When You Have Depression, Jiu Jitsu Is Far More Than Just Therapy

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Averi Clements/ Instagram

Those of us who train BJJ know just how incredible it feels to hit the mats and roll after a hard day at work, school, or home. Many of us compare it to therapy, and rightfully so: A couple hours of jiu jitsu not only releases endorphins, but also helps us focus on something other than the crap that’s been plaguing our minds throughout the day. But for some of us, the peace that can be found on the mat is harder to reach than we would have hoped.

A whopping 14.8 million adults in the U.S. — that’s almost 7 percent of the population— struggle with depression on a day-to-day basis. It’s an illness that shows itself in a wide variety of ways, and most of them are almost impossible to see if you’re not the one living with it. It goes beyond just feeling a bit “down;” depression manifests for many people as physical symptoms (such as persistent headaches or chest pain) and mental symptoms (such as constant exhaustion or the inability to focus). And despite what all the memes you see on Facebook say, jiu jitsu can’t fix them all.

Just getting out of bed can feel like a workout when you have depression, but going to the gym to train and roll is a whole ‘nother beast. How are you going to make it out to your car when you feel like you have a hundred-pound weight sitting on top of your chest? Where are you going to get the energy to roll if you feel like you could fall asleep standing up? And how are you ever going to get better when you have that little evil creature sitting on your shoulder telling you how you will always suck at this sport, that you’re the embarrassment of the whole team, that you’re a burden on everyone you roll with? Getting these feelings every once in awhile is normal. But when you have them every time you go train, it wears on you no matter how tough you are.

It’s easy to tell someone struggling with this to “suck it up,” especially in a sport in which dealing with pain and frustration is all part of the game. But when someone with depression takes to the mats, they’re not just fighting their opponent. They’re fighting every negative thought, every heavy feeling, every physical and mental ache that is constantly trying to beat them down. Their illness can hinder their training just as much as a physical injury, but unlike a swollen joint or broken nose, depression usually can’t be seen or felt by anyone except the person who has it. It isn’t about sucking it up or waiting it out— it’s about beating the ever-loving crap out of something that’s trying to tear you down while you’re already rolling with an actual person.

For those of us with depression, jiu jitsu isn’t just therapy; it’s a trophy. It’s the medal we hang around our necks every time we step off the mat after a hard training session, the evidence that we not only made it out of bed that day, but also kicked some serious butt. Every time we get tapped and get right back up to keep rolling is symbolic for all the times that evil creature told us that we should just give up, but we showed up to class anyway. Every submission we nail, every technique we learn, every time we get our butts handed to us is proof that even though this mental illness might not be going anywhere, neither are we.

If you’re a jiu jiteiro with depression, keep visiting your actual licensed therapist. Maintain the diet and lifestyle that helps you feel better. And if you’ve been prescribed medication because it’s the only thing that enables you to function, don’t stop taking it. But every time you’re able to shrimp out from under the weight of your symptoms and take another step in your BJJ journey, don’t forget to thank your therapists who wear gis and rashguards, too.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for posting this. So much inner conflict when I think about how slow my progression in this sport is, sometimes the feeling of failure nearly paralyses me. But after I roll I immediately remember why I still train.

  2. I am a Blue Belt and I battle with depression. I can truly say that BJJ has helped a ton. I am so grateful for my Team that has been there for me when I am down and out. Seeing a therapist and taking meds for my depression helped. There has been days where I didn’t want to go and train. The training was hard and the rolls were tough. But after class I felt so much better. What has also helped is that my Professor is a former USMC and suffers from PTSD. It helps that he has PTSD because he knows what I go through and can relate.

    I want to give all to glory to God, for having me go through this. God would not have me go through this if I could not handle it. He is going to put someone in my path that also battles with depression, and I know I am going to share that BJJ has helped.

    If you are in the BJJ community and you battle with depression I want you to know I am praying you.

  3. Averi, It is my honor as a counselor and BJJ practitioner to accept your last sentence in the article on behalf of the Counseling community. Just teasing, but thank you for writing a post that highlights something very import about mental health and BJJ. Treatment is collaborative and doing only one thing like BJJ isn’t the only intervention needed to mange something like Depression. You made so many great and valid points that I hope will help many people shed the stigma and enable them to get support if they are dealing with Depression or any other challenge impacting their quietly of life.

  4. “For those of us with depression, jiu jitsu isn’t just therapy; it’s a trophy. It’s the medal we hang around our necks every time we step off the mat after a hard training session, the evidence that we not only made it out of bed that day, but also kicked some serious butt. Every time we get tapped and get right back up to keep rolling is symbolic for all the times that evil creature told us that we should just give up, but we showed up to class anyway. Every submission we nail, every technique we learn, every time we get our butts handed to us is proof that even though this mental illness might not be going anywhere, neither are we.”

    this this this SO much this.

    I’m another living with and working around mental & chronic illness for whom jiu jitsu is vital to both managing the symptoms and living with them. Jits has made the mental and the physical much much healthier – and on days when symptoms are in full roar, I hang on by my finger nails, waiting for that noon or evening class reminder alarm to go off.

    Jiu jitsu is often the only thing that makes my day worth getting through, often the only reason I can do any work at all. It’s also the only thing in my life that I do 100% for myself. As a mom and a wife, it’s easy to be subsumed in the obligations and joys to be found in those roles. Jits is for myself – a space completely separate from the rest of my life, where my goals and accomplishments and focus are entirely about becoming a better human being as an end unto itself.

    [I’m resisting the urge to hit every one of your articles with ‘hELLS YES’ and ‘ME TOO’ because that would be redundant and embarrassing 😀 But I’m reading through your entire back catalog and thoroughly enjoying finding a female player whose abilities and perspective are so similar to my own. I love reading Awesome! Female! Blackbelt! articles – but I cannot relate to them yet. I’m the student who at one year on, still needs 9 thousand repetitions before a move will stick; I have chronic injuries; I attend 2x day classes to achieve the same results as the 3x a week guys, etc 😛 You know the story. So – thanks for being public with your thoughts, it’s refreshing to read them!]

  5. Thank you for posting this, I have struggled with BJJ for about a year and depression much longer.

    I can attest to every word you say and it is my great shame that I have taken couple months off to ‘get right’. The longer it goes on the harder it becomes…despite knowing (and most importantly) FEELING the benefits after a roll.

    I just hope to try and reorientate myself enough to get back on the mat.

  6. Thanks.
    A first lick of depression (despite being a medical professional, back then still in uni, i had no idea that this was just a taste for what’s to come) got me into contact sports, martial srts and ultimately BJJ. Because while the constabt headaches, the not getribg out of bed for days, the rage and the crying times, on the mat, getting knocked around, getting hurt, it all made me tell that little **** in my head screamibg “you are a ******* waste of space, what are doing here anyways, you suck at this and you will continue” to **** the **** up for a minute while i desl with this heavy weight bluebelt on top of me.
    And thank the ******* stars for the guys and gals that kept on beatibg me up without knowibg that they not only armbarred me, but also and foremost that voice in my head.

    There was a time were depression got some ground against jiu jitsu, bit be damned i took it back. So thanks to all my training partners who, without knowing, were a hundred times kinder and better people than some so-called best friends who left me to die (and comes closer to it than i like to admit) even when it wouldn’t cost them a drop of the sweat my training partners shed with me on the mats. Jiu jitsu teaches you not only the skills to kick some actual ***.

    Also thanks to mirtazepine.

  7. Thank you for your post! I have been truggling with anxiety disorder for the past few months and keeping up with jiu-jitsu has been really helping me out a lot. There were definitely some days where I couldn’t eat much but still dragged myself to the gym and got tapped out many times. But every time I roll, it motivates me to pull myself together and get stronger both mentally and physically again. Best wishes for anyone out there who are still struggling!

  8. Haven’t seen a therapist for about 3 years!
    Parking my car outside the gym is where i start my therapy.
    Entering my sanctuary and detecting the familiar, reassuring, pale odour of old sweat on the cold brick walls is the next phase and i instsntly know i’m at home in my safe zone.
    Greeting my fellow mat savages every day is like a long lost family reunion that lifts and evicerates that dark cloud every damn day.
    With every bead of sweat that falls from my brow, so does the dark feeling of drowning alone.

    Then the hard work starts and I try to exhaust myself long enough to distract me until the next night.

    I’m so envious of the pro’s at our gym. They live in my simple sweet paradise.

    #BestTherapyEver

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