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Jiu Jitsu study aims to soothe symptoms of PTSD


When people think of Jiu Jitsu, they might humorously imagine fighters flying with fists ablaze. Rarely would Jiu Jitsu elicit images of rehabilitation and recovery.

A new study by USF Health researchers is investigating a possible respite of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) through the practice of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, as well as traditional exercise.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a martial art and combat sport that teaches self-defense against bigger aggressors by using leverage and proper technique to use their size against them.

Alison Willing, one of the lead researchers in the study and a USF Health professor, said the study came together when many veterans who train at Tampa Jiu Jitsu, a local gym, reported the benefits they saw from the martial art for their PTSD symptoms.

Tampa Jiu Jitsu began preliminary trials of the experiment and eventually brought the project to the attention of Willing and her colleagues. The USF team added a component of regular “endurance/cardiovascular fitness” to the experiment.

Exercise — regular or occasional — is effective at relieving levels of physical and mental stress. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, exercise is vital for remaining mentally fit and reducing stress because it releases endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers.

“We’re trying to quantify the effect,” Willing said. “Anecdotes are nice, but we really want to know if this is going to be good for a lot of people.”

The aim of the study is also to hopefully create a more efficient method of treating the symptoms of PTSD. Most traditional remedies are both costly and time consuming, such as cognitive behavior therapy sessions and antidepressant medication. 

Currently, there are only a few enrolled veterans. The research team, however, is looking for more volunteers who may benefit from the study.

Another head researcher, Kevin Kip, a professor of nursing at USF Health, knew the effects of PTSD secondhand before signing on to work with Willing.

Kip said some veterans at USF who suffer from PTSD are hesitant to participate because they are concerned with losing their veteran benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs if they participate in the study.

“The study that we’re conducting is not going to change anyone’s diagnosis,” Kip said. “We’re not classifying people coming in as having a diagnosis of PTSD; what we’re doing is classifying them as having symptoms.”

In other words, the study is designed to alleviate the symptoms of PTSD, rather than attempting to “cure” the disorder.

Jason Gonzalez, a veteran of 14 years and a USF undergrad who is part of the research team, spoke to the fact that this study will not cause anyone’s diagnosis to change. 

“One of the struggles is recruiting,” he said. “The fliers don’t emphasize that it’s an independent study.”