Can Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Help Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Below is an article written by not only one of our blue belts, but also one of our employees. Brent Bolig is our Sales Manager at our Pacific Top Team Penticton Martial Arts Facility – why does he do sales? One might ask. Because he has quite a story of his own, and the journey in Martial Arts and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has encouraged him along the right path, and to say the least – changed his life. Perhaps even saved it. For one of his University papers he wrote a brilliant conclusion on how Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu can potentially help Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He gave us his permission to share his paper on our social media, and we hope you find it as interesting and beneficial as we do.
Treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
It may start by witnessing something tragic or with the loss of a loved one; consequently, any event that leaves a person feeling helpless, and threatens their safety, can develop into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When trust is lost and a sense of safety is gone, the personal and emotional life of a person can become fractured. This makes it hard to function in everyday life. Compounding this distress is the need to get help from a professional therapist, which may have a long wait list and can be extremely expensive. Also, many people suffering from PTSD find themselves unable to work, unable to hold relationships, and unable to cope. Without treatment, life becomes hopeless and can lead to serious issues like substance misuse, extreme irritability, or even suicide. Treatment is imperative and can save the life of a person suffering from PTSD; however, getting a person to seek help is often a battle in and of its self. Additionally, these issues place a huge burden on the support system of the person suffering from PTSD, such as friends or family, and can make it difficult for those involved to stay compassionate for as long as needed. Fortunately, there has been a recent discovery that teaching Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) to those suffering with PTSD can be an effective and cost saving way of treating the disorder. This is because BJJ has a unique way of addressing negative schemas that are implicated in the etiology of the disorder. These negative schemas manifest themselves into the three major symptoms of PTSD: re-experiencing the traumatic event, avoidance and numbing, and increased emotional arousal. This paper will examine the importance negative schemas have in contributing to the three major symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and explain how BJJ targets these major symptoms by addressing negative schemas.
Post-traumatic Stress disorder “involves a host of symptoms generally categorized in the following three clusters: reexperiencing, avoidance and numbing, and hyperarousal” (Pacella, Hruska, & Delahanty, 2012, p. 34). Re-experiencing the traumatic event can be experienced in many forms. A person suffering from PTSD may experience extremely intrusive memories that can be described as flashbacks. These memories are so invasive that it is as though the traumatic event were happening again. One might think that sleep could bring a reprieve from these upsetting memories but vivid nightmares also coincide with the flash backs, which makes a person vulnerable to re-experiencing with no reprieve. This distress activates the sympathetic nervous system and can cause an increased heart rate, sweating, nausea, and muscle tension. Secondly, these difficulties of PTSD can lead a person to avoid anything that reminds them of the trauma and leave them emotionally numb. Avoiding the location of a terrible event might seem normal; however, this is accompanied by a loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyable, such as hobbies, and even life in general. Once this happens a person will start to feel detached and emotionally numb. Although it is a distorted appraisal, it may become evident to the person that their future looks bleak and limited, while finding happiness in such a world may feel impossible. Lastly, anxiety and related arousal start to become more evident as those afflicted with PTSD start to have irregular sleep patterns. These disruptions in sleep can cause emotional outbursts and an inability to concentrate. Meanwhile, with a world and future looking so bleak, the idea of a long life, happy marriage, and successful career can look like impossible achievements to attain. When considering the three major symptoms of PTSD, it is easy to see how terrible it can be for those afflicted and how imperative it is for someone to receive treatment.
Two people can experience the same traumatic event and only one might be diagnosed with PTSD, which begs the question: why do some people get PTSD and others do not? Often the core beliefs of an individual, which are called schemas, are involved in the development of PTSD. “Schemas are stable, enduring cognitive structures that form the core of an individual’s self-concept. Based on previous experiences, they contain knowledge that guides subsequent perception and appraisals of incoming information from the environment” (Kachadourian, Taft, Holowka, Woodward, Marx, & Burns, 2013, p.580). For example, a person may have a view that the world is a scary place and full of horrible people. This negative overgeneralized schema may be conducive to the likelihood of developing PTSD because a traumatic event will exacerbate this self-concept. Unfortunately, not everyone is aware of these negative schemas and the effect they have on their interactions with the environment around them. This is why treatment becomes necessary and why a person may feel completely helpless when they start to lose work, friends, and family.
Chad Robichaux is a United States veteran and a classic example of someone dealing with PTSD: “I was diagnosed with PTSD. I spent about three years struggling with that and all the things that come with that. And not just me, my family struggled. I’ve been married almost 19 years, I have three teenagers–just an incredible family that I almost lost to PTSD just because I didn’t know how to handle all the things I was dealing with internally” (Ford, 2013, p.1). If professional help is not found right away, those suffering from PTSD often use maladaptive coping strategies like substance abuse. This can lead to alcohol dependence (AD) and to the development of suicidal ideation. In fact, “AD significantly increased the likelihood of a suicide attempt history among individuals with PTSD who endorsed suicidal ideation” (Rojas, Bujarski, Babsonb, Duttona, & Feldner, 2014, p. 322). Not everyone has access to qualified help, however, and the price of treatment makes it unavailable to those in lower socio-economic classes. There is a need for a cost effective and widely available treatment for those facing the difficulty of PTSD, and this is an important measure in combating the circumstances people with the disorder find themselves in.
A form of treatment that has found success in treating PTSD is exposure therapy. “Exposure therapy, previously known as imaginal flooding therapy, involves carefully exposing the patient to prolonged and repeated imagined images of the trauma until the images no longer cause severe anxiety” (American Psychological Association, 2003, Findings, para. 2). This therapy is effective in reducing persistent fear in those with PTSD, such as veterans and abuse victims. Once again, this treatment can be very expensive and difficult to access for everyone that is dealing with PTSD. An alternative to flooding, especially for veterans, is a sparring session in Jiu Jitsu. Once a person has learned enough techniques to warrant permission, they are allowed to practice the moves in an actual combat situation. It may be counter-intuitive to use a fight as a therapeutic alternative, but it allows a person exposure to fear in a supportive setting, and a person is never forced to stay in a situation they don’t want to be in. Instead of forcing a person to focus on imagined images, tools are taught to manage fear and techniques to remove themselves from any uncomfortable position. Usually a person is so focused on what is needed to make a move work that fear dissipates. Indeed, BJJ is a different approach to dealing with PTSD and can be a great alternative to therapy that may be unattainable for some.
It has been recently discovered that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu can be effective in combatting the negative effects of PTSD. In addition to being a veteran, Chad Robichaux started a gym called Fight Club and is using BJJ as a way to help veterans deal with their PTSD. “Well, I can say this: There is a 90% divorce rate in our veterans, and the 22 suicides a day. And we’ve had 1500 graduates in the last two years of our program, with zero suicides and no divorces that we’re aware of, and we keep pretty good tabs. I don’t want to say it’s 100% successful, but all indications are that we’re batting 100%” (Ford, 2013, p.1). BJJ is a grappling system that concentrates on utilizing moves to submit an opponent. It is often called the gentle art because it is less violent than striking arts and success is found in skill over strength. Moreover, the effectiveness of this self-defense lies in leverage and technique, which makes people of all sizes able to utilize the techniques on much larger people. A Jiu Jitsu gym never has a wait list and is much a much cheaper option than treatment from a professional; instead, for roughly the price of a regular gym membership a person will have created a brand new support system, while enjoying the benefits that come with exercise. Underlying all of these benefits is the reason BJJ is so successful in combatting PTSD; it addresses negative schemas head on, while in a laid back and safe atmosphere.
The idea of re-living a traumatic event is terrifying to victims. Sadly, that is a reality for those dealing with PTSD, and this is largely due to mal-adaptive schemas the person has developed. “The majority of cognitive models of PTSD posit that negative beliefs about the self, others, and the world in the aftermath of a traumatic experience contribute to the development and maintenance of PTSD” (Harding, Burns, & Jackson, 2011, p.560). An overgeneralization is a negative schema because the person uses a single event as evidence of a never-ending pattern. A person may feel like the world is a scary place, but once a stressful event is experienced that matches this schema it will contribute to the re-experiencing of a traumatic event. Due to the unrelenting nature of re-experiencing symptoms, the need for a reprieve is extremely important and a large component of recovery: “martial arts was a big a part of that because I came home and one of the only things I felt like I could do was martial arts. When I grappled I felt grounded. I felt safe. I couldn’t think about anything else, or about Afghanistan because I was so focused and if I thought of something else, you know, I’d get choked” (Ford, 2013, p.1). Another core belief, with an important role in the development of PTSD, is an all of nothing mentality. This black or white schema can be explained as someone who views a performance as a complete failure even though it was well above average. This perfectionism lends its self to feeling at fault or as a failure; nevertheless, a tragic event that matches this failure may lead to guilt even though there was nothing the person could do to change the outcome. Jiu Jitsu is a very complex martial art that takes many years to master; in fact, it takes on average a decade to earn a black belt, which is the highest honor. Due to the difficult nature, failure is taught as a key component to improvement and the ability to move on after failure becomes paramount to success. Ultimately, this ability to move on from constant failure eventually becomes habit and resonates throughout the life of all who train in Jiu Jitsu. The knowledge that is built from these experiences will help in letting go of things such as guilt related to traumatic events. In targeting the mal-adaptive schemas that propel a person into PTSD, it is possible for Jiu Jitsu to have long lasting positive results in helping those with the disorder.
A particularly troubling symptom of PTSD is avoidance and numbing. “Emotional numbing is a constellation of PTSD symptoms including markedly diminished interest in usual activities that produce pleasure, feelings of detachment from others, and restricted emotional expression” (Kashdan, Elhai, & Frueh, 2007, p. 726). It would be easy for a person dealing with these symptoms to feel as though they had a limited future, especially if the person has a pre-existing maladaptive schema. For instance, if a person with low self-esteem decides early in life that that they are not able to compete with others, this may leave them feeling as though they are not good enough. When a person approaches life this way, difficulties will arise when a particular traumatic event confirms their belief of worthlessness and will cause detachment from feelings of inadequacy. A great aspect of Jiu Jitsu is the belt system, in that a person is constantly shown encouragement through earning stripes and different colored belts as they progress. Additionally, the confidence gained from learning new techniques in a very encouraging atmosphere helps a person build confidence. Once this happens, the constant achievement and positive reinforcement becomes fun and makes the future worth looking forward too. Another common schema involved in avoidance and numbing is the generalization that the world is full of horrible people; this is more evident after someone becomes a victim. In an attempt to protect oneself from being hurt again it becomes imperative to become numb and avoid positive feelings towards all other people. This is because it becomes is hard to differentiate between good and bad people and can lead to the feeling that everyone is bad. However, after spending time training Jiu Jitsu the idea of horrible people starts to disappear because of the positive and sharing atmosphere. It is impossible to train by oneself; instead, a person always needs a partner to share knowledge, as well as their bodies, in order to get better. Eventually, positive support systems and friendships are created through this environment of mutual respect and sharing. Building confidence and creating a positive support system is a great way that BJJ helps those dealing with avoidance and numbing issues.
Following a traumatic event it is normal for someone dealing with PTSD to deal with an increase in anxiety and emotional arousal; nevertheless, these symptoms manifest in different ways. It is normal to have sleep cycle disruptions, such as an inability to sleep, or even difficulty concentrating. A person with a history of catastrophizing when things go wrong is particularly at risk when a traumatic event occurs. The event will spark feelings of anger, which will lead to more stress, and therefore a disturbance in sleep patterns. However, training Jiu Jitsu will provide a person with the exercise needed to help with sleep disturbances: “Physical exercise has been associated with better sleep quality and is accepted as a nonpharmacological intervention for sleep disorders by the American Sleep Disorders Association” (Flausino, Prado, Queiroz, Tufik, & De Mello, 2011, p.186). Once again, the belief that the world is full of horrible people can be implicated in a symptom of PTSD. If a person feels this way, it corresponds to the need for hyper-vigilance and the need to be constantly alert of possible dangers. Once a person becomes confident in their Jiu Jitsu skills, the more confident they will become in their ability to protect themselves from danger. After a traumatic event, the confidence gained from the ability to protect oneself has a major effect in allowing a person to trust that they are safe again. With an ability to protect themselves and improved sleep cycle, Jiu Jitsu has the ability to help a person reduce their anxiety after a traumatic event.
The maladaptive schemas a person develops throughout their life play a major role in determining whether or not they develop PTSD. Also, by targeting these negative schemas Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is an effective treatment alternative. This is especially true for those who cannot afford treatment from a professional or are stuck on a really long wait list. With the help of BJJ, the stress put on friends and family is reduced and it provides those dealing with PTSD the skills to cope with the disorder. Finally, despite a fractured personal and emotional life, BJJ does a great job at giving hope to those with PTSD and helps return life to normal.
American Psychological Association. (2003). Exposure therapy helps PTSD victims overcome trauma’s debilitating effects. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/research/action/exposure.aspx
Flausino, N. H., Da Silva Prado, J. M., De Queiroz, S. S., Tufik, S., & De Mello, M. T. (2012). Physical exercise performed before bedtime improves the sleep pattern of healthy young good sleepers. Psychophysiology, 49(2), 186-192. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8986.2011.01300.x
Ford, A. (2013, November 12). Veterans with PTSD are learning Brazilian jiu jitsu. Fightland.Vice.com. Retreived from http://fightland.vice.com/blog/veterans-with-ptsd-are-learning-brazilian-jiu-jitsu
Harding, H. G., Burns, E. E., & Jackson, J. L. (2012). Identification of child sexual abuse survivor subgroups based on early maladaptive schemas: Implications for understanding differences in posttraumatic stress disorder symptom severity. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 36, 560-575. doi:10.1007/s10608-011-9385-8
Kachadourian, L. K., Taft, C. T., Holowka, D. W., Woodward, H., Marx, B. P., & Burns, A. (2013). Maladaptive dependency schemas, posttraumatic stress hyperarousal symptoms, and intimate partner aggression perpetration. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 26, 580-587. doi:10.1002/jts.21850
Kashdan, T. B., Elhai, J. D., & Frueh, B. C. (2007). Anhedonia, emotional numbing, and symptom overreporting in male veterans with PTSD. Personality and Individual Differences, 43, 725-735. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2007.01.013
Pacella, M. L., Hruska, B., & Delahanty, D. L. (2013). The physical health consequences of PTSD and PTSD symptoms: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 27(1), 33-46. doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2012.08.004
Rojas, S. M., Bujarski, S., Babson, K. A., Dutton, C. E., & Feldner, M. T. (2014). Understanding PTSD comorbidity and suicidal behavior: Associations among histories of alcohol dependence, major depressive disorder, and suicidal ideation and attempts. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 28, 318-325. doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2014.02.004