When I was diagnosed with depression back in 2011, I thought there was something wrong with me, or I was in some way “broken.” I didn’t want to depend on pills for the rest of my life, so I set out to find ways to help stabilize my frequent moodiness and irritability. I started weight training and running as a way to help exhaust my negative emotions, which in turn drastically lengthened the time between “episodes.” But it was mind-numbing and repetitive, and it didn’t challenge my mind as much as it challenged my body. It was at that point in January 2014 that I found jiu-jitsu, and my path to recovery was dramatically accelerated because of the benefits the sport offers.
Endorphins are released through physical activity. According to countless studies done on the subject of depression, the more active an individual is, the less likely they are to experience symptoms. Even on a light day of rolling, your body is put through the gauntlet in comparison to just weight training or running. You roll with so many different people that you don’t always control the intensity of the roll, which puts your body into survival mode. This physical activity release endorphins, which decrease the feelings of pain and increase the feelings of euphoria. When we have high levels of endorphins, we feel less pain and experiences fewer negative effects of stress.
It redirects your negative energy into something positive. Whenever I experience an “episode,” I feel out of control, irritable, and manic. Has jiu-jitsu completely cured me of these systems? Absolutely not. However, the duration between occurrences has dramatically decreased because I’m taking my negative thoughts, feelings, and energy and putting it into a daily goal. Whether I want to be better at escaping side control or finding a new way to attack a leglock, I don’t have time to think about anything negative because all my concentration is set on problem-solving. There isn’t enough time to be depressed and fight off a rear naked choke, and given the option I’ll take the latter every time.
Jiu-jitsu changes your perspective. Motivational speak Wayne Dyer said it best: “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” Jiu-jitsu forces you to see things from a different angle, whether it be learning to attack an armbar from a new position, or trying to figure out how to make your training partner move the way you want them to. In the past, when a tough situation presents itself in life, I would automatically see the negative and hardly ever saw the silver lining. Only recently have I been able to take, “I don’t want to go to work today, that project is overwhelming, and I’m not smart enough to figure it out,” to, “This is a new opportunity to learn something new and challenge myself to be better at my job.” Change your perspective, change your life.
Being part of a community helps stave off feelings of isolation. When suffering from depression, many people talk about feeling isolated or alone. Being part of a community has positive effects on mental health and emotional wellbeing by providing a sense of belonging and purpose. When you’re part of the jiu-jitsu community, you always have people around pushing you to get better every time you train. Being part of this community gave me a purpose and has connected me with some amazing teachers and training partners who want nothing more than to see everyone succeed. I’m fortunate enough to be part of an excellent family gym that puts a strong emphasis on building and maintain a strong community atmosphere. If I’m ever feeling down, I know I can go to class, learn, and roll, and all life’s problems will melt away.
I have depression, but that doesn’t mean I have to be depressed. Thanks to the physical and mental benefits of jiu-jitsu, my depression has become a very small blip in my life. If you’re depressed, know that you’re not alone and that you have a community behind you that strives to make every one of its members the best individual they can be.
If you think you’re suffering from depression, talk to a licensed professional. Depression isn’t a weakness, and you can’t simply “snap out” of it. The benefits of jiu-jitsu for mental health are only recently beginning to be explored as a possible treatment for depression and anxiety.