Sometimes the toughest injuries to cope with leave no visible wounds.
I suffer from long-term concussion issues that can sideline my training for weeks at a time and leave me crippled with anxiety and depression. The most difficult part is I appear to be fine — no cast or brace on my leg, no stitches on my forehead, just the pain I hold on to.
Many of our US servicemen and women suffer PTSD when they return stateside and rejoin the civilian world fighting similar invisible demons. Gino Collura, who holds a Ph.D. in NeuroAnthropology and is a BJJ blue belt, believes his research provides evidence to support a positive correlation between active participation in jiu-jitsu classes and relief from the effects of PTSD in soldiers returning to civilian life. During a recent interview, we discussed his research into that subject and its findings.That introduction would only last briefly, though, due to Collura starting a career in executive protection that saw him relocated to Colombia for work. “As exciting as it may sound, my actual day-to-day routine was pretty boring logistical work. But I did get to spend considerable time with members of the elite Colombian special forces, ‘La Jungla,'” he says.
Dr. Collura started training martial arts at a young age, ultimately getting his brown belt in Judo. He later took up BJJ in 2002 after stumbling into an academy by accident. “I walked into a Frank Calta’s just wanting to get a regular gym membership to lift weights and do some cardio, but in one of the glassed off classrooms there was a jiu-jitsu class going on,” he recalled.
Through these interactions, Collura was able to witness the traumatic effects of the war that the region’s drug cartels were having on these men, and more importantly, the way they coped with them. The Colombian military named psychological war trauma, “demonios de guerra” or “demons of war” and, as the name implies, they take a spiritual approach to the healing process.
“Human beings are the only mammals that methodically and strategically figure out how to kill each other without personal justification for their advancement or well being,” says Collura. “They simply follow orders for the greater good. Killing, under those circumstances, can cause very deep psychologically and moral disturbances. Because Colombia is a Catholic country, the bond between the church and its soldiers is very strong, so by confessing to a higher power for absolution, that spiritual healing process gives instant relief.”
Gino then took that information and cross-referenced it to different warrior cultures throughout history and discovered that many of them had similar spiritual rituals that mirrored the Colombian approach. He also concluded that the American military deals more directly with clinical approaches, which leads to a very difficult dilemma. His studies have suggested that the strict clinical approach breaks down because the soldiers don’t feel any true connections to the doctors. With a religious experience, there is a higher power that grants relief to the suffering, but this absolution only works if the patient believes in those omnipotent powers. When a doctor examines a patient, there is no spiritual attachment or any real connection between patient and doctor — only treatment for an ailment. This stigma causes Dr. Collura to go so far as to say the “D” for disorder should be dropped from PTSD.
“When we start accepting Post Traumatic Stress as a natural reaction to the traumas of war, the easier it will make it for soldiers returning home to understand what they are feeling is a normal response to living through horrific expirences. It is not a sickness, it’s a survival response to displacement, war, and loss.” he says.
The question now becomes how do we recreate the stresses of war and the bonds created there so these soldiers can find a spiritual outlet to work through their pain? Dr. Collura believes the answer is enrollment in jiu-jitsu. Any academy automatically gives soldiers a feeling of enlisted life again. “The structure and organization of a jiu-jitsu gym immediately mirror the military hierarchy. Belt ranks give instant levels of command,” he explains.
He also goes on to explain how rolling live stimulates many of the same stress receptors that life and death situations trigger. “When you are rolling live, you are literally fighting for your life at times. We can just tap and start over before the end. This camaraderie between like-minded individuals willing to put themselves in harm’s way for each other simulates the bonds made in war,” says Collura. He believes the creation of these bonds helps soldiers to find other warriors with whom they can build spiritual connections, and those bonds produce healing benefits.
There were a few more scientific points of interest that Dr. Collura brought up. One main concept is that of a “tap” being a reset of reality. A new form of therapy evolves: reliving traumatic experiences and altering their outcome to more a favorable experience. But the real story is giving our soldiers a sense of belonging again, and his research seems to prove that BJJ does just that.
Upon the conclusion of his testing, Collura discovered massive improvements in areas like employment retention, willingness to assimilate to the civilian culture, and even in some cases, a break in the need for prescription medication dependence. But Dr. Collura’s study was only a small, independent experiment. He admitted that a much larger study with clinical observations and major funding would be needed to truly make a difference.
With veteran suicide rates estimates as high as 20 a day, it is time we start to look into less conventional means of supporting these individuals that sacrificed their well being for ours. Dr. Collura’s study paints a portrait of rationale that points in the direction of hope.