Martial arts and mental illness are an excellent therapeutic combination. The martial arts can help with mental illness symptoms by redirecting aggression, teaching confidence, and helping an individual set boundaries and sticking to them. Mental illness and martial arts are an interesting therapy.
Martial Arts Help People with Mental Illness Redirect Aggression
When I was in college, I witnessed an assault. I literally felt something snap inside me that night. I blamed myself for not being able to stop it, and decided to take not one, but two martial arts classes to make sure that never happened again. I signed up for a shotokan karate class and began studying yoseikan budo aikido in my spare time.
My aikido instructor was a psychologist who said “The philosophy of aikido is that you can’t control others if you can’t control yourself.” Aikido, I later learned, was considered a “soft” martial art: the goal was to redirect your opponent’s aggression, not to respond with equal force. The goal was not to counter-attack, but avoid. As a black belt once told me, “Avoid rather than block, block rather than strike, strike rather than maim, maim rather than kill because all life is precious and can never be replaced.”
As I learned more in my aikido class, the anger began to lessen. And when the anger lessened, so did the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. My mental illness symptoms improved as a result of the martial arts training. I learned to redirect not only an opponent’s aggression, but also my own. Eventually I told my sensei about the assault, and he encouraged me to find a therapist. The combination of martial arts and therapy helped me gain control of my anger.
You can’t redirect an opponent if you can’t redirect your own aggression.
Martial Arts Help People with Mental Illness Gain Confidence
People with mental illness often lack confidence. Martial arts are one of many ways to gain self-confidence. Martial arts teach assertiveness and the more you study, the more confident you become.
While sparring is an excellent way to know what you’re capable of should push come to shove, it’s not the main way to gain confidence. I found that I believed in myself more after I broke my first board.
It looks intimidating at first. You are, after all, using a part of your body to break a board about a quarter-inch thick. You’re afraid it’s going to hurt. You’re afraid it’s not going to break. You need to face these fears and overcome them–and facing and overcoming fears helps with symptoms of mental illness.
The first step is to acknowledge your fear. The second is to believe in yourself. The third step is to use your training and break the board. Once you do that for the first time, your confidence level increases tremendously. Using coping skills works much the same way. Once you know that your training works–whether it’s breaking a board with a reverse elbow strike or using meditation to redirect self-harm urges–you feel more confident and believe that since you’ve done it before, you can certainly do it again.
Remember, it’s easier than it looks.
Martial Arts Help People with Mental Illness Set Boundaries and Stick to Them
Recently I was participating in a martial arts workshop. The instructors talked to us about setting our boundaries and sticking to them. We were encouraged to speak up if we were uncomfortable, we were told we did not have to try anything that made us uncomfortable, and we learned how to say no and, if necessary, redirect an opponent’s predatory violence.
The ironic part of martial arts is that you are supposed to become so good at fighting that you avoid fights. The first step was to carry ourselves with confidence. The second was to make eye contact and use assertive body language. The third was to use an intense tone and yell “No!” Most people, with the exception of predators, will be redirected by these three steps. And using these skills helps you establish your boundaries and prevent them from being crossed.
Martial arts can be an excellent mental illness therapy. Martial arts can reduce our symptoms by helping us redirect our aggression, building confidence, and helping us set boundaries and stick to them.