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Survive and Escape: Rolling with Jiu Jitsu and Mental Health

For as long as humans have drawn breath, we have done two things shockingly well: fight and worry. The earliest hominins constantly waged wars with other species of hominins. A constant fear of the unknown in their natural environment required a hyper-vigilance that still resides in our DNA today. While we do not have to spear a Woolly Mammoth for our dinner, our DNA still carries that anxiety into other areas of our life. It seems we are hardwired for stress and our modern society does us few favors in self-identifying stressors. We are constantly bombarded with falsehoods, mixed perceptions, and things telling us to be or act in a certain way. It is no wonder that the confluence of our genetic predispositions and the demands of an ever increasingly immediacy-driven society that humans have begun to experience mental health issues in records numbers. For the first time in American history overdose deaths reached over 100,000 Americans, with nearly 70% being attributed to fentanyl. Americans are struggling, and perhaps the most difficult part of being a clinician is that no one solution is applicable. Humans are as varied mentally as they are genetically. Even the greatest minds of our species often found difficulty within their own minds. Beethoven, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and Albert Einstein have all suffered from various mental health disorders and have arguably made some of the greatest contributions to mankind in human history.

For me, my mind has been in a war I have waged for over half my life. Starting at 17, episodic periods of depression remained for months at a time. Often marked by extended periods of despair, sadness, shame, and withdrawal, I struggled to enjoy any aspects of my life. What should have been marked by graduation celebrations, excitement for college next year, and a care-free summer was not. Unfortunately, mental health cares very little for your plans and what followed was years of depression that seemed insurmountable. I could not seem to find motivation or desire for anything. However, something happened next that would change me, I found myself unable to defend myself against two attackers. You might think that having significant depression mixed with shame and doubt about my ability to protect myself would sink me lower. I’d like to say in that moment my life changed, but truthfully the process was more extended. What I did do was get my ass in a Jiu Jitsu gym at the suggestion of my friend.

It is inexplicable to describe the change in my demeanor after years of Jiu Jitsu. My personality at a young age was marked by endless energy, wildness, and always being on edge. The hyper-vigilance that is often consistent with anxiety makes everything fight or flight. The results were by no means immediate but over time I grew in my confidence. It is hard to describe the comfort that knowing how to defend yourself and others brings you in life. The people that enter Jiu Jitsu to beat people up or dominate others never last. Jiu Jitsu requires a period of humility early on that people that join for the wrong reasons never can endure. Perhaps that is why people who struggle with mental health take to Jiu Jitsu, we know how to endure difficult times. Every patient I see in my office has been in a battle. My area of focus is substance use disorders and there is no greater battle that someone can fight than the one between their mind and body. It is, however, in that struggle that success can be extracted. People who have experienced addiction or mental health struggles have a unique ability to endure difficult times that most people could never imagine. It is that component that we turn our struggle into a superpower. It is that superpower that can sustain people through their darkest times. For me, Jiu Jitsu created a sense of community, confidence, and control of my emotions that I previous never had. The first time you are punched in kickboxing or choked in Jiu Jitsu can be an emotional experience initially because your body is recognizing it could have been in real danger. It is building up this endurance to an emotional experience or stressor that can eventually lead someone struggling with mental health to be able to find the confidence/strength/motivation, etc. to endure their own difficulties. Mental health is an increasingly growing issue in America and finding what gives one peace can be a vital part of finding comfort in your own mind. Like mental health, solutions will vary. Some find peace in meditation, art, or dancing. For people like me, it is a well-executed omoplata is where I find my happy place. But that just may be me.

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