There’s no way to sugarcoat it—we are in the midst of a global health crisis. The incidence of mental health disorders had been on the rise even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly), things became even worse during the pandemic. The number of people reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression rose exponentially, going from 10% to 40% of the total adult population.1
Photo by Francisco Moreno
What’s this got to do with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu? Well, while it’s no cure, studies have found that martial arts training is beneficial for mental health. Martial arts, in general, has positive transformational effects on people recovering from trauma.2 Moreover, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has even been used to supplement the treatment of stress and anxiety disorders in military veterans.3
There are numerous testimonials outside of formally conducted investigations. Thanks to Google, it’s not difficult to find anecdotal records of the positive effects of BJJ on stress and anxiety. But how, exactly, does it help?
What are the effects of BJJ on the body?
During a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class, the human body experiences spikes in the level of feel-good hormones.4 We already know that exercise does that, but a less-known tidbit of information is that these hormones also help the brain recover from injuries faster.5 Since BJJ is a mental exercise just as well as it is physical, it improves neuronal functionality and cognition. In other words, it helps you think and function better.
In people with depression, a deterioration in cognitive function is often present. People lose concentration and become forgetful. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just because people with mental health disorders are too preoccupied with their thoughts. Instead, it’s because depression literally affects the structure of the brain.
Depression has been found to deteriorate synapses (i.e., the connection between brain cells). On the other hand, the strategic nature of BJJ as an exercise stimulates the formation of synapses. As a result, it may theoretically counter the synaptic deterioration caused by excessive stress.
Now that you know about mental health disorders and the positive implications of BJJ on depression, in particular, let’s dive into stress management strategies. What does BJJ teach us that can help us effectively manage stress and anxiety? In this article, we’ll go over five of them.
1. Proper breathing methods
Photo by Kelvin Valerio
Living things need oxygen to fuel all their living processes. Oxygen is one of the main components in breaking down the energy the body needs to move and function. Thus, the functionality of the body relies on the presence of oxygen, and the brain is no exception.
Think about it—faced with a problem that seems unsolvable, what do you do? Take a breather to think. When you’re in a tense situation, don’t you try to calm yourself down by taking deep breaths?
Abdominal breathing also improves mental clarity by increasing blood and oxygen supply to the brain. It also promotes relaxation by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. Experts say that abdominal breathing optimizes the efficiency of respiration. It is the ideal way of breathing for situations when you require a lot of oxygen.6 A good example of such would be during strenuous exercises, such as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This explains why proper breathing techniques have been taught and emphasized in sports, meditation, and even basic stress relief.
2. Mental toughness
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a game of strategy. However, the mental conditioning that comes as a result of consistent practice isn’t just in terms of cognition. The fear of failure is a pervasive one that is typically associated with anxiety disorders.7 BJJ addresses that fear and fortifies mental toughness by desensitizing a person to continuous streaks of defeat.
Photo by Richard Bustos
Mental toughness is the ability to push past repeated failure with a positive and competitive mindset. In BJJ, it would manifest as the thought that it’s okay to fail and be defeated this time, as long as you learn and try again. Because that’s the thing in BJJ: you will always lose. There will rarely ever be a day that you will get out of training without getting submitted once. (Unless, of course, you’re one of the most advanced players.)
Such a lose and try again mindset isn’t confined to the four walls of the gym—it extends far beyond that and spills into other aspects of life. As a result, you become more open to new experiences and challenges life has to offer.
3. Changing perspectives
However excessive it may seem to anyone unfamiliar with martial arts, it’s true. There’s no denying that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu changes the lens through which we view the world. BJJ is an art that is more than just strategy and technique—it is a way of life.
BJJ is a practice that involves a lot of self-reflection. The BJJ gym is a place where people with different lives and diverse beliefs come to interact in a safe and welcoming space. You’ll learn from them as much as they’ll learn from you, and you’ll learn to thrive together despite your differences.
In BJJ, players achieve victory through strategy and wit, yielding to an opponent’s force as necessary for an ultimate end goal. The patience they practice in the mats translates to patience with life’s troubles level-headedness when dealing with them. Life problems become puzzles to solve instead of insurmountable mountains of grief. They strategize to solve problems that arise and maximize efficiency to minimize the effort they expend. Most importantly, they learn to seize opportunities that come. These lessons serve well in life.
Self-confidence is the trust people have in their ability to succeed in their engagements in the world. Just as self-confidence directly influences successes, successes positively impact a person’s self-confidence.8
How does Brazilian Jiu Jitsu help improve self-confidence? Growth in BJJ is gradual yet continual. Nobody can learn techniques as a fluke. The skills can’t be bought or faked. Instead, the player puts themselves through a long and arduous journey to discover various skills and make them their own through training and practice. It’s a straightforward example of how they can achieve anything they put their minds to, and it prepares them to take on more of the challenges of the world.
The protective effects of strong social networks on mental health have been well-documented over the years.9 Through complex, multidisciplinary processes, having a good support system greatly increases resilience to stress. And, consequently, resilience to any stress and anxiety disorders that come as a result thereof. This is one of the ways BJJ can help manage stress and anxiety in people.
With each player getting up in each other’s personal space every training day, doesn’t it make sense that they all grow closer as a community as well? Just imagine—growing strong communities among people trying to beat each other up. From an outsider’s perspective, it may be a novel concept. It’s an intriguing contrast, but the fact remains that it is usually true. There is no divide when training BJJ. There are no religious and atheists, no genders, and no prejudice.
When you step on the mats, whoever you are outside the gym becomes irrelevant. You’ll find common ground with your fellow practitioner before you begin seeing differences. And seeing similarities rather than differences makes for stronger human connections.10
When people say that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu will literally change your life for the better, they’re not exaggerating. There are a wealth of benefits to be gained from the practice and philosophy of BJJ. The benefits to stress and anxiety management listed above are only the tip of the iceberg.
Now that you’ve read this article, you have a general idea of what you should expect in your Brazilian Jiu Jitsu journey. Hopefully, this piqued your interest enough to warrant signing up for beginner classes. If you’re thinking, “where do I find Jiu Jitsu near me?” then look no further. The Fight Center teaches the best Jiu Jitsu Brisbane has to offer (and, if you want to diversify, even Muay Thai, Boxing, and Kickboxing). Sign up for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu here and read this article to help you get ready for your free introductory class.