Over Prescribed And Stigmatized: Revolutionizing Mental Health Through BJJ

 

I was 17. The morning was cold, it was November 7th. I lay slumped over on the bathroom floor crying hysterically. I had just finished violently vomiting. When the sheriff arrived, he was cold and callous. He warned me that if I did not come with him willingly, he would place me in handcuffs. Tears streamed down my face and I reluctantly obliged. Apparently, protocol dictates that a sheriff report to all overdose calls. My overdose was not accidental though, it was intentional.

I deliberately ingested two bottles of pain pills the evening prior with the intention that it would be my last. Hands shaking, I swallowed them one by one. I drank them with a bottle of Gatorade (to this day I can’t drink that particular flavor). They were the tiny soldiers that would march me to my demise. I felt ill as the weight of so many pills filled my stomach. I took my last gulp and realized two single pills remained. I thought nothing of it. I was confident that the quantity would be enough. A Google search and a few quick math calculations ensured the quantity was lethal. Little did I know that in the bottom of that pill bottle I had left more than just pills. What I left behind in the pill bottle that evening were one part destiny and another part fate – they were the tipping point.

At the hospital, the doctor asked me my weight and confirmed in my chart how many pills I had consumed. She pulled out a calculator from her jacket pocket and made a quick calculation. She shook her head in disbelief. “You weren’t supposed to make it, but you did,” she stated softly. On the other hand, the social worker was blunt and direct. She asked me very blankly, “do you realize how close you were?” I looked at her with disgust. Of course I did! That was my intention. I felt as though I had failed in life and in those moments I felt as though I had failed in the face of death as well.

After a week in a psychiatric inpatient unit, I was released. I attended therapy daily and took copious amounts of medication to no avail. My previous diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder had been revised to Bipolar Type 1. As the years progressed, the therapy continued and the pills did not stop. They came and went, varying in type and quantity. The diagnoses also fluctuated – ADHD, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Bipolar Type 2 and Major Depressive Disorder again. Each and every effort was to no avail. The daily struggle continued. Every. Single. Day.

I was impulsive and acted irrationally. I would feel a frenzy in my mind. I had an internal monologue that was negative and on constant repeat. I would lie in bed and not eat for days. I would stay in the same pair of clothes and abandon personal hygiene for days on end. I struggled to interact with others. My palms would sweat profusely and I would feel a tightness in my chest. I struggled to catch my breath. Everything was numb. I suffered, but I suffered in silence. I hid behind intellect and perfect grades. I hid behind a forced smile, cheery disposition and politeness. Each and every day, I felt as though I stood in a crowded room, screaming until my throat bled, yet no one could hear me or see the pain.

In 2010, I was introduced to Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. That is when my life truly began. That is when I started to truly live. That is when I began to truly feel. It is where I became human. When I step on the mat, nothing else matters. The moment my feet make contact with the soft vinyl beneath them, I am present. Something that I cannot quite articulate washes over me. It is here that my mind is no longer frenzied. It is where I find my inner peace. This is where I am allowed to succumb to frenzy and fury. It is where I can exist without judgment. This is the place where I am me. For me, that means the mania and the depression. On the mat, my expression of mania is acceptable. My expression of depression is acceptable. I no longer scream in silence, suffering in plain sight. Here I am seen. Here I am heard. Yet something far greater happens on the mats. On the mats, I achieve stability. I am not manic me. I am not depressed me. I am not anxious me. I am not awkward me. I am the ultimate form of who I am – simply myself.

On the mats I am a stable individual who is not subject to the tyranny and hate and stigmatization of society. Within the confides of the gym, I am not subject to the labels that society has placed upon my head. I am not held to the disgusting and misguided expectations that those labels place upon those who are presented with them. I exist within a brotherhood and sisterhood of those that I can connect with. It is the simple, “Hey! What’s happening” or “It’s so good to see you!” from my martial arts family that makes life worth living. Here I connect and here I am cared for in a capacity that is unique to our martial arts community. Here is where I have have healed and it is here that I continue to heal.

Considering my personal experiences with mental health, I have made it my life mission to help others. More specifically, I want to better harness the positive healing power of martial arts for both those in and out of the community. As a current doctoral student and former therapist, I want to bring this vision to life through an initiative. In order to do so, I need your help. I need your stories. I ask for your call to action. Please reach out to me via email ([email protected]) or Facebook (Facebook.com/cle927) so we can talk. I would be honored and privileged to be able to hear about your personal experience of how martial arts has impacted your mental health. Let’s get talking and let’s share the process of healing – together.

 

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Brazilian Jiu Jitsu And Mental Health

 

This article was written by Erik Anderson, BJJ Black Belt. Here is a link to his blog I encourage you to check it out! http://www.erikandersontherapy.com/

 

One of the biggest milestones in my own mental health journey was beginning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.  Ten years ago I was struggling with depression and anxiety and found that joining this community had surprising benefits.  Finding a gym I was excited to go every night changed my everyday experience.  Jiu jitsu became a source of enjoyment, belonging, meaning and confidence. While it’s been a huge source of wellness for me, I’ve long been reluctant to recommend it to others because my experience seemed specific just to me. I figured other people would find “their thing” which might provide similar benefits.  But after a decade in the sport I’ve started to notice specific factors that make Jiu Jitsu particularly suited for enhancing mental wellness.

Jiu Jitsu isn’t a small phenomenon.  It’s a rough estimate but there are about 500,000 Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioners in the US. The international organization, IBJJF, has 670,000 likes on facebook at the time of this writing. It’s a martial art and a sport that looks like wrestling in pajamas. It’s a game with simple rules: without striking your opponent, place them in a position where they are forced to “tap out” lest they be injured or rendered unconscious or otherwise unable to continue fighting.  The most common strategy to win this game is to wrestle to a superior position then use your arms and legs to control your opponent while you place pressure on the arteries in their neck or hyperextend one of their major joints.  You can do this again and again because it’s easy to tap out when it begins to hurt but long before you are injured.

It sounds insane! It sounds risky! I was curious about the actual level of risk so I looked up some data.  My friend, Ethan Kreiswirth wrote a study on incidence of injury at the 2009 World Jiu Jitsu Championship. At this high level of competition, the rate of injury was 24.9 per 1000 Athlete-Exposures (A-Es).  To compare, college football games have a rate of 35.9 injuries per 1000 A-Es, college wrestling matches a rate of 26.4 injuries per 1000 A-Es, and college soccer games a rate of 18.8 injuries per 1000 A-Es. So competing in Jiu Jitsu is about as risky as wrestling, which is more dangerous than soccer but less than football.  And practice in all these sports is significantly less risky than actual competition.

Enough about the risks. I’m interested in talking about the benefits. There are five major domains where Jiu Jitsu has specific, significant benefits that contribute to mental wellness:

Immediate Somatic: Jiu jitsu looks a lot like the natural play of many animals. It’s an inherently enjoyable physical activity.  This playful, engaging activity is an excellent source of exercise.  Physical contact with others fulfills a human need.  Touch sends a powerful message: “you’re okay to touch and I’m okay touching you.”

Immediate Psychological:  People who train know they feel markedly different after training than they did before.  Jiu jitsu as stress relief is similar to but distinct from the catharsis that can be had while training.  If you’re holding on to anger or resentment, training jiu jitsu can be an excellent way to get those feelings out. Jiu jitsu is also a source of flow, a state of being where sense of self is lost and one’s mental process becomes seamlessly identified with the activity.  Flow is marked by the absence of boredom, anxiety, and self-doubt and the presence of an energized focus.  Psychology research on flow states is ongoing but suggests that there is a relationship between time spent in flow states and an increase in positive feelings and behavior as well as a reduction in negative feelings and behavior.

Long Term Psychological:  People who train experience increased confidence and assuredness. Because of their connection to the martial arts community they have an excellent resource to develop connectedness to others. The stress we experience when training exposes us to serious anxiety and learning to manage that helps us learn to cope with stress and anxiety outside of jiu jitsu as well.  The practice of jiu jitsu is an excellent outlet for aggression – we should not seek to eliminate this drive, but to find appropriate boundaries and outlets for our aggression.  Training also helps develop focus, as growing our skills in jiu jitsu demands that we hone our skills through concentrating on tasks at hand.

Community: Training is an excellent form of socialization. For people in recovery from substance abuse, a jiu jitsu gym can be a place where you’re accountable to show up sober every evening.  The gym is a place to experience the positivity that comes from having shared goals with other people that you develop through a shared culture.  But jiu jitsu is larger than just the gym you join, it allows you to connect to a global sport.

Long Term Skill:  Training is an opportunity to learn from people who have mastery in a skill. The transparent process by which we see others gain mastery leaves us with a solid pedagogy, a methodology for teaching and refining a skillset. Part of that pedagogy is critical thinking, a skill we have to utilize and grow in jiu jitsu in order to test ourselves and test techniques in a fast-moving problem solving task. Many jiu jitsu schools accept fights from all comers because these tests force us to confront the reality of our skills, something jiu jitsu practitioners take great pride in.  The fundamental hypothesis of martial arts is this: with training, a smaller, weaker person can defeat a larger, stronger person.  One of the best parts about Jiu Jitsu is the bang for your buck you get in proving this hypothesis.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is more than just a fighting style. It is a source for play, catharsis, growth, connectedness, and learning. As part of my work in mental health, I look forward to continuing to be a voice in the larger conversation about the particular ways Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is suited to enhancing mental wellbeing.

 

Article author Erik Anderson

 

Further reading on the subject: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/women-who-stray/201412/the-psychology-brazilian-jiu-jitsu

 

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