Stress – as we all should know – is a killer. It increases year after year and even more as we age. From a 2000 study, “…62% routinely find that they end the day with work-related neck pain, 44% reported stressed-out eyes, 38% complained of hurting hands and 34% reported difficulty in sleeping because they were too stressed-out…” Managing stress is part of a balanced fitness routine, but we’re rarely given recommendations on how to do that. So, what’s the best way to deal with it? Sitting on a couch and watching TV? Or moving and exercising? It turns out that physical exertion is one of the best ways to deal with stress. Whether it’s hitting the treadmill, playing a sport, going for a walk in the park, or working in the garden, moving your body and burning energy through active effort is a great strategy. Meditation and the practice of mindfulness are also great ways to decrease stress. By focusing on breathing and the task at hand, outside worries fade to the background, and stress decreases. Lucky for us, there’s an activity that combines both physical exertion with the practice of mindfulness. Martial arts!
“Stress is simply a reaction to a stimulus that disturbs our physical or mental equilibrium. In other words, it’s an omnipresent part of life.” As with most things in life, stress has a dual nature. Small amounts, such as the stress of weight lifting, can be beneficial. But in large amounts or over a long time, stress is damaging to your health. Stress overload can result in different symptoms from cognitive to emotional to physical to behavioral.1 Most sources describe it as having both a physical and mental component, and these same sources recommend both physical and mental treatments to counter the negative effects.
When we’re stressed, our bodies are filled with hormones inducing a fight or flight state. Or, in other words, our body is energized to either run or throw down. In some circumstances, this is an immediate resolution. Either you do flee or you do fight, but there is an ending. Stress, however, is an open-ended situation. You might as well constantly be pushing the boulder in the picture above. The resolution never comes, and you’re in an almost constant fight or flight state. Whether the slow, graceful forms of Tai Chi, the explosive workout of Muay Thai, or the persistent grind of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, martial arts training burns off the excess energy introduced by the stress response. Exercise tricks your body into thinking its had a resolution of that stressor. The energy introduced by the fight or flight fuels the body during its workout. At the end, your body can return to a baseline state. You are literally working off your stress.
Worry is a huge part of stress. Feeling out of control is another. These aren’t physical reactions; they’re thoughts. But these negative thoughts induce a physical reaction. Martial artists have long known of the mind-body connection. Whether explicit or not, all martial arts practice some form of mental conditioning as well. Some arts actively practice meditation and mindfulness. Some arts do not talk about mindfulness, but the concept is present. Focus on form during solo practice or drilling is mindfulness. Being in the moment during sparring is mindfulness. If my mind wanders, I’m going to get a stick to the face or submitted. During practice, priorities shift from my worries to the fist that is moving towards my face. All of this serves to quiet the mind and to stop the internal dialogue. Because worry is a stream of thoughts on loop. The lyrics may change, but the tune stays the same. Paying attention to what is happening at that moment breaks the loop. Mindfulness provides respite. There is no more effective method of making someone pay attention to the moment than swinging a stick in front of their face. It doesn’t matter if your class looks like the photo above or the one below, the martial arts will provide mental relief from stress.
Exercise and mindfulness are great benefits that take effect immediately. I place them in the short term gain category. Long term benefits come from the discipline to stick with training. At some point in the journey, each of us will be faced with difficulty. We will be pushed out of our comfort zones. Obstacles will be thrown in our path. Challenges will test us. It doesn’t matter if it’s our first month or our twentieth year of training, challenges will arise. And, in overcoming, we will learn that we are capable of so much more than we ever thought. We will get tougher – mentally, physically, and emotionally. Little stresses won’t have the same impact as they once did. After a hard sparring class, I just don’t have the energy to care if someone cuts me off in traffic. Working on my cardio sucks but not as much as having a knee on my chest. At work, I have to revise a report again, but I’m accustomed to repeating techniques over and over and over again to perfect them. When we rise to meet tough, painful, grueling challenges, we learn to believe in ourselves. Instead of living in fear, we know that we can push ourselves to overcome. That belief in who we are, in what we are capable of, is what makes the martial arts such a rewarding journey. When we stumble on this journey, we learn we are capable of getting back up and starting again. With each success, we lay the foundation for our next success, and the least stressful part of life is succeeding.
Martial artists have a multi-part strategy for dealing with stress. We get the best of both worlds by combining physical exertion with mindfulness training. Often the selling points are get in shape, learn to defend yourself, or build up your self esteem. One of the biggest benefits for adults – stress reduction – is undersold. Stress is a part of life, and nothing will change that. It seems as if the pace of life gets faster and faster as I age. Problems get bigger and more complex as well. Stress is here to stay, and to be fair, the martial arts journey introduces its own kind of stress. But the benefits far outweigh the costs. At this point, training is the number one stress reducer in my life. Martial arts has given me many, many things, and learning how to deal with my stress is one of the biggest. The dual strategy of physical and mental remedies have worked and continue to work for me. In my opinion, there is no better way to reduce stress than to get on the mat. To train. To get better by getting after it.