A Trauma-Informed Approach to Physical Activity

Dr. George Capone is a North Devon based Clinical Psychologist, a keen amateur boxer and a boxing coach. George has combined these sets of skills and experiences to develop a trauma-informed non-contact boxing pilot programme for women who have experienced physical violence.

We caught up with George to learn more about her Warrior Women programme.

How did your two different roles and areas of interest come together?

I qualified as a Clinical Psychologist in 2017 and began my career working in adult mental health forensic in secure hospitals. I now work in the local community adult mental health team in Barnstaple, and I specialise in supporting adults with complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

I’ve always been interested in movement and how it effects our mental health, and over time I’ve learnt that there’s a powerful link between how we move and how we feel. I noticed through different therapy techniques, the shift of energy in the room that movement made for people. I could see that something was working at a deeper level, and this led me to train in Schema Therapy which is based on a mixture of therapies. It involves using play, movement and imagery to help people process past trauma and unmet emotional needs.

On a personal level, I tried boxing when I was younger and remember liking it, but never had the confidence to keep going consistently. Then I went to a boxing class in Bideford, and it was one of the best things I’ve done. The whole sense of training and community aspect and the support that you get, it was great. I also really enjoyed the pad work, and noticed that when I started hitting the pads, a powerful emotional release was happening in my body. It made me realise what a difference this could make and the benefits it could have for people when they’re holding stress or emotions in their body.

I signed up to a charity fight in March 2023 because I just loved it that much, and I won! Although I didn’t want to fight again, I also didn’t want to lose my relationship with boxing, so, I decided to train as a boxing coach.

Around this time, I began to think about the women around me that care for other people, at times at the expense of their own needs. Not only did I want to understand what I needed to empower myself but also how could I share this, to empower other women.

This inspired me to do a trauma-informed martial arts coaching programme run by Georgia Verry as part of her Conscious Combat Club. The course gave me the scaffolding and the confidence to think about how I would use the martial arts aspects to deliver trauma-informed boxing sessions.

All of a sudden, I was seeing links of how I could bring all of this together and connect my psychologist skills and experience of using trauma-informed approaches with my interest in movement and love for boxing, to help empower women. The seed was kind of planted from then.

What is a Trauma-Informed Approach?

Trauma-informed approaches reduce the negative impact of trauma experiences through physical and mental health support. There are six key principles of trauma-informed practice, which are: safety, trust, choice, collaboration, empowerment and cultural consideration.

We put a lot of thought into how we integrated and embedded these principles into the boxing classes and everything we did.

How does a trauma-informed approach help to empower people?

Empowerment is a big part of trauma-informed approaches. I use Polyvagal Theory with people who are struggling more, but actually lots of people could benefit from it to help with stress relief or difficult times.

Polyvagal Theory is about helping people to understand and be aware of their nervous system, to then be able to shift themselves out of different nervous system states. You are empowering people where instead of focusing on their diagnosis, which can be helpful, but also in many ways limiting, you’re helping them to learn techniques that they can use on their own or with other people. This isn’t easy though and it takes time.

Depending on where you’re at in your nervous system, it’s about working with the energy that you’ve got. So, if you’re in a frozen state, you wouldn’t be trying to go for a long run. Instead, you might be putting on some music that’s comforting, that starts to make you feel a bit more connected, and you might then go outside and be around other people.

For lots of people, when they are in a shutdown state or ‘fight or flight’ they can’t think. So, they need to move to be able to get to a place when they can start to reflect again, and challenge their thoughts, or whatever that looks like for them. Fight or flight is more about being able to release that large amount of energy and adrenaline in a controlled but helpful way. This is where things like boxing, running and other more intense exercise might come in.

“What we’re learning more about now, is that trauma is in the body, so, we have to work with the body.”

How important is that connection between mind and body?

This is a real passion of mine, that I’ve been learning about over the past few years.

With my PTSD work, quite often people have learnt, whether from incidents in later life or early life, to become so disassociated from their bodies. They’re so disconnected from their actual needs and the pathway back to understanding themselves and being able to advocate for themselves. It’s about being able to connect back with the body, but for some people, there are more obstacles in the way. That’s where therapy can be helpful.

We’re often given the message to challenge our thoughts and be mindful, but being mindful is actually really hard, especially if you’re stressed. Instead, what you probably need to do is move first, and you can be mindful whilst moving. Sitting mindfulness practices often work better when we’ve had the chance to burn off some energy floating around in our nervous system.

“Movement and physical activity can really help with your mental health because it can support you to be mindful in a way that can be more accessible for lots of people and the modern lifestyles we lead. It can really help create that shift of moving your nervous system state, so that you can see things differently and be able to problem solve and think a bit more creatively.”

We live in a world where we can become quite stagnant, sat at our computers, and looking down at our phones. Changing your position and opening up your body posture through movement can make a big difference to how you feel and that is some of the power physical activity has on mental wellbeing.

Unless we’re connected with ourselves, we then struggle to connect with other people. So, trauma and difficult feelings that end up feeling stuck in the body can cause a lot of problems in all sorts of areas.

Tell us about Warrior Women

In September 2023 I started up as a sole trader and the following month I set up a pilot after connecting with the local charity, Encompass Southwest to talk about their Brave Spaces project which supports women facing multiple disadvantages such as homelessness, domestic and sexual violence and abuse. Soon after, in November 2023, I decided to register as a CIC, (Community Interest Company).

The pilot had a specific focus on women who have experienced physical violence. Encompass referred women into the programme and facilitated them coming along to the sessions.

Me and a coach facilitator would turn up each week and go through a general programme depending on who was there and how much boxing knowledge they had. The session would include a check in, introduction, talking a bit about the polyvagal nervous system ladder and for people to notice where their body was at. Then we’d warm up, get into doing some basic boxing technique, some punch bag work integrating some grounding exercises, followed by cool down and check out. When running the classes I had support from a Clinical Associate Psychologist who provided the emotional support whilst I was coaching. So, grounding work, checking in with people and taking them outside if they needed to and meeting their needs.

In terms of positive feedback, the women said that when they got to the class, they really enjoyed it.

“They felt like their body belonged to them and they felt more confident.”

It was a stress release. They found it helpful coming to a space where they could feel how they felt without having to go into the past. It wasn’t therapy.

What are your plans going forward?

I have been accessing the courses from the Active Devon and Iridescent Ideas Sustain and Build programme, so that I can learn more about setting myself up as a CIC. This has been really helpful because I am new to business and the thought of having my own business has been frightening and not something I ever thought I would do.  I am in the process of exploring funding streams and building local relationships for potential collaborations and sending referrals to the programme.

I want to continue taking a proactive and preventative approach to supporting people’s mental health and wellbeing. So, not about dealing with things when we’re at the really tricky, sticky end, instead, how do we strengthen our resilience day to day and look after ourselves to avoid going down that slippery slope to burn out.

With the non-contact boxing sessions, I would be looking to branch out in the future. The pilot sessions were offered in North Devon, but I’m currently looking at other venues. We would like to run these from a gym-based environment in line with feedback received, so I am also looking at possible venues.

Whilst I would continue to offer the sessions to women who have been subjected to physical violence, I’m also thinking about broadening the group and offering the sessions to women who may not necessarily have a trauma history but would like to feel more confident and empowered in their daily life.

As well as supporting and empowering women to feel strong and confident. I’m also looking at ways I can support young females. Sport can really teach you to be mindful in a way that is really accessible for young people, especially if they’ve got a lot of stress and adrenaline in their body. This is why I’m passionate about making it more accessible to young females, particularly those that are at risk of being excluded from school or involved in the youth offending service.

In addition to all of this, I’ll also be offering life coaching to support women who may be experiencing a range of obstacles they need support with, in order to be their authentic empowered selves. This wouldn’t necessarily be in North Devon as it would mainly be provided through online work, so across the UK.

Finally, what would your advice be to any physical activity providers who are interested in exploring trauma-informed approaches further?

I think the first thing is to look at the principles in more detail. Then, ask yourself the questions, how can I embed these principles into what we do, breaking this down for each principle. For example, how do we support people to feel safe with what we do with them and what we provide? How do we offer opportunities to collaborate and have choice? How do we empower people?

Ways to Connect and Learn More

George has shared the following links for anyone wishing to learn more:

Understanding Schema Therapy – The Schema Therapy Institute

What is Polyvagal Theory | Polyvagal Institute

What is Trauma-Informed Care? – Trauma-Informed Care Implementation Resource Center 

Working definition of trauma-informed practice – GOV.UK 

PTSD Stats – PTSD UK

George would welcome people reaching out and connecting with her to hear more about the programme, share ideas, or simply geek out about trauma-informed martial arts.

Her social channels are: Facebook @Warrior-Women and Instagram: warrior_wom3en

Her website is: www.warriorwomenproject.uk

If you would be interested in receiving training to understand more about trauma-informed approaches to physical activity provision, email: training@activedevon.org.