‘It is a truth universally acknowledged…’, began Jane Austen, that we tend to focus on the bits we can see - we check our reflection in the mirror in the morning; we dust or hoover where it is most dirty (and leave the bits behind the sofa for later); and we take time and not inconsiderable effort to try to be fit and healthy by coming to class. What often neglect is the bit we cannot see - the bit inside our heads. This week is Children’s Mental Health Week so it seemed an appropriate subject for us all.
Now I do not profess to be any form of expert on mental health and I speak from a layperson’s and from a martial arts practitioner perspective, but what I can add is what works in my personal experience. Having held a number of highly stressful, sometimes chaotic & disempowering work roles and having had periods of my personal life where I have not felt in control, martial arts can have a huge impact and a positive benefit to mental health. The martial arts are a great way to improve or maintain your physical fitness, but they can also offer more esoteric benefits, eg: martial arts have a spiritual aspect.
It may strike people outside of the martial arts world as odd, but martial arts can actually help people to lead calmer lives. For example, in order to be good at martial arts, you must pay very close attention with to what your Instructor tells you and to what you are doing. This helps to foster concentration skills in people, especially the young, and can be especially helpful for people who struggle with attention or focusing (eg: ADHD type disorders). Also, because of the sometimes complex nature of martial arts training, it can help people perform better in tasks that divide their attention (Think ‘Block, Punch & Kick’!). Learning martial arts helps people learn to avoid fights as it can give people the skills to manage their adrenaline and control their fight or flight responses, something which can be an issue when people struggle to control their emotions.
In addition to improving attention skills, martial arts have a number of benefits that can foster good mental health. It’s well-known that people who suffer from depression can benefit from physical exercise and there’s no better physical exercise than the martial arts; exercise can release feel-good chemicals in the brain that lift mood. Other mood-boosting benefits of the martial arts are similar to those that come from completing a task or mastering a hobby. We also get a lot of people who come to us not to learn to be a ninja, but to try to improve confidence - improved confidence improves self-esteem which in turn can lead to improved mental health. It seems to be ‘a truth universally acknowledged’ that modern lives leave many people struggling with feelings of anger or anxiety - for these people, the martial arts can be a channel to redirect their energies. I speak from personal experience in saying that a couple of hours hitting a pad and focussing in on what I was being taught often helped me to cast off the black dog of a rubbish day at work and have some quality ‘me’ time.
Finally, I worked with a couple of public health professionals who spoke of the importance of the need for human beings to be able to have good control over various factors in their life and to be able to have high levels of self-determination - these factors can have a huge impact on mental wellbeing. What the martial arts can do is help people to feel empowered - learning martial arts can help people process their trauma and redirect feelings of powerlessness (it was a huge help when both of my parents passed away suddenly); learning a martial art can help someone who was previously victimised feel more in control; and martial arts also teach people to establish and defend healthy boundaries in their personal life (worry about what matters - what doesn’t matter shouldn’t worry you).
So where will your focus be moving forward?