Overcoming Anxiety & Depression

With Martial Arts Training

mental health and martial arts

Martial arts training comes with many benefits. It all depends what you are looking for and focused on during your training. It also depends on how you use and apply your training. Better mental health is something that can be achieved with martial arts as part of your mental coping therapy!

I have struggled with bipolar depression, ADHD, OCD, & Insomnia for a large portion of my life.

Here is an article I wrote for a magazine about mental health depression, anxiety, and martial arts!

The video at the bottom is a #Teammate Talks Podcast episode also on mental health and martial arts.

Anxiety - Depression - Martial Arts Movement

It has been scientifically proven for a long time now that exercise affects the brain physically in positive ways. Movement and exercise in martial arts help the brain to produce more dopamine and other feel good chemicals. It is one of the reasons physical activity is widely recommended as one part of therapy for all sorts of mental health struggles. 

Yet, there are still many people out there who do not know how it works. Dopamine is a chemical used in the brain as a neurotransmitter, or messenger, from nerve cells to other nerve cells that help to reward the brains ‘pleasure’ centers. As well as regulating movement and emotional response.

Often, people who are easily addicted to substances or who feel an overabundance of anxiety or depression tend to either have less of this chemical being used by the brain. Or, less of those chemicals being created, than is normal. It is common and natural for all of us to feel nervous, anxious, or even depressed sometimes. It is part of being human and alive and is a healthy response to external forces that trigger our survival instincts.

When our bodies start to have this response to internal forces, thoughts, or things that haven’t or probably won’t happen, we begin to experience problems with mental health. This is also true if our bodies and brains tend to begin to hold these responses for much longer periods of time than were naturally intended.

These extended periods lead to us trapping ourselves in a loop that leads to our bodies and brains beginning to use and make less dopamine and other important brain chemicals. Eventually, we become anxious or depressed almost constantly, with the smallest triggers. Sometimes with no real reason or explanation to be feeling that way.

The world has changed, and so have the type of threats that trigger our survival responses...

In a natural and normal occurrence of stress, as soon as a resolution is found, or with time, the emotion begins to fade.

Often times there is little that can be done in the moments that the response is triggered. Resolutions to problems that seem like issues of survival, while they should abate the emotion, often don’t in those who struggle with mental health issues. Instead, they build and stack on each other. Often the solutions to problems can’t be handled in a short amount of time and the stress is held on to for much longer than is healthy. 

This leaves the body to start attempting to stay in these heightened states of stress and anxiety for longer periods of time.

Training in martial arts can help teach us tricks to keep our mind in the present moment. This can be difficult, and requires realizing when our brain has run off with us in thoughts of the worst or probabilities of things that likely won’t happen, but we play them out mentally like they are real anyway.

By recognizing what is the present moment and what is only our thoughts, we can begin to separate what is real and what is not.

This is a very important distinction to learn and a huge part of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). CBT is often used as therapy along with medications for those with bipolar and other serious mood disorders.

We can begin to distinguish between what is in our control and what is not once we can separate what is real and what is just thought and imaginings.

This is also a big part of martial arts training. Learning to focus on what you can do the moment. Learning to pay less attention to things you can do nothing about. Once you have been hit, you can do nothing about it. Continuing to think and stress on it through the rest of the match will cause you to continue to get hit more and perform worse.

Martial arts teach us to let go of the shots we take as soon as possible and move on. Because, we have no control over what has happened, only how we react to it.

Long term carried stress often leads to looking for external ways to cope with heavy emotions.

Those who struggle with mental health are around 5x more likely to abuse an addictive substance, such as alcohol, caffeine, or other drugs.

What makes many illegal and harmful drugs so completely addictive to those with mental health struggles is how it affects the use and amount of dopamine in the brain. These drugs usually increase the use of feel good chemicals greatly, making a person feel good. 

However, this effect dies off over time as the brain and body get used to it and think those elevated states are normal. This causes the mental health struggles to get even worse when sober and over time. These things also have very harmful side effects on other parts of the brain and body, some permanent, and even deadly.

It is often not the drug itself that becomes so harmful, but the withdraw symptoms our body goes through when we don’t have access to it. Our body craves the heightened levels of feel good chemicals and feels like it is dying without it. In some cases, withdraw can kill you.

Similar effects in healthier doses can also be achieved in a simple way...

Similar effects to the feel good effects of drugs can be achieved without the chemicals or bad side effects. It can be done the natural way, through thoughtfulness and exercise. 

Thoughtfulness is a term I use to remind myself to try to keep reminding myself to pay attention to the present moment, and not get too wrapped up in what is in my head and thoughts.

Exercise and other physical activities give us a sense of accomplishment, which also flood the brain with feel good chemicals. Even more so if you feel like you are making real progress towards a goal.

Stressing our muscles helps our brain to let go of its thoughts and refocus on the present moment. Burning excess energy helps our brain to release more feel good chemicals for hours after a workout and make us feel better overall.

Achieving things you didn't think you could is called personal victory...

Achieving things helps to build confidence, self-esteem, and can stack on top of the feel good chemicals from exercise alone.

As the body moves and pushes, the levels of dopamine in your brain increase. The harder the workout, the higher the levels of dopamine in the brain for many hours afterward. This gives what some describe as a post workout ‘adrenaline rush’ shortly after finishing exercise. Overdoing it for an extremely long period of time can cause this rush to become what some call workout euphoria.

Workout euphoria leaves you feeling great for the next day or two, but can make it very difficult to sleep and leave you over filled with focus and energy. To avoid this, just be sure that if you have a heavy workout, to do no more than an hour or two at a time and allow your body to recover.

It can also be common for a person to have a great sense of calm and accomplishment within an hour of finishing a really good workout. One added physical reward for working out other than just being health, looking better, building muscle and increased cardiovascular strength.

Martial arts supply an encouraging environment leading to better mindset

Lets put aside the science of how fitness and martial arts training can help you feel better physically for a moment. Martial arts also come with a stepladder of achievements of all kinds. This ladder gives smaller goals to achieve. Once, achieved, that in itself is a great factor in increasing self-esteem as well as confidence. 

Many martial arts studios focus on making sure that their school is filled with respectful and thoughtful students.

The kind of people who will help you to feel encouraged and like you belong regardless of skill, level, or age. This creates a very positive and encouraging environment. Creating a great place to spend time if we find ourselves struggling with anxiety and depression. If you find yourself not wanting to go anywhere, do anything, or be around anybody; often that is the time you need to have that safe place you can go and feel like you are safe and belong.

Slowly and through achievements you will begin to carry that self esteem and positive energy of the people you surround yourself with. This is one of the reasons we love our Peaceful Warriors students so much!

My secrets to controlling my bipolar anxiety & depression swings

I have a few tricks and secrets I’ve learned living with bipolar over the years. 

A good medication regimen can help, but any good psychiatrist will tell you it really isn’t enough. There is so little known about the treatment of mental health and many medications can make it worse or have other adverse effects. It can take a lot of time and pain to find something that helps. Bipolar in particular takes on average 10 years before getting a thorough and proper diagnosis, which was true for me. 

Even if you do get on a good regimen, good therapy also helps. 

Martial arts make a great form of therapy. Much of the coping skills we teach through our #Teammate life skills are based in CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). Which as shown great promise in helping people manage mood disorders.

For those that don’t know, bipolar essentially means the brain dumps large amounts of chemicals at once. Meaning that whatever one feels, one feels very strongly. This can lead to manic swings of tons of energy. Manic swings can be excessive happiness or excessive working which can lead to irritability. Bipolar can also lead to swings of extreme sadness, anger, and depression.

What is real, what is not.

As I mentioned earlier, the ability to differentiate between reality and thought is important. Thought technically isn’t real, it is simply imagination. Differentiating this can help me remind myself that often what is stressing me may not even be real.

Martial arts training has helped with this. Over the years, I’ve learned to sense when someone is trying to fake me or is committing to an attack or defense. I use this same sense to direct me to what is real and what is not.

What can be controlled and what can't.

In martial arts, you can’t let every hit you take or bad position you get put in with you into the next moment. You will not be present enough to respond in a better way. Martial arts training teaches us to let go of what we can not control. This means letting go of what has already happened as quickly as possible.

This also means understanding that I can not control external things. I can not control how my opponent moves, only how I respond. Likewise, I can not control what my opponent thinks. Though, I may be able to influence them through actions I take or words I say.

I can not control the outcome of any situation, but I can train to increase my odds. The outcome of any martial arts match is entirely outside of my control. I can only control how I play the game.

Same thing in any endeavor in life, you can only control what you put into it. You do not have full control of the outcome.

Learning what exactly is in your direct control (your character, your words, your actions, your values) and what is not, helps your learn to put less focus and importance on things outside of your control.

Putting too much emphasis into outcomes that you desire or fear is setting yourself up for mental health failures. It leaves your emotions entirely up to things that you may not have direct control over. Which can lead your emotions to swing with every new outcome to every situation.

How I look at things...

Being mindful about how I frame things in my mind is another very helpful trick I learned in martial arts. It is also taught in CBT just like the previous two.

Pay attention to how you describe things to yourself. Do you describe them in a way that makes them scary or feel terrible?

Try changing the words and vocabulary you use to describe events to yourself. You can greatly change the emotional response to those things. If you have a habit of catastrophizing events, making them sound as awful as possible, it is important to try to change the way we describe those things. Instead of describing them like catastrophes, try describing them in more direct terms or even in positive terms. Look for the silver lining.

Fear Vs. Excitement

Perhaps one of the best tricks I’ve learned over the years is realizing that fear and excitement are ALMOST the same emotion. The only real difference is how we frame it. The same chemicals and neuro receptors that make you scared are also used by the brain to make you feel excited.

It has really helped me to generate a mindset that begins to see challenges and obstacles as something exciting instead of something to fear. When I feel crippling fear or anxiety, I repeat to myself that it is exciting. Then, I try to find ways to describe it to myself in exciting ways instead of in terms of fear.

Martial arts teach us to see challenges as something to be excited about, not run away from. It took me a long time to learn this lesson. After a year of trying, I was able to begin convincing myself that my anxiety was just excitement at an opportunity rather than fear at the possibility of failure or being judged.

Martial arts also teach us to not worry about other peoples opinions of us.

This became a habit until many times my anxiety would begin to arise, with it would also be a response of excitement and thoughts of how this could be exciting.

Through keeping an excited mindset when it comes to challenges, you can also find it easier to keep your confidence up. With that rise in confidence through consistently being in an encouraging environment, you can change how you view obstacles in your life. It becomes far easier to manage anxieties!

CAUTION! Positive attitudes are infectious!

That doesn’t mean it is not difficult to step onto a martial arts mat or exercise facility for the first time. Especially if you suffer with the type of anxiety I am talking about! I still have to argue with myself about going in stores or dealing with customer service anywhere!

If you can find something in you to help you get over that first hump, just go in and try a class. You might find it life changing like hundreds of others who have walked through our doors at Peaceful Warriors.

If it helps, bring a friend with you! We always do free trials so even if your friend doesn’t want to do it, they can still join you on your trial to help you get started.

Lots of programs like ours at least offer a first class for free. You can see what its about and meet the people around the school to see for yourself what a positive and encouraging #Teammate atmosphere it can be!

Hopefully you find these mental health tips as helpful as I have since learning them! Reach out to let me know what you think!

You can check out more of our #Teammate Talks podcasts by following the link, or searching #Teammate Talks wherever you get your podcats!

This #Teammate parent article was written by: Cory Rose

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