utilizes some of the same techniques described by model mugging. One important insight that these self-defense programs utilize is the resource that adrenaline can be during moments of high stress or panic. The production of adrenaline gets our bodies moving, but it can also shut our bodies down, as it did for the woman in Van der Kolk’s example. By simulating adrenaline-inducing situations, these self-defense programs are teaching participants how to react when their bodies are under high stress, thus hoping to make it more likely that in a real-life situation of danger when fight-flight-freeze hormones are coursing through a person’s body, they will be more able to react in self-defense. Van der Kolk’s example of the young woman who had suffered ongoing childhood abuse, but who was able to fight off three attackers late one night outside her college library, indicates that this training can indeed have an impact on a person’s reaction to adrenalized situations (Van der Kolk, 2014).

As a participant in IMPACT:Ability, I found the program to be invaluable in helping me to remember to breathe in scary situations. Remembering to take a breath is one of the main teachings of the course, and I have noticed that during intense moments at work I am able to think more clearly and respond more calmly when I have reacted to a situation first by intentionally taking a deep breath. For more information about Impact:Ability, or to register for a training, please visit:

Sources cited:

Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score : Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma.  Viking, New York.

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