Fear is a disease that can age and debilitate individuals. For many veterans, this disease rears its head in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University, at least 2.7 million service members have deployed to combat zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Out of this number, 970,000 have reported combat-related injuries; 15 percent of these are PTSD related. Symptoms of this disorder range from panic attacks and anxiety to sleeplessness and depression. Worse, symptoms can manifest themselves anytime from months to decades after the original event.
Many veterans struggle to reintegrate into society after being discharged due to undiagnosed PTSD symptoms, and while the Department of Veterans Affairs offers treatment and medical care for those with PTSD, a severe backlog and misdiagnoses often lead to many veterans falling through the cracks. Alcohol and heavy prescription medication become the fallback coping mechanisms for these veterans. The organization Mission 22 states that an average of 22 veterans a day commit suicide due to problems stemming from their time in service. But some veterans are rising above their fear, stepping onto a mat and to fight PTSD in a different way.
In technical terms, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a form of grappling and self-defense martial arts where two individuals square off against one another to try to gain an advantageous position and/or apply various submission moves such as chokes, locks and joint manipulations to win a match. It is essentially a form of combative chess. Opponents slap hands, bump fists and spar (referred to as “rolling”). Positions change, sweat pours and the mind is unwaveringly focused on thinking three moves ahead in order to achieve or maintain an advantage over the opponent.
Veterans have embraced this art as an alternative way to effectively combat PTSD. Research from the University of South Florida reports that veterans feel more focused and grounded while training, feelings that they carry with them off the mats and into their daily lives. Increased clarity and fewer sleepless nights have also been reported as major benefits of training. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as an alternative therapy form also decreases veterans’ abuse of medications and alcohol. These benefits not only help combat PTSD, but also combat the veteran suicide epidemic in the United States. In fact, feedback from training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has been so positive that veterans are banding together to form organizations that help bring Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to service members in need of alternative therapy.
WeDefyFoundation is a veteran-run organization that strives to bring Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fitness and training to veterans with both physical and mental service-related disabilities. Veterans can apply for scholarships that provide training for a veteran in need. The scholarships include one year of paid training at an approved facility, two gis (uniforms), private coaching and special equipment to veterans in need. Testimonials have shown that veterans who participate in this program have reduced stress and anxiety levels, experience weight loss, sleep better and rely less on medications. Many individuals carry these positives with them throughout their daily lives as they strive to reintegrate back into society.
Although the Department of Veterans Affairs offers many treatment methods for PTSD, VA hospitals are severely understaffed and waitlists are long. The VA is working hard, but more public involvement is needed. The mental capacity and physicality required of participants in combat sports like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu have been shown to have positive mental and physical effects on a veteran’s psyche. Organizations like the WeDefyFoundation have proved to be an effective support network for veterans who have become frustrated and lost within the VA system. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a powerful tool in combating PTSD, and it should be seriously considered when exploring alternative treatments outside of the VA.