For almost three years now, a group of active-duty military, veterans and first responders have been meeting up to six days a week at Universal Kioto Fitness and Mixed Martial Arts center in Mesa, Arizona. This dedicated group of warriors meet up to laugh, growl and roll, as they train in the Kioto system of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. They are known as the Stateside Warriors, and they are taking part in the first published study on how Brazilian Jiu -itsu can be used to manage Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS).
Stateside Warriors came into being from a long-standing dream of Shane Sorenson, owner of Universal Kioto Fitness & MMA, and Joe Lutrario, retired New York Police Department. Lutrario was on one of the first response teams during the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, and used Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to work through his own consequent Post-Traumatic Stress. Lutrario trained with Milton Regis de Almeida in New York City for fourteen years, and later started “A Fighting Chance,” a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu program created specifically to assist combat veterans and first responders who were battling Post-Traumatic Stress.
“I started A Fighting Chance because I knew there was something to this BJJ stuff,” Lutrario says. “After a number of years of isolation and seclusion, I finally found a sense of peace on the mats. It was a way to tame the inner rage and quiet the noise. The skills I learned from Professor Milton and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu saved me from myself and helped me cope with daily life.”
When Lutrario moved to Mesa, Arizona he met with Sorenson and finding that they held a mutual passion of helping veterans and first responders, Stateside Warriors was born.
Lutrario, and his partner, Elizabeth Bourgoin Opas, who is also a black belt in Jiu-Jitsu, attribute the Kioto System of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to the success of Stateside Warriors. “This building block system of learning has been crucial in training those with Post-Traumatic Stress,” Lutrario says. “It’s a systematic way of learning and training in which each class is built on the foundation of the previous class. This prevents participants from becoming frustrated and overwhelmed which are classic symptoms of PTS.”
Kelly Weinberger, from Adler University, one of the researchers involved in the study, says, “Symptoms of PTSD reach through psychological implications into physical afflictions. In addition to hyperarousal, traumatized people have repeatedly been noted to have an all-or-nothing response to emotional stimuli. They have an impaired capacity to modulate the intensity of their emotional responses, be they anxiety, anger, or intimacy.”
Weinberger is an advocate for alternative forms of treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress, particularly in the form of martial arts. She says, “the disciplines (martial arts) teach the values of directness and honesty in communication, assertiveness, ability to empathize, courage, humility, perseverance, gentleness, respect for others, responsibility and self-improvement.” In addition, she states that prior research of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu shows that participants believed that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu had changed their lives through the incorporation and acquisition of four life skills reflecting values and characteristics of the sport: respect for others, perseverance, self-confidence and healthy habits. They also reported that through the benefits of the sport, instructors, and peers created an atmosphere for learning life skills implicitly (Chinkov & Holt, 2016).
During the study, participants are given five different Post-Traumatic Stress surveys and questionnaires at every twenty hours on the mat. The results have been impressive. Those who scored 100% Post-Traumatic Stress at the beginning of the study (which started almost three years ago), are now scoring less than 10%. The pivotal point seems to be right around sixty hours of training. This stuff works, and it can be seen in the huge smiles, laughter and relaxation of the people who train. For a moment, they are free from the demons, the anxiety and the triggers that haunt them.
“We appreciate, or perhaps more important, get addicted to those freeing moments, because they are few and far between,” Lutrario said.
It may seem ironic for those who have been in combat to use the physical mechanisms of fighting to manage Post-Traumatic Stress, and many people are wary of using such methods for feat that such situations will trigger the fight or flight mechanisms associated with PTS. Yet, the participants at Stateside Warriors explain that this is a perfect scenario to work with the fight or flight response in a controlled manner.
“It’s kind of like exposure therapy,” Nick Gregory, a United States Marine Corps (USMC) veteran explains, “you have some control in what would be an uncontrolled situation elsewhere, as you can tap out at any time.”
“It’s not just a physical workout” Garrick Billy, United States Army says, “Jiu-Jitsu gives you amazing clarity. When I drive home every night, I’m more centered than I’ve ever been. Nothing else works this way. It helped so much just getting out of my head. I was able to get off all the meds I was prescribed and go back to school.”
When asked why he had chosen Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Billy responded: “I’ve always admired Martial Arts as a young kid. I grew up on a reservation, so martial art schools aren’t even established at all. I hope to change that one day. PTSD has been a major factor in my life. It just made me a disagreeable person to be around. I was always angry and depressed, and I despised every aspect of my life. Since I started training in Jiu-Jitsu, I’ve slowly regained my life back. I enjoy life like I did prior to combat. At the end of each class it feels like I’ve left any negative energy on the mat, and I go home exhausted, yet empowered, and humble.”
J.P. Villont, USMC/Arizona Department of Public Safety (AZDPS), lists the ways that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has helped him. “My mood is way more even-keeled,” he states, “I have far fewer high and low spikes, in regards to depression and anger, and I’m slower to engage in conflict whereas previous situations, such as road rage, would have caused panic. I’ve changed the internal feedback loop in my head so that it’s now positive, and I have a lot more initiative than I used to.”
Villont’s spouse, Lisa, can attest the changes she’s seen in her husband. “He’s so much calmer and happier,” she says. “We don’t see the explosive triggers that we used to. Before when he’d get to that dark place, it would sometimes go on for days or weeks, and we’d have to call in a friend to help him work through it. Now he just breathes and works through it on his own. I’m really proud of him and what this program has done. For the first time in many years, J.P. is setting goals and achieving them. Jiu-Jitsu has provided him with benchmarks of achievement he can plan for and work toward. The competition prep has motivated him to set additional goals for health and fitness.”
Incidentally, after seeing such positive changes in her husband, Lisa also started training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and competing in tournaments. “It’s empowering,” she said, “I have so much more confidence now than I ever did. I feel strong. It teaches you balance, control, self-control, empathy, trust and faith.”
Billy agrees. “Jiu-Jitsu forces you to live in the moment and deal with the immediate,” he said. “When you come onto the mat, you immediately learn what you can and cannot control. It takes trust, and it takes submission.”
In addition to the physical and psychological benefits of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, there also comes social benefits. Many of the participants had been isolated, which is another classic symptom of PTS, yet they are now eager to come to class and venture out into society.
“We’re family,” Eddie Fire, United States Marine Corps/Mesa Police Department, says. “We train together, and train harder for each other. We fight together, and fight harder for each other. It’s not just here, the BJJ community is our extended family. It mimics the brotherhood of the military.”
Villont, echoes this, “Jiu-Jitsu has helped with my transition back to the civilian world,” he said. “When I first started competing in tournaments I was expecting animosity, but all opponents were shaking hands, hugging, and supporting each other. It completely blew away the myth of the “us versus them” mentality. We’re more connected to the civilian community than we’ve ever been.”
Shane Sorenson, owner of Universal Kioto Fitness and MMA, and president of Stateside Warriors, agrees with this. “I could see the biggest thing that our veterans struggled with when they returned from combat, was that they didn’t have anything to fight for anymore,” he said. “They didn’t have the brotherhood and the mission. They didn’t have that purpose that they had in the military. Jiu-Jitsu gives them that family unit, and brings the brotherhood back.”
Billy echoes this, “My BJJ family consist of my brothers and sisters who have been in combat, and I’m sure feel the same way I felt when I was introduced to the program. I believe we have all changed for the better. I see it in their actions as well as their character.”
In addition to the surveys given to participants in the program, a qualitative survey was sent out to veterans across the U.S. who practiced Jiu-Jitsu. Recipients were asked if they had experienced any benefits from Jiu-Jitsu, in regards to physical fitness, self-defense, confidence, a sense of community, reduction in anxiety, calmness, structure, focus, empathy and improved sleep. When the results of these qualitative surveys came in, we found that each respondent had scored 100% on the above questions. Also, when asked if there were any additional benefits, one veteran stated that Jiu-Jitsu had motivated him to get completely clean and sober. When asked why they had been drawn to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and why they continued to practice, a common answer was, “At first it was just the self-defense aspect of it. Later on it became the camaraderie, discipline and all the other things I missed so much about the military.” Finally, when asked how quality of life may have been changed by Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, one answer was, “I’m clean and sober almost 5 months, I’m in the best shape of my life since being out of the military, I’m far more confident, and I rarely get depressed or anxious. I’d say my quality of life has improved to a point far beyond what I ever thought it would.”
All respondents of the qualitative survey remain anonymous.
The benefits of practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu may stem from its roots in Buddhism. Weinberger describes how Buddhism places emphasis on the importance of the efforts for individual mastery, self-realization, and enlightenment…. The philosophy which permeates traditional martial arts is one of attaining the Zen state of mushin, or “no-mindedness,” a state whereby the participant is capable of fighting to their fullest extent but without aggressive feelings. This is carried out through ritualization of combat moves (katas), the requirement of respect to the teacher (sensei), to the practice space and to one another, and also by highlighting the importance of meditation and philosophies such as peace, benevolence, humanity and self-restraint (Nosanchuk & MacNeil, 1989).
A study conducted by RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research (2008), found that less than half of returning veterans needing mental health services actually receive any treatment at all, and of those receiving treatment for PTSD and major depression, less than one-third are receiving evidence-based care. The need for additional treatment options is staggering. The use and optimization of non-traditional supplemental therapy for veterans with PTSD 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 (Weinberger, 2018).
Veterans account for twenty percent of all suicides in the United States. The Department of Veterans Affairs has reported that an estimated 18-22 veterans die from suicide each day. Given the incredible benefits that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu brings to our veterans and first responders, it is our sincere hope that the Veterans Administration will start to recognize Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, as a viable form of treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress.
“We’re here to save lives” Villont says. “That’s what we (Stateside Warriors) do. The more vets and first responders know about us, the better. Helping my brothers/sisters-in-arms…that’s what it’s all about.”
About the author: Tracey Burraston has a Masters in Psychology- specialization Military Psychology from Adler University. Originally from England, she has been living in the United States for twenty one years. She currently lives in Arizona, where she specializes in alternative therapies for those with Post-Traumatic Stress and Moral Injury. She works with several organizations and takes veterans, first responders, and their families hiking, camping, kayaking, and horse-riding.