PTSD and Shotokan Karate: A Personal Journey

By François Lavigne

In recent years karate has proven to be an effective and useful part of the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But what is PTSD? It has been known by many names for centuries: nostalgia, battle fatigue and shell shock and more recently, a mental disorder.  But today it is classified as a trauma and stressors-related disorder. 

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The Causes of PTSD

The exposure to situation of death or the fear of death cause it.  Its effects last long.  In some cases, becomes chronic (C-PTSD). Patients who suffers from the chronic version of the disorder may experience serious symptoms daily and often for the rest of their life.  A person with PTSD re-experiences the trauma through intrusive and recurring memories, vivid images and nightmares. Those memories cause intense reactions, such as fear, panic, heart palpitations, sweating, hyper vigilance and many other symptoms.  Moreover, it results in certain behavior traits:

  • over alertness,
  • insomnia,
  • easily irritation,
  • unable to concentrate,
  • easily startled,
  • constant lookout for possible danger, and
  • avoidance of activities, places, people and thoughts that remind him or her of the trauma.

In the case of C-PTSD, it can lead to a feeling of emotional numbness, loss of interest in day-to-day activities and social detachment. PTSD sufferers often develop other problems, such as

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  • drug addiction,
  • alcohol abuse,
  • severe anxiety,
  • depression, and
  • engagement in high-risk behaviors.

As a result, PTSD creates a state of living in a near-perpetual state of fight or flight. 

Shotokan Karate as a Treatment of PTSD

The treatment of PTSD varies with the underlying trauma of the disorder.  Success also varies, depending on its severity.  Health professionals try to deal with both the underlying cause(s) and the specific symptoms. 

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Here: karate comes in.  It has been shown to be quite effective in dealing with some of the most debilitating symptoms of PTSD, such as inability to concentrate, recurring memories, intrusive thoughts, anxiety and difficult sleeping.  In fact, health professionals include more often some form of martial arts as part of the management of these symptoms.  Traditional Shotokan karate, because of its emphasis on the “spirit” or “do” aspect of the discipline, suits very well to help people with PTSD.  Despite that, PTSD sufferers still face a number of challenges during training, difficulties that can undoubtedly be overcome through more awareness and dialogue within the greater Shotokan karate community. 

My Journey With PTSD

I decided to learn karate as a young man. At the time I did not know I had PTSD.  This was the 1980s and PTSD was still, for the most part, viewed as a condition affecting people who serve in the military. Not even police and other first-responders universally fit the definition yet. I suffered severe and prolonged physical abuse from early childhood into my late teens. It only stopped when I left home. I joined Minoru Saeki Sensei’s JKA Dojo in Ottawa when I was in my early twenties.  The abuse had severely impacted my self-esteem. I believed that if I learned karate I wouldn’t feel scared and a coward anymore.

I had just joined Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).  Karate fit naturally, since I worked in law-enforcement. I worked in counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism. I quickly found that Shotokan karate offered more than just learning to punch and kick.  The spiritual side to Shotokan, the Dōjō kun struck a chord with me and the camaraderie inside the dojo, these things taught me to look inward, to nurture inner peace. 

How Shotokan Karate Helps Me to Cope With PTSD

When I train, I leave the world behind. The voices in my head become silent and I think only about the training. It works like closing a door to a noisy room and embracing that serene feeling that follows. Over time, I came to view the dojo and my fellow karatekas as a refuge and a family. Karate wasn’t just a sport or an activity.  It was a way of life. We trained hard. Saeki Sensei has high standards and high expectations. Tanaka Sensei came every year.  Training with Tanaka Sensei was intense. Saeki Sensei and Tanaka Sensei pushed us to learn all the essential components of karate, including clarity and peace of mind.  I learnt to control my mind and my body in ways that brought relief to the chaos of my life. 

Karate never came as easily to me as it comes to some others. But then, I did not understand then that PTSD was the cause. I always felt inadequate. When Sensei looked my way, I felt overwhelming anxiety. I still often do. Examinations challenged me in particular. The stress triggers my lack of self-confidence. During regular training I did well enough but I couldn’t focus during examinations. My progress through the Kyu´s therefore was slow.  I trained for a number of years, reaching fifth kyu. 

When the Setback Happened

Then, a terrible event occurred that changed my life and took me away from karate for years. On June 23, 1985, two bombs exploded. One, in an Air India flight that had originated in Canada. A passenger plane exploded off the coast of Ireland, killing 329 people. The other bomb, on a flight that also originated in Canada, exploded at Narita Airport in Japan, killing two baggage handlers. 

331 people died because of a conflict between Sikhs and the Indian government. I felt partly responsible. As a member of Canada’s security agency, it was my job to prevent these kinds of things. At the time I worked as a desk officer with responsibility for that part of the world. I wake up every morning to the sound of 331 people screaming in my mind. It is better now. Most mornings the screams are just a whisper, but they are still there. I know it is not reasonable to believe I am responsible for their deaths. But that is how I felt – how I still feel. My job was to protect people and I failed these 331 men, women, and children and their surviving friends and relatives.

The Diagnose PTSD Takes Long Time

Like many people, who suffer from this disorder, it took years for a diagnose. The nightmares, the anxiety, the mood swings, hyper vigilance, the anger, these things made it difficult to function.  In the late 1990s I could no longer work. Then, my marriage fell apart. The health professionals diagnosed me with depression and later bipolar disorder. They prescribed numerous medications but none of them helped. 

Something inside me told me they were wrong about these diagnoses.  I knew there was something else going on. I just didn’t know what it was.  Finally in 2003, the doctors diagnosed me with PTSD. But usual treatments turned out to be useless. I had been suffering from this disorder for too long.

Difference Between PTSD and C-PTSD

There’s a difference between PTSD and C-PTSD.  PTSD sufferers have a reference point: the life they knew before the trauma. That helps them heal or manage their symptoms. Chronic PTSD sufferers, people, who like me experienced prolonged and repeated trauma from a young age, have permanent changes to the “reptilian” part of their brain, making it difficult to treat. As a result, I do not have a reference point.  Therefore, C-PTSD can only be managed not healed.

PTSD Made me Stop Karate

Rejecting pills, I started psychoanalysis. It works more effective in helping people manage conditions like C-PTSD. Part of the psychoanalytic process includes physical fitness. So I returned to Saeki Sensei’s dojo. But I faced the same problems as before, except their intensity had grown. I knew I improved, but some aspects of the training acted as PTSD triggers. I tried hard to overcome these obstacles but I did not succeed. The positive effects of training kept being undermined by the negative ones. It was on the occasion of yet another exam, which I completely botched, that I – again – left the dojo. 

Despite my love of karate, despite the peace of mind I experienced while I trained, the focus, despite training being one of the very few things that cleared my mind of intrusive thoughts and fear, there remained obstacles that made me feel like a failure.  

I never spoke of the PTSD to Sensei. I should have. But I didn’t. To others, someone with PTSD looks and acts the same. They function as long as nothing triggers the PTSD. Their behavior changes in the blink of an eye if something, a sound, an image, a word, triggers an episode. Even now, after years of therapy, there are days I can barely get out of the house. I am extremely uncomfortable in crowds, especially noisy ones.  Some images and sounds trigger terrible thoughts. Being in airports is pure hell.  Karate training seminars can be a challenge. All those people can overwhelm me and trigger intense anxiety.

How I found My Way Back Into the Dojo

For the next ten years, I never stepped back into a dojo. I managed my PTSD by keeping stress down to a minimum. I was awarded a veteran’s disability pension. My life felt to some extent, normal. I even met someone special.  My future wife, Daniela who is from Zurich, Switzerland. And so in 2014, I moved there. I also returned to therapy and again, it was suggested I get physically active. It would help with the insomnia. I mentioned to the therapist that I had trained in karate years before and he urged me to take it up again. He told me that karate, martial arts, had recently been shown to be quite helpful in managing PTSD symptoms. That’s when I found Seikukan Karate Do, and Mirjam Sensei.

Mirjam Sensei’s dojo is a haven. I am comfortable in our group. Like other dojos, we are a family of sorts. Familiar faces meeting regularly to train and learn. I can manage the PTSD there well enough. It still flares up but I can deal with it.

The Dojo is Important to Cope With PTSD

This time around, the experience is more positive. With the help of the therapy I manage much better and I feel I am making more progress now than I ever did before. When I kneel for Mokso and clear my mind, the outside world disappears and all I see, feel and hear from then on are the dojo and Sensei’s words. I focus on improving my technique, on pushing my body and mind. Also, I reach for those moments when everything comes together. I truly feel the Do and I feel at peace. Mirjam Sensei is an amazing teacher. She is very technical. She explains the techniques in detail, the importance of basics, the Bunkai. I am proud to be one of her students.

But that doesn’t mean I do not still face significant obstacles. Examinations continue to be a major problem. They are a trigger, a very persistent trigger. Recently I was in Bern for an examination. It was an unfamiliar environment with hundreds of people and I failed the examination miserably. I couldn’t think, couldn’t count to five! Nor, didn’t I understand commands. I was sweating so much I couldn’t see. My eyes were burning. It was humiliating, especially considering how hard I had worked with Mirjam Sensei and others in our dojo to be prepared for the exam. I felt I let Mirjam Sensei down. 

Will PTSD Hold Me Back From Reaching 1st Dan?

I know I am ready for my third Kyu but because of the PTSD it may well be forever out of my reach. My therapist says we can work on that trigger but there is no guarantee I can ever overcome it. I hope we can work through it because achieving my black belt in Shotokan karate is a dream and a goal I have set for myself; a way to prove to myself that the PTSD does not define me. But I may also have to face the reality that it may remain out of reach.

One thing I do feel is that lack of knowledge about what PTSD is and does it is a significant problem. No one that I have spoken to inside the local karate organization really understands how it cripples. I believe that had my examiners understood the nature of my disorder it might have made a difference in how I was judged. I don’t mean that I would have been graded differently but perhaps some accommodations could have been found that would have prevented me from experiencing a panic attack. At least then, I am sure, I could have done the examination. As it stands, its possible that PTSD now stands in my way of making any more progress. 

What I wish for!

My hope, in sharing this, my personal journey, my experience living with PTSD is that others will recognize themselves, too. That others also appreciate that Shotokan karate is an amazing and rewarding tool for managing PTSD. I hope it will lead to a dialogue about how karate can do more to help PTSD sufferers reach their goals.

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