How Jiu-Jitsu Helps Us To Cope With Anxiety
When you have anxiety, life is weird.
No, I don’t mean the kind of anxiety that happens when your boss says he wants to see you in his office in fifteen minutes or — for us jiu-jitsu people — the kind that happens leading up to a big tournament. I’m talking about the kind of anxiety that makes you practice your coffee order out loud in your car five minutes before you actually order because you’re scared you’ll mess it up. I’m talking about the anxiety that makes your rib cage feel like it’s constricting your lungs when your coach quizzes you on a move and later keeps you up for hours with a pounding heart when you remember how stupid you sounded when you gave the incorrect response.
It’s the weird kind of anxiety: the kind that doesn’t leave you alone no matter how “fine” things really are.
Unlike the kind of anxiety that has a time limit, things like generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder are really just things you have to learn to live with at all hours of the day. They can manifest in a variety of different ways, from overreacting about everyday issues (or non-issues), to feeling constant unexplainable unease, to full-on panic attacks. The symptoms aren’t just mental and emotional, either — they can also show up as shortness of breath, an increased heart rate, nausea, and even chest pain. And it’s far from uncommon: around two million Australian adults suffer from anxiety at any given moment.
I’ve dealt with anxiety since I was a small child, but I wasn’t formally diagnosed with it until I was about thirteen. In some ways, it’s gotten better as I’ve grown older, but in other ways, it’s just changed. I still get sweaty palms, weak knees, and other symptoms outlined in Eminem songs, but they appear for different reasons than they did when I was younger. Some of the improvement I’ve experienced has been due to clinical therapy, lifestyle changes, or just “growing out of it”, but at least in recent years, I attribute most of it to jiu-jitsu.
For a sport that puts you in high-pressure, anxiety-inducing situations on such a regular basis, it seems counterintuitive to say that jiu-jitsu would actually be like therapy when it comes to being anxious. But for me — and many other people I know — it’s true. In fact, perhaps it is that constant discomfort that makes jiu-jitsu so therapeutic. After all, anxiety usually flares up when we’re worried about the future, and jiu-jitsu has a knack for taking what might happen and very quickly transforming it into something that is happening. And suddenly, you have to find a way to deal with it.
Take, for example, that dread that pools in your stomach when you’re paired up with someone way heavier or stronger than you. In jiu-jitsu, the last thing you want is for that person to end up on top of you. And when they do end up with their massive shoulder pressing into your face in side control, it probably sucks just as much as you thought it would. When you first start out, it might even be enough to make you tap. But as you gain experience and stamina, you learn not only how to withstand that kind of misery, but also how to escape from it. Before long, the thing that you once dreaded turns into something pretty routine. It doesn’t necessarily suck any less than it did the first time you experienced it, but you’ve figured out that this is really nothing you can’t handle.
Essentially, you get comfortable being very, very uncomfortable.
While the concept of being right at home in hell is more like long-term therapy, jiu-jitsu also has a way of helping out even in the middle of anxiety flare-ups. It’s pretty hard to freak out about how you messed up your coffee order earlier when you’re busy trying not to get your arm ripped off. Jiu-jitsu truly forces you to focus on whatever is happening in the moment, leaving very little room for thinking about anything other than what you need to do to not get choked out.
Perhaps most importantly, jiu-jitsu teaches us to take control. When we’re placed in uncomfortable or dangerous situations in the middle of a roll, we need to figure out how to control our breathing, slow our heart rate, and use our heads. If we don’t, we’re sure to tire out or tap out. Just as is true for the rest of our lives, we have to figure out how to calm down and think our way through a tough situation if we have any hope of making it out unscathed and learn to analyze threats in the moment so we don’t waste all our energy before we’re actually in danger. In a way, jiu-jitsu trains us to handle these things not only on the mat, but also outside of the gym.
Jiu-jitsu might not be the cure for anxiety, but it can still work wonders for those who suffer from this mental illness. If a lifestyle change (or just rolling more) doesn’t seem to be working for you, you should absolutely go to a doctor and explore other options, including medication if that’s what it takes. Everyone’s brain will respond to different things in different ways, and whether jiu-jitsu is all you need or not nearly enough, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. But if you do live with an anxiety disorder, the step you take onto the mats might be the first one you make towards a better, less stressful life.