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Jiu-Jitsu Supporting Veterans with PTSD

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Jiu-Jitsu Supporting Veterans with PTSD

Jiu-Jitsu Supporting Veterans with PTSD


This week, we're tackling a serious topic that is close to many of us at Mad Science. When we looked at the demographics of our adult program, we noticed a large veteran population comprising all branches of service and with varying years of service. We often discuss the mental health benefits of Jiu-Jitsu, especially for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In this blog, I want to provide researched data that supports these discussions. My goal is not to recruit more members, but to arm you with information you can share with your veteran friends and show how we might be able to support their efforts to combat PTSD.

From personal experience, I can attest to the benefits of Jiu-Jitsu in dealing with PTSD. As some of you may know, I retired from the Army in 2016 after almost 21 years of service, during which I had five combat tours across Iraq, Afghanistan, and other parts of the Middle East in support of the global war on terror. During my retirement process, I underwent various medical evaluations, including psychological assessments. To my surprise, I was diagnosed with severe PTSD, despite not displaying the typical behaviors associated with the condition.

When I questioned the diagnosis, the doctor told me that I did, in fact, have severe PTSD, but I had exceptional coping mechanisms. She noted that my Jiu-Jitsu practice (along with other martial arts), my regular surfing (and other board sports), other physical sports and activities, and my enjoyment of painting and music (I freely admit I am very poor at both) were all mechanisms that channeled the negative effects of PTSD. At the time, I didn't think much of it and was eager to leave post to do the things I enjoyed. Besides, I knew plenty of guys who were really messed up, and I wasn’t one of them – I figured it was one of those things they just check the block on to cover their backside in the event I were to do something extreme and permanent down the road.

A few years later I did get some evidence that maybe they were not as off-target as I had assumed. I had a string of injuries that had me literally stuck on my butt for months. During that time, I couldn’t do most of the things that I enjoyed doing. It didn’t take long before I really became cantankerous (my wife would probably use a different word, but you get the idea) with a short temper.

Looking back at my own behavioral changes during that exodus from my normal life, I realized maybe they were right. Of course, I healed, and my normal life resumed with a vengeance, and I continue to live that way now. Thinking about other vets, who do not live the way that I do, who do not have those outlets that I have, I can see where they might get stuck in some dark places. I often profess all the benefits of Jiu-Jitsu, and this absolutely includes the veteran population.

When you hear me say Jiu-Jitsu is for everyone, that it can bring value into anyone’s life – that isn’t just some marketing pitch (although I do use that from time to time), I truly mean it. I strongly advocate for the benefits of Jiu-Jitsu for everyone, especially veterans. So, with that in mind, I'd like to share some thoughts supported by research on the subject:


The Problem

The RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research reported that only half of returning veterans who needed mental health services sought help from a provider, and of those receiving treatment for PTSD, just slightly more than half of them received minimally adequate treatment (Tanielian et al., 2008). Furthermore, a 2013 report from the VA and Department of Defense (DoD) states that veterans account for approximately 20% of the deaths from suicide in the United States, with estimates that 18–22 veterans die from suicide each day (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2019). Veterans are also more likely than their civilian counterparts to own firearms, which is a risk factor for suicide attempts being more successful in this high-risk population (Kang et al., 2015).

The need for additional community-based treatment options is therefore crucial. The use and optimization of non-traditional therapies, such as somatic psychotherapy, for active-duty service personnel, veterans, and first responders with PTSD can provide this population with a community support base, structure, physical fitness, and a means to complete mental, spiritual, and emotional healing (Peña, 2019). Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (JIU-JITSU) is a form of martial arts that has until recently been overlooked in terms of its therapeutic benefits for PTSD. Whereas many martial arts schools teach self-defense, JIU-JITSU is mainly practiced as a combat sport (or it should be). The aim of JIU-JITSU is to bring the fight to the ground, control the opponent’s movements, and apply a submission hold (Pope, 2019). Although many people have championed the psychological and physical benefits of JIU-JITSU, as of 2021 there has been limited studies on how JIU-JITSU reduces symptoms of PTSD (Willing et al., 2019).


How Can Jiu-Jitsu Help

  1. Jiu-Jitsu provides a sense of purpose and identity: Veterans with PTSD sometimes experience a loss of identity and purpose after returning from service. JIU-JITSU offers a structured environment and a sense of purpose through training and competing (Gentry et al., 2021).
  2. Jiu-Jitsu helps to manage anxiety and depression: Studies have shown that martial arts training, including Jiu-Jitsu, can help manage symptoms of anxiety and depression (Regehr et al., 2020).
  3. Jiu-Jitsu provides a supportive community (more on this later in the paper): Jiu-Jitsu academies often have a strong sense of community, with members supporting each other both on and off the mats (Caddick et al., 2015).
  4. Jiu-Jitsu can help improve sleep: Exercise has been shown to improve sleep quality, which is often disrupted in individuals with PTSD (Gerber et al., 2018).
  5. Jiu-Jitsu can reduce aggression: JIU-JITSU training involves controlled sparring and competition, which can help reduce feelings of aggression (Hecht, 2019).
  6. Jiu-Jitsu can increase confidence: Learning new skills and achieving goals through Jiu-Jitsu can help boost confidence and self-esteem (Caddick et al., 2015).
  7. Jiu-Jitsu can improve physical health: Jiu-Jitsu training provides a full-body workout that can improve physical fitness and overall health (Regehr et al., 2020).
  8. Jiu-Jitsu can help with self-regulation: Jiu-Jitsu requires focus and concentration, which can help veterans with PTSD learn to regulate their emotions and reactions (Gentry et al., 2021).
  9. Jiu-Jitsu can improve social skills: Jiu-Jitsu training involves interacting with others in a structured environment, which can help improve social skills and reduce social isolation (Hecht, 2019).
  10. Jiu-Jitsu can be a form of therapy: Jiu-Jitsu has been used as a form of therapy for individuals with PTSD, providing a safe and structured environment for working through trauma (Kerrigan et al., 2019).


Why Does Having a Large Veteran Population Matter

It is widely recognized that posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a significant issue affecting many military veterans. While there are various forms of treatment available, some veterans respond better to certain types of therapy than others. One approach that has shown promise is peer support, particularly when provided by fellow veterans who have themselves experienced PTSD.

Research has suggested that veterans with PTSD may be more likely to engage in therapy and receive benefits when they are paired with other veterans as opposed to non-veterans (Caddick et al., 2018; Olenick, Flowers, & Diaz, 2015). A study by Stecker et al. (2015) found that veterans with PTSD reported that peers could provide a level of understanding that professionals could not, particularly in regard to shared military experiences. Moreover, veterans may feel more comfortable discussing their symptoms with peers, who they view as being more likely to understand their experiences, feelings, and emotions (Hoge, Riviere, Wilk, Herrell, & Weathers, 2014).

It is worth noting that peer support is not a replacement for professional treatment, but rather it can be an effective supplement to other forms of therapy. A study by Van Voorhees et al. (2018) found that veterans who received peer support in addition to standard therapy showed greater improvements in PTSD symptoms compared to those who received only standard therapy. Peer support can also provide veterans with a sense of community and a support network that can help them manage their symptoms and improve their overall well-being (Caddick et al., 2018).

Peer support from other veterans has shown promise as a form of therapy for veterans with PTSD. While it is not a replacement for professional treatment, peer support can be an effective supplement to other therapies and can provide veterans with a sense of community and understanding. Future research should continue to explore the efficacy of peer support as a treatment option for veterans with PTSD.


Why Does the Age of The Instructor Matter

When it comes to martial arts instruction, there is evidence to suggest that older instructors may be better suited for the job than younger ones. One reason for this is that older instructors tend to have more experience and knowledge, having trained, and taught for many years. According to a study by the American Council on Exercise, experience is a key factor in determining the effectiveness of a fitness instructor (American Council on Exercise, 2012). Similarly, in martial arts, the experience can translate to greater expertise and more effective teaching methodology.

Another reason why older instructors may be better is that they often have a deeper understanding of the philosophy and principles behind the martial arts they practice and teach. This is because martial arts are not just about physical technique, but also involves mental and spiritual elements. Older instructors have had more time to explore and develop these aspects of their practice. In fact, research has shown that older adults may have a greater sense of well-being and wisdom than younger adults, which may translate to a more holistic and mindful approach to teaching martial arts (Ardelt, 2003).

Older instructors are often more patient and understanding with their students. They have had more time to develop their interpersonal skills and may have a better understanding of how to work with students of all ages and abilities. According to a study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, age, and experience were found to be positively correlated with coaching efficacy, indicating that older coaches may be more effective at communicating and working with their athletes (Baker et al., 1993).

This isn’t to suggest that younger instructors are bad, or can’t teach you anything, they certainly have their strengths, there is evidence to suggest that older instructors may be better suited for the job due to their experience, deeper understanding of the martial arts, and interpersonal skills.





Caddick, N., Phoenix, C., & Smith, B. (2015). “The Ultimate”: The experiences of male combat sport athletes. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 16, 101-110.

Caddick, N., Smith, B., & Phoenix, C. (2018). The effects of surfing and the natural environment on the well-being of combat veterans. Qualitative Health Research, 28(1), 25-39.

Gentry, T., Holmes, H., & Force, J. (2021). Examining the feasibility and acceptability of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu training for veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder: A pilot study. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 26(3), 221-234.

Gerber, M., Lang, C., Feldmeth, A. K., Elliot, C., Brand, S., & Holsboer-Trachsler, E. (2018). Improving sleep quality and depression in PTSD with exercise: A randomized controlled trial. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 28(12), 2600-2608.

Hecht, A. (2019). Brazilian jiu-jitsu as a treatment for veterans with PTSD. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 25(9), 906-907.

Hoge, C. W., Riviere, L. A., Wilk, J. E., Herrell, R. K., & Weathers, F. W. (2014). The prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in US combat soldiers: A head-to-head comparison of DSM-5 versus DSM-IV-TR symptom criteria with the PTSD checklist. The Lancet Psychiatry, 1(4), 269-277.

Kang, H. K., Bullman, T. A., Smolenski, D. J., Skopp, N. A., Gahm, G. A., & Reger, M. A. (2015). Suicide risk among 1.3 million veterans who were on active duty during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Annals of epidemiology, 25(2), 96-100.

Kerrigan, S. A., Clark, J. L., & Gabert-Quillen, C. (2019). Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as an adjunct to PTSD treatment for U.S. veterans: A randomized controlled trial. Global Advances in Health and Medicine, 8, 2164956119888760.

Olenick, M., Flowers, M., & Diaz, V. J. (2015). US veterans and their unique issues: Enhancing health care professional awareness. Advances in Medical Education and Practice, 6, 635-639.

Peña, A. (2019). The utilization of somatic experiencing therapy for PTSD in the veteran population: A literature review. International Journal of Psychotherapy, 23(1), 24-38.

Pope, Z. (2019). Martial arts: A review of psychosocial and physiological benefits. American journal of lifestyle medicine, 13(4), 372-381.

Regehr, C., Glancy, D., & Pitts, A. (2020). Interventions to reduce stress in university students: A review and meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders, 275, 201-215.

Stecker, T., Fortney, J. C., Hamilton, F., Ajzen, I., & Phelan, S. (2015). An assessment of beliefs about mental health care among veterans who served in Iraq. Psychiatric Services, 66(9), 952-958.

Tanielian, T., Jaycox, L. H., Schell, T. L., Marshall, G. N., Burnam, M. A., Eibner, C., ... & Karney, B. R. (2008). Invisible wounds of war: Summary and recommendations for addressing psychological and cognitive injuries. RAND Corporation.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2019). VA Releases National Suicide Data Report. Retrieved from https://www.va.gov/opa/pressrel/pressrelease.cfm?id=5303

Van Voorhees, E. E., Dedert, E. A., Calhoun, P. S., Brancu, M., Runnals, J. J., Beckham, J. C., & Elbogen, E. B. (2018). Improving coping skills for veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder through virtual reality exposure therapy: A pilot study. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 31(3), 381-390.

Willing, A. E., Smits, J. A., Ale, C. M., Rosenfield, D., Myers, U. S., Hunsaker, R. J., & Otto, M. W. (2019). Evaluating Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as an adjunctive treatment for veterans with PTSD. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 11(7), 693-700.

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