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Use Martial Arts to Cope with Stress and Boost Resilience

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. John Robbart III

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Alfred V. Lopez/Released

Managing stress successfully requires a comprehensive approach that focuses on the mind, body and spirit working together.1 While it may seem counterintuitive to address stress with combat training, certain types of traditional martial arts, such as tai chi and qi gong, are designed to do just that. In addition to increasing a sense of calm, martial arts can also be used to improve physical condition and strength.2,3 Read this article to learn about how training in martial arts can help you cope with stress, reduce anxiety and boost resilience when faced with known and unknown challenges.

How Marital Arts Can Build Resilience

The purpose of traditional martial arts is to train a warrior’s mind and body. Martial arts focuses not only on physical combat, but also the development of certain psychological characteristics such as clear decision-making, confidence and control.2,3 Training in martial arts, especially tai chi and qi gong, can help service members develop resilient characteristics through controlled breathing and movement techniques.4,5

Tai chi, which originated in China, is a mind-body practice sometimes referred to as "moving meditation.” Practitioners move their bodies slowly, gently and with awareness, while breathing deeply.Similar to tai chi, qi gong combines movement, meditation and controlled breathing. Practicing tai chi and qi gong has multiple benefits, including:5,6

  • Increasing muscle strength and flexibility
  • Improving balance and coordination
  • Reducing anxiety and stress levels
  • Improving sleep

For a visual introduction and demonstration of tai chi and qi gong, watch the video, Tai Chi and Qi Gong for Health and Well-Being from the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Other types of combat marital arts, such as karate, taekwondo and jiu-jitsu, can also build resilience.3 Although these types of marital arts can be physically and psychologically demanding, they can also be helpful in understanding your own stress signals. Part of being resilient is learning how to identify stress signals and respond to challenges logically and calmly. Practicing all types of martial arts can improve physical and psychological well-being by increasing confidence and teaching relaxation, focus and body control.

Getting Started

Consider doing trial lessons in several different types of martial arts to get a feel for the one that you enjoy the most. To get started in a martial arts program, contact your military installation’s fitness center to find out if classes are offered. To find an installation fitness center near you, visit the MilitaryINSTALLATIONS database, select the search option “Gymnasium/Fitness Center”, then type in your local installation or zip code. You can also check to see if martial arts classes are offered at your local community center, such as the YMCA, or through private martial arts training studios and fitness centers.

An important part of building resilience and coping with stress is being aware of how you react to different situations and challenges. Consider trying out martial arts to strengthen your psychological and physical fitness. With dedicated practice, training in martial arts has the potential to give you the inner tools and discipline to cope with the stressors of military life.

Additional Resources:


1 “Complementary, Alternative, or Integrative Health: What’s In a Name?” National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Last accessed Nov. 8, 2013.

2 Bin, Bu and others. “Effects of martial arts on health status: A systematic review,” Journal of Evidenced Based Medicine, 3(4):205-219. Published Nov. 28, 2010.

3 Weiser, M and others. “Psychotherapeutic aspects of the martial arts,” American Journal of Psychotherapy, 49(1):118-27. Published Jan. 1, 1995.

4 Wang, F. and others. “The Effects of Tai Chi on Depression, Anxiety, and Psychological Well-Being: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” International Journal of Behavioral Medicine. Published Sept. 28, 2013.

5 Yost, T. and Taylor, A. “Qigong as a Novel Intervention for Service Members with Mild Traumatic Brain Injury,” Explore, 9(3):142-9. Published May 2013.

6 “Tai Chi: An Introduction,” National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, National Institutes of Health. Last accessed Nov. 15, 2013.

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