When you live with mental illness, your greatest opponent on the mat isn’t the person you’re rolling with. Instead, you find yourself grappling with your own mind… and it’s a fight you won’t always win. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that nearly 19 percent of U.S. adults experience mental illness in a given year. For 1 in 25 adults in the United States, that illness will “substantially interfere” with daily life and activities, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Basically, you’re not alone. Not even close.
Those of us who do jiu-jitsu know just how much this sport can help in the fight against illnesses like depression or anxiety. What might be a bit harder to understand, though, is why it helps so much. Sure, we’ve all heard about how exercise releases endorphins— a.k.a. the “happy hormones”— but let’s be honest: if brief spurts of happiness were all it took to get better, mood disorders wouldn’t be the third most common cause of hospitalization in this country.
As a clinical therapist and a black belt in jiu-jitsu, Durango Martial Arts Academy professor Nick Maez knows a thing or two about mental illness, BJJ, and how the two are connected. Whether on the mats or in therapy, he’s dedicated his life to helping people. He once worked as a case manager, but these days, he focuses on an integrated health model concentrated on how people can make their physical and mental health work with and for each other.
The idea behind integrated health care is that a healthy mind equals a healthy body and vice versa. Maez explains that a common situation seen in mental illnesses is that the patient’s neurons aren’t firing properly, creating a sort of “dead zone” in the brain. But when we get physically active, our brain has no choice but to start firing those neurons. “You see it a lot with people who work in computer-based jobs,” he says. “They’re brilliant. Their brains are great, but because they sit at a desk all day, their bodies suffer from things like inflammation, and as a result, their brains get cloudy. Eventually, they have to get up and move.”
While most experts in the mental health field will tell you that exercise is crucial to a healthy mind, it’s rare to find one who knows just how much the art of jiu-jitsu can do for the brain. But Maez was so curious about it that he did his grad school project at the University of Denver on the link between jiu-jitsu and mental health. Since then, he’s learned quite a bit about how our time on the mats can help us cope with whatever life throws us.
One of the most prominent ways jiu-jitsu assists in helping us stay mentally healthy, says Maez, is in the way it teaches us to survive under pressure. “If someone is smashing you in side control, you learn how to shrimp out and get them back in your guard. Juxtapose that with life situations like financial struggles or marital problems, and it’s the same idea. You’re dealing with both internal and external pressure, and you have to learn how to survive under that,” he explains.
As anyone who has ever rolled can tell you, jiu-jitsu also has a special way of helping us learn to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations. According to Maez, such an important lesson is crucial for people who live with disorders such as social anxiety. “Jiu-jitsu also teaches a lot of communication skills. People [with social anxiety] don’t want to go there, but jiu-jitsu teaches you how to flow. You learn new positions, you learn that sometimes you have to go to places you don’t want to go. It teaches you to be a flexible thinker.”
“With diagnoses like depression, anxiety, or PTSD—the ones that rule the mental health world— you’re going to find that your mind isn’t in the present. It’s often in the past or in the future,” he continues. “You’re re-living or anticipating some kind of event that takes you out of the now. But in jiu-jitsu, you can’t be ‘somewhere else,’ or you’re going to get choked or armbarred. You have to be fully in the present.” By training our minds to concentrate on the right now, jiu-jitsu can help us stay focused on what’s happening in our lives today rather than last year or next year.
That doesn’t mean that we should only think about the present, though. Whether you attend jiu-jitsu, traditional therapy, or both, you’ll notice that goal-setting is an important part of getting better. Unfortunately, our own doubts are often the things holding us back from achieving what we want. “I think of exercise like therapy,” says Maez. “If you’re 40 pounds overweight and you walk into a gym and judge yourself or get scared, you won’t succeed.”
The key to ensuring that your mental health is getting the most out of your gym routine, he says, is to create an internal dialogue with yourself and stop worrying about critics. “You need to say to yourself, ‘I’m here for my goals. This is my journey. However I need to get there is personal.’ In jiu-jitsu, in therapy, in whatever, don’t be afraid to ask for support. Ask for private lessons at the gym. Ask for more homework in therapy. You have to be as open as you can to the experience. There’s so much growth in vulnerability.”
Although team sports are great for the social aspects of mental health, Maez — who has also played football and baseball— insists that part of the reason jiu-jitsu is so good for our minds has to do with its individual nature. “The mats don’t lie,” he says, explaining that it’s easy to point the finger in team sports and blame others on things that went wrong. Jiu-jitsu, however, creates introspection. “If you mess up in a competition, you can’t blame your teammates; you have only yourself to blame. But that’s good, because it makes you look inside and be honest with yourself if you want to get better.”
Maez connects this with the roadblocks that many people experience in therapy. “A lot of people look back on past experiences and blame their parents or their spouse for their problems when they should be learning from them and asking themselves, ‘How can I change this now to be a better person tomorrow?’” When we’re forced to constructively criticize ourselves on the mats, we learn to do the same throughout other aspects of our lives. And oftentimes, recognizing our own shortcomings instead of blaming others is an important step in breaking away from the mental illnesses that hold us back.
All of this sounds just fine, but it doesn’t do us any good if our mental illnesses are holding us back from getting to jiu-jitsu class in the first place. How are we supposed to reap these benefits if our depression won’t allow us to get out of bed or our anxiety is keeping us from live rolling in front of our teammates?
“I’m a big advocate of there being two truths. For example, in this case, the truths are, ‘I want to go to class’ and ‘I don’t want to go to class.’ So you have to think, ‘How do I walk that middle path? How do I find that balance?’” Maez encourages those of us who battle with our minds to “act opposite” of what our illness is telling us to do. “If you have depression, you can probably tell what thoughts are coming from you and what thoughts are coming from your depression. So if you feel like your depression is telling you to stay home, but you have the tiniest desire to go to class, get up and go.”
Not only will going to BJJ help you get all the benefits that it offers, but getting in the habit of doing the opposite of what your mental illness is encouraging you to do can help you reclaim your life. When your illness has you stuck in an emotional pit, being able to stand up to it in such a way can act as the first step up onto the ladder that will lead you out of the darkness.
Your jiu-jitsu obsession can be a great sidekick in your fight towards better mental health if you allow it to be. I’m a staunch advocate for adding traditional therapy to your self-care plan as well, but if you can’t, it’s important to be aware of all the ways your time wearing your gi or rashguard can help you stay healthy inside and out.
“Research shows that a healthy mind and a healthy body go hand-in-hand,” says Maez. “When you do jiu-jitsu, you’re working towards both at the same time.”