Before I began my jiu jitsu journey, I felt that I didn’t have to invest in my own mental health. This is ironic because I manage a mental health training and technical assistance center for my day job – I spend all day talking with therapists, peers, and academics about mental health, and yet I used to spend none of that energy on my own wellbeing. If you are any kind of health professional or advocate, this behavior might sound all too familiar.
That lack of investment has always bit me in the butt: I was diagnosed with depression and panic disorder at age 19, and recently that diagnosis was altered to bipolar II disorder. Still, I felt that I was too busy and too smart to have to cope with mental illness. Those were problems for other people. I was too busy advancing in my career through bursts of mania-fueled sleepless nights and gallons of caffeinated beverages. Friends, family, and physicians told me to slow down, get more sleep, and eat more veggies and less sugar. But veggies and rest – like therapy and medications – were for other people. Despite (or because of) my big brain and white-knuckle attitude, my mental health got worse and worse.
I started training jiu jitsu in August of 2019. While I continued to ignore the impact that my lifestyle had on my mental health, it was not so easy to ignore the effect that it had on my training. Turns out that if you want to show up consistently and train hard at the gym, you have to get good sleep, eat healthy food, hydrate, and take rest days. Once I began competing, my list of jiu jitsu-enhancing behaviors lengthened: I started meditating, visualizing, and keeping a training journal. I also found myself in a supportive community, a group that reinforced both my healthy habits and my acceptance of my own worth.
Imagine my surprise when my mental health began to improve along with my jiu jitsu. It would appear that many of the same lifestyle changes advocated by mental health professionals – good nutrition, quality sleep, meditation, journaling, routine, building strong relationships – are also those encouraged by jiu jitsu coaches. I was delighted…and a little gob smacked. In my arrogance, I thought that I could control my mental health issues by sheer force of will and very strong coffee. It took wanting to improve my game on the mats to realize that I benefit from mental hygiene practices just as much as the next person.
Eventually, I recognized that being a better athlete – and person – meant seeing a doctor and taking medication. If not for the changes brought about by training jiu jitsu, I might have never had the wherewithal to admit that. Witnessing the improvements in my mental health, brought about by the changes I made for jiu jitsu, gave me the push I needed to take control of and responsibility for my mental well-being.
Jiu jitsu can be more than learning how to control and submit opponents. It can provide a framework for learning how to care for yourself, for your body and your mind. People start jiu jitsu for many reasons; maybe they want to be healthier, or they want to be competitors. What they may not realize is that the lifestyle changes they’ll make to accommodate their new passion can pave the way for improvements beyond their blood pressure or guard game. Jiu jitsu catapulted me into doing what I needed for my mental health. I was just trying to get better at this crazy sport; I ended up getting better.