Psychotherapeutic Aspects of the Martial Arts

By Weiser, Mark; Kutz, Ilan et al. | American Journal of Psychotherapy, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

Psychotherapeutic Aspects of the Martial Arts

Weiser, Mark, Kutz, Ilan, Kutz, Sue Jacobson, Weiser, Daniel, American Journal of Psychotherapy

The legitimacy of the Martial Arts as not merely a set of fighting sills but as therapy is being postulated, based on evidence from the literature, and analysis of the structure of Martial Arts teaching. Moreover, illustrated by a clinical case report, the Martial Arts are proposed here, for the first time, as an adjunct to verbal psychotherapy. Indications and contraindications for patient selection are suggested.


The value of practices that are both alternative and adjunctive to verbal psychotherapy has become apparent over the past 20 years. For example, dance therapy, art therapy, psychodrama, and meditation have all come to be recognized as both therapeutic in their own rights, and capable of enhancing the process of psychotherapy by providing active, physical routes for the discovery and expression of emotions. The Martial Arts (MAs) deserve recognition as worthy of being added to this list of therapeutic practices, as has already been suggested elsewhere, and to the list of supplements to psychotherapy, as is suggested here.

Formerly viewed by the Western world as "... naught but [a] killing present, anger past, and misery to come, in the course of one who studies these arts,"(1) the combat styles called the Martial Arts have come to be appreciated in the West in the last 25 years for their capacity to promote health, both physical and mental. They have come to be seen as inculcating physical and mental relaxation and control of mind and body, which are associated with increase in self-confidence and esteem. The disciplines teach the values of directness and honesty in communication, assertiveness, ability to empathize, courage, humility, perseverance, gentleness, respect for others, responsibility, and self-improvement. As such, they are now understood less as methods of aggression, and more as methods of self-defense, which can be of therapeutic value.


The psychological literature on the MAs, which began to appear only in the last 15 years, has, in the last four years, proliferated, and "Martial Arts and Psychology" has become an accepted Medical Subject Heading (MESH) term. The literature approaches the MAs as an independent form of therapy, both for normal and mentally disturbed individuals, and it includes studies that examine the therapeutic effects of the physical training and discipline of the MAs, as well as those that point out the processes of MAs training which are similar to those of verbal psychotherapy. As yet, there are no works that look at the MAs as adjuncts to ongoing psychotherapy.

Many studies(2-7) concur that the mental health benefits of MAs training and practice are increased self-esteem and self-confidence, better management of both feelings of aggression and feelings of vulnerability, and decrease in sleep disturbances and depression. Moreover, training in the MAs benefits relatively healthy people as well as those who are more disturbed.(8)

Part of the explanation for some of the psychological benefits of MAs training is the positive influence of physical exercise, a central component of the MAs. Authors(9-16) who studied the effects of walking, running or swimming, found that physical fitness alone can enhance sleep, energy level, mood, mental performance, and concentration, and decrease tension, stress, anxiety, depression, and hostility.

While physical fitness may be a central mechanism by which some of the beneficial psychological changes of MAs occur, the confrontation with one's self and others that is inherent in the MAs has, according to the literature, an additional and enhancing effect,(17) although the benefits of physical training are more immediate than are those of the MAs. A single session of running or weight lifting is capable of reducing mood disturbance, tension, depression, anger, and confusion, but a singe lesson of Karate is not capable of producing such results.(18)

The learning and mastering of the MAs are a complex and long-term process, which may not only not produce immediate benefit, but may actually increase anxiety before they cause beneficial effects. …

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