Turning To Fighting To Manage PTSD

Giving veterans a chance to get in the ring and fight, MMA-style, is helping some overcome the difficulties of coming back from war.

Turning To Fighting To Manage PTSD
Fight via Shutterstock

The signature wound of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is psychological: post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite being less common than depression among veterans, it’s become a shorthand for the impact of combat, perhaps because the symptoms so clearly show how the behaviors that save lives in combat (constant readiness, calmness under fire) destroy lives if they become habits in the civilian world (hyper-vigilance, numbing). And for those suffering from today’s wars’ signature wound, San Diego boxing gym Undisputed is offering a unique relief: a veterans-only fight club.


Pugilistic Offensive Warrior Tactics (P.O.W. for short, of course) isn’t technically a program for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. But more than half the participants have been diagnosed with PTSD, Maxim reports:

What’s remarkable—counterintuitive, even—is that the P.O.W. vets swear the in¬tense, violent full-contact sport helps them cope with PTSD. In some cases, they say MMA’s even more effective than the meds.

It goes without saying that this is a completely unproven claim. The treatments for PTSD that are proven are therapy: cognitive behavioral therapy, prolonged exposure therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. All of them have in common something that punching people doesn’t: a way of revisiting and reintegrating traumatic experiences into daily life.

“Nothing works for everybody. There are many alternatives. The question is the same: Where’s the beef?” says Matthew Friedman, M.D., executive director of the VA’s National Center for PTSD. The beef he’s referring to is scientific research. “I’m not going to make a recommendation for a treatment that hasn’t been validated.”

Still, the efficacy of martial arts is being studied, and the story of P.O.W.’s head coach Todd Vance suggests martial arts might have their value as a stress-reliever.

He took the fight name Hooligan after earning a reputation for “going overboard” while bouncing at dive bars. By day he was laboring in the sun, laying concrete foundations. In the early evening he’d pound heavy bags at the gym until his knuckles were raw. “I didn’t have the energy to go cause a ruckus as often,” he recalls. “I didn’t have that anger just festering, waiting to pop all the time. It was worked out of me.”

After that, he went back to therapy.

About the author

Stan Alcorn is a print, radio and video journalist, regularly reporting for WNYC and NPR. He grew up in New Mexico.