Self Defence & good mental health

From Antje Timmermann, Missing Link Instructor Circle member and educator in Manchester

What can you expect from a self-defence course? You'll learn to use your body - your arms, legs, head - to efficiently fight yourself out of an attack. You learn about risk assessment, typical offender and victim behaviour, you find out how your body reacts to stress and you learn how to leave any threatening situation as safely as possible - ideally before violence occurs.


Will this protect you from danger?


Hopefully it would raise your chances. According to a German study[1], women who fought against a sexual assault either verbally or physically could successfully thwart their attacker in 60%-70% of cases, as long as the attacker was a stranger, only casually known to them, a classmate or work colleague. The moment the attacker was a close friend or family member the success rate dropped to below 40%.

Considering that around 80% of all physical attacks against women was committed by either (ex)-partners or family members[2], the question of efficient self-defence becomes a lot more complex than learning how to kick or punch another person.


There are a number of factors which make defending yourself against an attacker from your own inner circle very difficult. Firstly it might be shock. Especially if the attacker is someone, you felt close to and who you trusted, this would not be the type of behaviour you expect and you would probably be too overwhelmed to deal with it.


But even if the assault does not come as surprise, if it happens frequently it might even be harder to fight against it - questions about the consequences of fighting back to yourself or other people, about the consequences for the attacker might stop you from effectively stopping an attack. Finally there are chances that a victim has already suffered emotional abuse for a long time before the first physical blow is struck. In that case the woman is already in a vulnerable position and a lot less likely to fight back.

All of these issues cannot be prevented by a self-defence class. Long-term support by professionals and family or friends is necessary to strengthen the social infrastructure and mental health of victims of domestic violence.


While risk factors such as loneliness, depression, chronic stress or low self-esteem might make you more vulnerable in case of attack, there are a number of ways to enhance your resilience. These include being engaged in society, maintaining a strong network of good and trustworthy friends and exercising regularly. The benefits of exercise go beyond strengthening your body. Reducing your stress levels by decreasing the adrenaline in your body, and strengthening the connection between body and mind increase not only your own well-being but also reinforce your inner defences. These long-term benefits might be the strongest link between traditional martial arts training and self -defence, but any type of exercise that you enjoy, will do.


Self-Defence and Victim Blaming


Becoming a victim to any type of assault is severely stressful and potentially traumatizing. Rather than giving all victims - no matter whether from mugging or from rape - the same unconditional support and sympathy, both society and the legal system seem to discriminate victims of sexual violence.

In many cases the behaviour of the victim before and during the attack are analysed and judged. Both the general public and institutions tend to look for fault with the victim - the way they dressed, whether they drank alcohol, whether they flirted with their attacker, whether they walked home alone, and any other "unsafe behaviour". This leads to the victim suffering twice - during the attack and with the social aftermath.


Some campaigners against victim blaming are sceptical about putting the burden of learning self-defence on women. The message of "Well, if you knew how to defend yourself, this wouldn't have happened to you" can lead to an ideological resistance against taking steps for personal safety.


This is very tragic, as the aim of minimizing the risk of falling victim to sexual assault in the first place, and the fight to acknowledge and support a victim of sexual violence regardless of her personality and the circumstances during the attack should complement each other.



  1. [1]Federal Department for Family, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, "Life Situation, Safety and Health of Women in Germany", 2003, p.88f [2]Federal Department for Family, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, "Life Situation, Safety and Health of Women in Germany", 2003, p.46

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