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Can Martial Arts Help With Depression? (Why I’ll Never Quit MMA)

As someone who has dealt with depression in the past, it can be difficult to find something you are passionate about. However, if you are interested in martial arts, there are many reasons you should start training, including the mental and health benefits. In this post, I will address how martial arts helped me with depression and will be answering the question: Can martial arts help with my depression?

In short, yes, martial arts training can help deal with depression. A martial arts gym brings together like-minded people who help each other train and grow together. Interacting with people and physical activity are both great ways to combat depression, and you will find both of these at any good martial arts gym.

Of course, depression is a difficult subject to talk about definitively, as there are many factors involved with it. In the rest of the post, I will outline why martial arts training is effective in combatting depression, as well as who can benefit the most from it.

Why It Works

First of all, I must make it clear that this article should NOT be taken as medical advice. If you have Major Depressive Disorder or other mental illnesses, please seek attention from a trained professional.

Depression is usually attributed to a combination of differences in biology and chemical imbalances. But there are several risk factors that can increase the chances of someone developing depression. The reason martial arts is effective in helping with depression is because it works on treating the risk factors that can lead to depression.

Some risk factors include grief from a loss, personal problems, substance abuse, and social conflict (according to the Mayo Clinic). These are all risk factors that are manageable through martial arts training. Aside from helping with the factors just mentioned, there are added benefits to martial arts, the two main ones being exercise, and building connections with fellow gym members.

Two boxers have a friendly sparring session.
Martial Arts is usually practiced in pairs, and it is easy to form friendships with your partners.

Martial arts training creates the perfect blend of human interaction and physical activity, two things that can tremendously help with depression. In the next two paragraphs, I will go into detail on how exercise and friendly interactions can help battle depression.

Making Connections in Martial Arts

As mentioned before, a big part of any martial art will consist of you drilling techniques with one other person. It is easier to build friendships with people in a martial arts setting, as you are already doing something together which you both enjoy.

Now sure, building friendships is great, but will it help with depression? In short, yes. Many people who train in martial arts are kind, good-spirited, and are all around good people. The mood of the people you surround yourself with is important, especially for those with depression.

A study published in 2015 found that positive moods can spread between groups of friends. According to the study, the probability of overcoming depression can be doubled when surrounded with friends who have a healthy mood.

The best part is that depression is not spread in the way a healthy mood is, so you don’t have to worry about becoming the person who brings people down. There is evidence to suggest that friendships, in general, will help with depression. If you have a genuine interest in martial arts, then joining a gym will help to fuel that interest. The friends you make in the gym are what will make the difference.

Camaraderie between jiu jitsu practitioners at a gym.
Jiu-jitsu brings its practitioners together in a way other martial arts can’t.

If this is what you seek from your training, then I would recommend training in jiu-jitsu. Jiu-jitsu is great for making friends as it is practiced very closely to other people, almost forcing you to get to know them. In addition, it is one of the most effective martial arts, something which can help boost self-esteem and confidence, as you improve your self-defense abilities.

How Exercise Helps Battle Depression

Making friends is not the only benefit of training in martial arts. Any martial art you train in will also make you work physically. No matter what martial art it is, practicing techniques for an extended period of time will result in adequate exercise. And exercise is a very effective way of battling depression.

This is according to Harvard Medical School, which published an article explaining how exercise can be used as a natural treatment for depression. According to Dr. Michael Craig Miller, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, “It works as well as antidepressants”. The reason exercise is effective in treating depression is because it results in the release of endorphins, chemicals that create a ‘feel-good’ sensation.

I understand that it is difficult to start exercising when suffering from depression, as I have been there myself. The most important thing is to start somewhere. Any good martial arts gym will encourage its members in their pursuits, even if they aren’t able to do much. A good trainer will let you go at your own pace, as well as motivate you to keep going.

An effective strategy in starting to train in martial arts is to fan the flames of interest. Let your curiosity lead you to a gym, and use it to motivate yourself to learn new techniques. Exercise will be a byproduct of your increasing interest in martial arts. Join a gym for a class and see how it goes. If the class is too much, try something lighter on your own, or train at home.

UFC 13 Champion Guy Mezger, who now runs a gym in Addison, Texas.
UFC 13 Champion Guy Mezger, who now runs a gym in Addison, Texas.

As my coach Guy Mezger says, train every day you can. Even if you don’t feel great, always make the effort. Guy has said, “I have never come to training and regretted it, but I have regretted not coming to training”. I believe this is something most martial artists can relate to, and it is something to remember on days when it gets tough.

Really any martial art will consist of some form of exercise, but boxing and kickboxing are especially good in my opinion. A few rounds of jumping rope combined with the stress-relief of hitting the heavy bag can get you through anything. But the most important thing is that it’s enjoyable.

As Dr. Miller says, “The key is to make it something you like and something that you’ll want to keep doing.” This idea of finding an activity that you will want to continue leads me to the next section, which is about goal setting.

Why Setting Goals Helps

A common feeling involved with depression is a lack of purpose. Specifically, it seems that when we wake up in the morning, we are unsure of what it is for. This is why you should occupy yourself with activities in which you can progress and become better at, like martial arts. But most importantly, you should set goals around those activities.

Setting goals is a simple way of creating purpose for yourself, which is also effective in furthering your interest in martial arts. While working towards a goal, you are actively occupying yourself with learning the martial art. As Guy Mezger says, training is too hard for you to do it without purpose. Your training should be deliberate, and you should know what the next step is in your journey.

Goals can consist of physical attributes, such as being able to lift more weight or run longer. They can also be knowledge-based, like learning how to land a certain kick or technique. I’d recommend building a relationship with one of the trainers at your gym, as they can help guide you towards your next goal.

Martial arts is a great way to deal with depression, especially if you have recently gained interest in martial arts. Find the martial art that most interests you, and then find a good gym that trains in that martial art.

Try out different gyms and find the one that is most comfortable for you. Look around on the Training Tips page for answers to questions you might have about martial arts training. Thanks for reading!