A paintball player in sniper position as he actively plays on the field in full gear (getrealpaintball.com)

Over the past few years, cities across America have become playgrounds for paintball enthusiasts. This growing trend has become popularized via social media and word of mouth by former gang members and gun violence victims and participants. However, paintball or “paintball therapy” as some community participants have coined it, is not limited to those who were involved in inner-city gang life. This method of movement/play therapy is curing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in former military veterans and even families who are suffering from severe internal fighting or “sibling rivalries.” 

A paintball player in sniper position as he actively plays on the field in full gear (getrealpaintball.com)

“If you have ever heard of movement therapy or play therapy, paintball would fall into those categories!” says Julia Chandler, a licensed therapist of Brighter Sky Counseling. “It is exciting to think that playing a game can benefit you in so many ways. Playing paintball releases serotonin in our brains and this particular hormone is very important; it is also known as the ‘happy’ hormone!”, she further exclaims. Serotonin, also known as “the happy hormone” is best known for regulating our mood, memory, learning, and cognition. If you have lower serotonin levels, this can cause anxiety, depression, or nausea.

Richard*, a former member of the Bloods from Chicago, shares his experience [with us] as a Paintball Therapy participant. “It is a weekly thing for me!” says Richard, “And I already feel the weight of my experiences lifting off of me. A mentor of mine who is also a former gang member and war veteran suggested that I couple what I’m doing now with traditional couch therapy, but I can’t find anyone I feel will relate to my experiences as a Black man in America, you know?” emphasizes Richard. “So for now, I will just keep running laps with my guys! I see it helping all of us, many of us are not feeling depressed for the first time since we can remember!” 

The coupling of traditional therapy sessions with interactive movement therapy is what most counselors call an immersion plan. This strategy is used to prepare clients with mental as well as emotional coping mechanisms before they step onto the paintball field. The clients are then able to debrief their experience with the same counselor after the play therapy and track their progress (or in some cases regression).

A group of black millennials pose after enjoying a day on the paintball field (credit: battlefrontmemphis.com) 

However, when engaging in paintball therapy, it is important to be aware of your intentions and place because everyone is not a fan of paintball therapy, particularly law enforcement officials. The LAPD says that the “paintball wars” (as they call it) are a recipe for disaster [when happening off a controlled arena or field]. Two teenage girls were arrested and charged with destruction of property in Durham, NC after police received fourteen reports of the girls’ paintball activity in the community on NextDoor, a neighborhood social media app for local community members. 

Regardless of law enforcement’s feelings towards the activity, it is clear that this is a growing trend that transcends racial and gender lines. Many individuals suffering from general trauma or PTSD have found comfort in the activity, and many consider it a sport; official paintball leagues are growing in size, and enthusiasts are joining teams with friends and family members. 

*Name has been changed for confidentiality purposes

Footnote: Founded in the 1970s, the Bloods are a primarily African-American street gang founded in Los Angeles, California. The gang is widely known for its rivalry with the Crips. It is identified by the red color worn by its members and by particular gang symbols, including distinctive hand signs. They historically participate in activities ranging from community service projects to illicit activities. 

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