top of page

Neurobiology of Self-Defense Pt 2

Hello everyone, and welcome back to my blog, The Neuroscience Behind Reality-Based Self-Defense, here on the IMPACT Your Life blog. In this blog I want to share the discoveries that I’ve come across about neurobiology that affect how we go about addressing personal safety. I first want to say, thank you for taking the time to read this! Second, the information I present here is based on information I’ve learned from a variety of professionals (who I will credit each time I mention their work), my own observations, training, and experience as a mental health clinician and self-defense instructor as well as my own experiences as a martial artist and martial combatant. I am not a doctor in neuroscience, nor do I pretend to be any sort of medical professional. By no means is anything I share all-encompassing or a reflection of the organizations of which I’m a part. I am just sharing the information that I’ve discovered through training as well as personal reviews of existing research. There will be times I may discuss anxiety-provoking material, so please take the necessary means to properly address any distress that comes up for you. My intent is to share my knowledge and add to the body of work that others before me have already done. With that, I hope you enjoy what I have to offer. In this installment, I’m going to talk about something I get asked often, “What’s it like to be in the suit?”

To start, everyone who dons the suit has a unique experience and my reflections and opinions do not reflect all the people who have played the role of the simulated bad guy. I will use the term Padded Instructor (PI) for the rest of the time for convenience.

I was first introduced to Impact when one of my best friends and colleagues (who is also in the suit) told me about the program and invited me to the graduation of our mutual friends taking the course at the undergraduate university we all attended. The PI did their speech introducing their roles, called for people who would be interested in “the suit”, and twenty-three years later, here I am writing about the experience.

Being in the suit takes many skills, the most important is having the mindset to help others become stronger physically, mentally, and emotionally. The PI has to understand that our big picture goal is to make this world better than what it is by teaching our students that it is ok to stand up for themselves by setting strong boundaries, expecting others to respect those boundaries, and using physical techniques when necessary.

The PI will be the recipient of the students’ physical aggression, and in some cases will be the target of their emotional catharsis. Those who put on the suit need to understand this and not take it personally because it is NOT ABOUT THE PERSON IN THE SUIT, IT IS ABOUT THE SUCCESS OF THE STUDENT.

The PI puts students in simulated scenarios where they experience varying levels of threatening situations to learn how to successfully manage and survive the threat. Understanding how the human body responds to progressive levels of stress is a key component to successful development in the student. The PI needs to keep safety as the foundation for creating as close to a life-threatening situation as possible. The students need to “feel” a certain level of perceived threat for their bodies to learn to respond appropriately.

Creating the simulation of these “life-threatening situations” is complex and requires the PI to sacrifice and suspend what they think they know about real-life violence and study enough about this kind of violence (what the students might have gone through, and what they possibly do go through), to provide effective scenarios. In some ways, the PI needs to sacrifice their ego, and without this mindset of sacrifice the physical conditioning, role playing, and teaching lacks the base necessary to perform the role effectively. There are times the role can be physically and emotionally taxing because of the energy required to create a certain level of realism. This is to be expected.

Another expectation is to have a level of sensitivity that allows the PI to do what needs to be done for the needs of the individual student, but to also be sensitive to the entire class, the teaching team, and the social context as to why we exist and are doing this work.

Creating this environment is essential because there are not many domains in our culture where we encourage women to stand up for themselves knowing that they can effectively use physical aggression if someone else crosses their boundaries in a manner that puts them in danger.

Part of this mindset includes the idea that the PI is required to give the students the opportunities to have them experience what it is like for them to hit as hard as they can with the intent of causing physical harm and damage WITHOUT worrying that they will hurt the PI.

Once this level of security becomes familiar with the student, the students then can begin exploring how to use verbal skills to assert themselves effectively. Here, the PI must be able to provide a variety of characters and verbal scenarios for the student to experience to practice and synthesize the skills taught.

These physical and verbal skills are taught by the team in a gradual progression that grows more complex as the student demonstrates their successful use of the skills. This is where the PI must demonstrate that they can provide experiences that push the students hard enough to be challenged, but not too difficult that they become injured or lose motivation to get better.

Overall, the role of the PI is a complex one that requires physicality, sensitivity, and creativity. Ultimately, these skills are put together to help the population we serve to become stronger, no longer be targets of gender-based violence, and/or survive whatever situation they find themselves in their lives.

It can be thankless, and that needs to be acceptable because it’s not about receiving thanks. It’s about making the world better than what it currently is.

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page