Why BJJ Is The Best Martial Art For Combating Mental Illness

BJJ zac

I grew up with a fairly intense past. My father was user, paranoid schizophrenic, drug dealer and chronic hoarder.

Whilst Dad never harmed me physically, the clientele that he invited over to his house were a different story. I have talked in-depth about my experiences with mental illness including depression and anxiety as well as my recovery process, but suffice to say I had some significantly unpleasant experiences. I ended up moving out of home at fifteen, being left to deal with a plethora of mental health afflictions.

I was also struggling with a significant amount of pent up rage. With no guidance of how to deal with it, I turned to punching a bag for relief. Luckily for me it started to work, and I fell in love with martial arts. I tried everything from karate to kung fu, but ended up training extensively in Muay Thai and Krav Maga for seven years. Whilst I enjoyed the sparing and technique, I felt something was missing.

When a friend showed me some of his ‘ground game’ I instantly became hooked. At the time, I was fairly competent at stand up, and like most strikers I believed that any street fight wouldn’t get to the ground. I would stop it beforehand of course. I was quickly re-educated after a progression of takedowns followed by utter domination on the ground.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) was the martial art that I had been searching for. It has everything. It is endlessly challenging, involves constant learning and has a great social environment. One of the major draw cards of BJJ is the regular pressure testing. At the end of each lesson, we ‘roll’. This involves attempting to control and submit our training partners who are attempting to avoid submission and whilst controlling you at the same time. Think something akin to full body ‘mercy’.

The best part about BJJ is simply that it works. I have shared my thoughts on self-defense before, covering: martial art training, deescalation, avoidance, conflict and post conflict survival, but the summary is this – if you can avoid a fight, do so. Most of the fights you hear about are avoidable, and should never have occurred. Stay away from dangerous areas and if you get accosted or threatened, just swallow your ego, apologise and quickly leave the area.

Really, unless you are grabbed, running is the best option. If somebody shapes up for a fight and doesn’t have their hands on you, run. If you have been grabbed, that’s where BJJ comes in. Throws, sweeps, pins and escapes are great at getting in control and enough of an advantage to escape. We train daily to deal with an a strong person, intent on holding us down. We are used to the physical contact, and best of all we know it works – because we have implemented these techniques repeatedly against resisting opponents.

So why is BJJ the best for mental health?

In my opnion, BJJ has the best social environment. The guys and girls that stick with it are usually quite humble and more than willing to share their knowledge. Whilst this is true for other martial arts, in my opinion BJJ practitioners are the most helpful.

I put this down to the sheer volume of techniques and principles that need to be learnt. Everyone that practices BJJ recognise that we are all climbing up the same mountain and that mountain is quite literally insurmountable. The general philosophy is that if I help my partner to improve, if I teach him how to beat me, then I must step up my game and continue to learn as well.

This is true for all martial arts in the sense that there is always ways to refine and perfect technique, but ultimately there is a finite limit to the number of techniques that those martial arts allow for. The rule set of striking arts like Boxing, Taekwondo and Muay Thai limit the practitioner – there are only so many ways that you can punch, kick, elbow or knee and unlike other grappling arts, BJJ not only starts standing (like Judo and Wrestling) but also continues on the ground until a submission is completed. New submissions, sweeps and controls are being discovered all the time, and as such BJJ practitioners need to constantly evolve with the art, lest they be left behind.

This constant evolution is great for mental health – because there is not end to the learning, BJJ provides a constant option as a point of focus. When I am suffering from a mental affliction, focusing on learning BJJ takes me out of my head and into the present moment. When I roll, I need to be completely in the moment or I will lose. I’ll get taken to the ground, controlled and submitted.

Practicing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu forces me to be focused on the present moment. There is no space left for anxiety or depression. On top of this comes the physiological benefits. All exercise causes our body to release endorphins that make you feel good. After a training session, the world somehow seems brighter. I have a clarity of perception that makes everything seem a bit more crisp. It is like the world has come into focus. I get these feelings from lifting weights or running, but to a much lesser extent.

The full body plyometric nature of BJJ is exhausting at first, but fitness and muscle tone improve dramatically. These benefits can’t be understated, as the practitioner begins to feel their body improving along with their skill level, a lot of self-worth can be gained. Since starting BJJ my confidence levels have improved because I can see a progression in both my technique, strength and fitness.

Really it is the combination of physicality, mental challenge, social environment and forced present state focus that all come together that adds the real benefits for mental health. A lot of psychology theory suggests that in order to impact one area, you change another in the hopes of a carryover effect.

Because BJJ provides benefits to the person physically, socially and mentally, it is causing a shift in multiple areas of the person’s life simultaneously. Thus resulting, in my experience at least, in a massive shift away from mental affliction.

I have been training BJJ for over three years, and recently received my blue belt from John Donehue. Currently I am training three to four nights per week and spend some time each day researching and learning from books and online sources. If you are considering starting, please do so today. You will see tremendous benefits.

Zachary Phillips