Mental Health and Martial Arts

Mental health symbol conceptual design isolated on white background

Mental health issues carry with them a great deal of stigma, and they aren’t commonly discussed. Martial artists, in particular, have a tendency to avoid the topic, because martial arts are supposed to instill discipline, focus, and mental clarity. Additionally, martial artists are often seen as “tough” people, and it can sometimes be difficult for others to understand that those they consider “tough” could be struggling with mental health. Personally, I have been clinically diagnosed with depression, and I know several martial artists who also deal with mental health issues, but even I tend to avoid discussions about it. Last night, I posted a short statement on my Facebook Page about my depression, and was overwhelmed by the support I received, which inspired this article. It can be difficult to talk about, but I feel that I should bring it up, because I know that I am not the only one.

Since depression and, to a degree, anxiety, are the mental health issues that I deal with, personally, they are the ones I am most familiar with. A lot of people may say that they feel “depressed,” or “anxious,” but it is important to note that this is not the same as having depression, or an anxiety disorder. There are various ways that people can deal with these disorders, but it is never as simple as “cheering up.” Some people need medications, some go to therapy, some engage in hobbies that they find calming, but most have some combination of things to help them cope. One of my coping mechanisms is my martial arts training–it helps me forget the things that are dragging me down, and work through the emotions that I struggle with. Unfortunately, no coping mechanism is bulletproof, and depression can take the joy out of anything. There are nights when I leave the dojo feeling defeated, useless, and hopeless, and I know that I’m not the only one. It is a terrible feeling to do something that you love, and which normally helps you feel better, only to leave just as depressed–or more depressed. In cases like this, you really need to lean on your support system, and do what you can to work through it.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is not something I have had to deal with, personally, for which I am thankful. I have found, however, that many people with PTSD are drawn to martial arts, for a variety of reasons. Military veterans, women who have been sexually assaulted, and children who have been the victims of child abuse and bullying, are relatively common to find in martial arts, and many of them struggle with PTSD every day. This is something that instructors need to be cognizant of, because it can have a powerful impact on a student’s ability to participate in training. Some subject matter, and some of the training activities, can be extremely uncomfortable for people with PTSD, and can trigger attacks that include flashbacks, panic attacks, or even seizures. It’s important to remember that this doesn’t make these people weak, or unstable, or unsuited to martial arts training. What they need are understanding instructors and dojo-mates who take the time to learn about what they are experiencing, what their triggers are, and how to help them.

There are many other mental health issues, of course, but these are the ones I am most familiar with. I hope that this brief article gives people who suffer from these issues, and others, an opportunity to open a dialogue with others about what they are going through. Life is hard enough when dealing with depression, PTSD, or other mental illnesses, but it is even harder when you have to try to hide it, and dealing with people who simply do not understand what you’re going through. I want everyone, but especially my fellow martial artists, who deal with this to know that they are not alone. You are in good company, and if we open up and discuss these types of issues more often, we can reduce the stigma and help build a greater support system for ourselves and others.

For those dealing with mental health issues, who are in need of help, I urge you to reach out. You can find many resources and hotlines here.

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About Noah

I began training in karate (Shuri-Ryu) in the Summer of 2006. Subsequently, I started training in judo, kobudo, and iaijutsu within the next 6 months. During my training there, I earned the rank of Sankyu (3rd Degree Brown Belt) in Shuri-Ryu, Gokyu (Green Belt) in judo, a certification in the use of the bo, and passed proficiency tests for the four tachigata of Shinkage-Ryu iaijutsu. I moved to Arizona in the Summer of 2008, and continued training and researching karate at home. I continued regular training in judo at a local club until 2010, when I was able to start training in Shorin-Ryu with Sensei Richard Poage. I have been training with him ever since, and currently hold the rank of Shodan (1st Degree Black Belt) in Shorin-Ryu under him. In addition, I began studying KishimotoDi under Sensei Ulf Karlsson in 2014.