Stateside Warriors: How Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Is Being Used to Manage Post-Traumatic Stress
Tucked away in a strip mall beneath the Arizona sun is the Universal Kioto Fitness and Mixed Martial Arts Center. Here, active-duty military, veterans, and first responders often train six days a week in the Kioto System of Jiu-Jitsu. This dedicated group of warriors are taking part in the first research study on how Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu can be used to manage Post Traumatic Stress (PTS). They are known as the Stateside Warriors.
The program was created approximately nine years ago by Joe Lutrario (Retired NYPD). Joe, who knows firsthand the debilitating effects of Post-Traumatic Stress having been on one of the first response teams to the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, originally started the program in New York City under the name “A Fighting Chance.” Joe had utilized jiu-jitsu to combat his own PTS, and wanted to share the massive benefits and relief that jiu-jitsu can bring to those who were going through similar experiences.
“I started talking to other guys about the tremendous benefits that jiu-jitsu can bring,” Joe stated. “At that time, there wasn’t any research in relation to jiu-jitsu and PTS. And yet, we found that after around 60 hours on the mat, our lives had changed significantly.”
As part of the study, participants fill out five different clinically-approved questionnaires and surveys relating to Post-Traumatic Stress when they start the program. They then fill out the same surveys for every twenty hours on the mat. The results are impressive. Some participants who came into the program scoring 100% on the initial Post-Traumatic Stress surveys are finding that after 60+ hours on the mat, they are now scoring less than 10% on the PTS scale. This stuff works.
But how? Many people who have been in combat and/or violent situations are wary of martial arts as they fear that the physical mechanisms of fighting will trigger the fight-or-flight response associated with PTS thereby worsening PTS symptoms. Yet the participants in Stateside Warriors explain that jiu-jitsu has the opposite effect because they are able to manage their fight or flight response by working slowly in a controlled environment. “You have to control your breathing and fight relaxed,” Joe explains. “After awhile, the moves become muscle memory, which is almost like a dance. It’s euphoric. The breathing and moving bring down your biorhythms, working with the fight or flight response. There is trust, and there is submission. It’s fun.”
Rick Romney (Retired LAPD) describes his experience with the program:
“BJJ has definitely decreased my PTSD symptoms. I sleep better than I have in years. I’m less hypervigilant and overall I have far less aggressive tendencies. I believe this is due to what I refer to as “supervised mutual aggressive expression” all bound together with consent and trust. Specifically, I am able to express my aggressive disposition (legally) with a partner that gets to practice the same with me. It builds a bond between people which is a remedy for isolation. So much in my experience with psychiatry involves medications to pacify aggression. BJJ feeds and channels the aggressive nature in me to be productive. The end result is surprisingly the opposite of its origin. It brings peace and clarity to the mind, builds empathy for your classmates and other people, and the benefits to a person struggling from PTSD related aggression to have grown in empathy is PRICELESS!! Empathy and forgiveness for yourself and others can prevent suicide and pointless acts of violence against other people.”
Kelly Weinberger, one of the researchers from Adler University who conducted the study, describes how the practice of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu helps with symptoms of PTS:
“Symptoms of PTS range from agitation, irritability, sleep disturbances, nightmares, aggression, hypervigilance, anxiety, and depression to name a few. The use and optimization of non-traditional supplemental therapy for veterans with PTS could provide an outlet, not only for the symptoms that plague our veterans but by also providing them with a community support base, structure, physical fitness, and a means to complete mental, spiritual, and emotional healing. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu offers a much-needed outlet for sufferers of depression symptoms, anger and frustration manifestations, and balance and centeredness for complete health and well-being.”
Participants at Stateside Warriors agree. “This program has saved my life” is a phrase that’s heard often as is “We are family.” There is a familiarity among members of the program who see each other every day and who regularly socialize outside the gym. In many ways, the brotherhood within the jiu-jitsu family is similar to that of the brotherhood within the military and our first responders.
Shane Sorenson, president and founder of Stateside Warriors, who owns Universal Kioto Fitness & MMA, had been working at the Department of Emergency Medical Affairs and got to witness first-hand how many veterans struggled with the transition back to civilian life.
“I could see one of the biggest struggles was that veterans did not have anything to fight for anymore, and they didn’t have the brotherhood and the mission that they did in the military” Shane explains. “Jiu-jitsu, more than anything else, is a family unit, and brings that brotherhood back.”
J.P. Villont (USMC/AZDPS) goes on to explain how this family atmosphere helps with the transition into civilian society:
“When I first went to tournaments, I expected this animosity, but everyone was shaking hands and hugging, which completely blew away the myth of “Us vs Them.” We are more connected to the civilian community than we have ever been.” J.P. also describes his initial apprehension of competing in tournaments “I was really concerned with hand to hand combat, and I was afraid I was going to lose it” he says, “In the military, we answered everything with “kill.” But in jiu-itsu, tunnel vision is counterproductive. You’ve got to be centered and just flow. There is no room for ego. You can’t get mad because then you’ll just get smashed. You have to be controlled. It’s productive as opposed to destructive. This has really helped with my road rage. Whenever someone cuts in front of me now, I just take that breath and let it happen. You learn self-control and that you are responsible for your own safety. I have far more patience than I used to.”
Another participant, Nick Gregory (USMC) states “Jiu-jitsu is empowering. It builds my confidence, keeps my mind active, and brings me back to a like-minded community.” Eddie Fire (USMC/MesaPD) agrees, “It gives you goals. You make a choice to come here and take care of yourself. You have to set goals for nutrition, physical training, and keeping to a schedule.”
Garrick Billy (U.S. Army), has used what he’s learned in Stateside Warriors to return to school. “It’s brought discipline into my life”, he shares. “If I want something now, I go for it. I don’t feel nearly as much negative energy now as I used to. I leave it all on the mat. At the end of every session I’m exhausted, yet humble, and I feel a sense of peace in me when I’m done.”
The participants at Stateside Warriors accredit the Kioto System of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to their success. The building block style of learning works with PTS as it prevents participants from feeling overwhelmed with so much information at any one time. It teaches purpose, sustenance, and coping mechanisms- invaluable traits for anyone but especially those with PTS.
Recently, Joe noticed that the participants at Stateside Warriors were excelling in jiu-jitsu far quicker than the civilian groups that he teaches. When asked why he answered “I’m not sure…I think maybe the team pulls them and makes them better. They are a family. They work hard for the team. They hold themselves accountable. And they fight for each other.”
This is it…!! Please Pass it on.
Posted by A Fighting Chance on Monday, July 25, 2016
This article is dedicated to my best friend and colleague from Adler University, Shannon Kent. She was KIA on 16th January 2019 in Manbij, Syria. Shan was a huge advocate of alternative therapies for PTS and she would have loved and fully supported this study.