Mental health continues to be a taboo subject that we hide and avoid. Martial artists are as guilty of it as anyone else. We project toughness and fitness because that’s what martial artists are supposed to do, right? A typical class will touch on physical health in a number of ways. I’m often talking about my diet and weight loss with martial arts friends. We’ll discuss stretching and weight lifting. But we never talk about emotional and mental fitness. Why? Because when you say mental health, we’re programmed to jump to the worst case scenarios. We think of dangerous individuals who hold society in harms way. These are the outliers, though. They get the most attention because they are the scariest, but they are one end of a spectrum. The reality is that mental health is not constant for every human being living. Inside every class, there are individuals dealing with issues we don’t understand or even know about. Those issues range from work related stress to financial worries to depression to a negative self image. These same individuals may come to the next class without any of these issues. Much like physical fitness, emotional well-being is not static. Mental health ranges from stress and self esteem maintenance to more extreme issues, like depression, and the martial arts are one of the best tools available for improving mental health.
Often, the selling aspects of martial arts will include positive benefits like discipline and focus. In my mind, these are equated to improved strength and cardiovascular health. These are great reasons to join, but they are only part of the changes people undergo. In addition to improved fitness, martial arts also maintain your body. The constant movement keeps your joints limber and muscles pliable. Just as martial arts improve and maintain the physical, the mental is also improved and maintained. Yes, we improve our discipline, and we become goal oriented. But we also shore up our self esteem; we work off our stress; we learn that we are capable of more than previously thought. Somewhere, along the journey, each of us is faced with moments of doubt. Can I really do this? The answer to this question is truly meaningless, but the attempt to answer it is priceless. Facing these doubts and continuing on might be the best way to shore up mental health. At some point, we all struggle with a technique. We lose a sparring match. We might fail tests. Others will progress faster than us. Our own progress will plateau. Life will interfere your training. Injuries happen. None of that matters. Showing up to class after any set back does matter. Because the moment we step on the mat again, we can look back at all the obstacles that kept us from training and see how we’ve overcome. We can see the struggle and know that being back on the mat is a victory.
The next time you step on the mat, know that you are improving your health – both mentally and physically. Pat yourself on the back for having the discipline to show up to class. Take a look at how far you’ve come along your journey, and resolve to continue on that path to self improvement.
This is the first in a series about martial arts and mental health. Please, let me know in the comments how martial arts helps you.