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BJJ – The Best Antidepressant I’ve Ever Taken

I’m 49 years old as of the writing of this post. I generally recognize that I’ve been struggling with depression from about age 13, so that works out to about 36 years of experience with this lovely condition. While it is certainly unique to each person that struggles with it, there are medically accepted symptoms typically associated with it as a quick search on WebMD will show:

  • Trouble concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
  • Fatigue
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and helplessness
  • Pessimism and hopelessness
  • Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or sleeping too much
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Loss of interest in things once pleasurable, including sex
  • Overeating, or appetite loss
  • Aches, pains, headaches, or cramps that won’t go away
  • Digestive problems that don’t get better, even with treatment
  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts

I’ve experienced almost every one of these symptoms at one time or another for many of those 36 years. Even though it started around age 13 as I mentioned, it wasn’t until I was in my mid 20’s that I sought help in the form of counseling and therapy. Much of that delay was caused by simply not being aware of what the condition even was (no Internet back then if you can imagine!) and some of it was due to being raised by a father who believed seeking out help for such things demonstrated weakness and therapy was a fraud. That’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of my family history but I won’t be discussing much of that here….you’re welcome!

Once I did find my way to therapy, I was quickly introduced to using medication as a way to “manage” my depression. Over the years I’ve been prescribed and taken just about every kind of antidepressant you can imagine and while some of them kinda-sorta helped with stabilizing my mood, the side effects and general fogginess that I experienced on them didn’t really seem to make them worth it. I’m not implying that antidepressant meds aren’t effective! This is my experience and I am not a medical professional. I believe very strongly that these types of drugs have provided wonderful and even miraculous help to many people.

For me, however, nothing has had the kind of impactful help on my mood and happiness like exercise. Every therapist I’ve had (I’ve had many) has recommended it and over the years I’ve been great/good/bad/horrible at taking that advice. Lifting weights, boxing type workouts, swimming, basketball and other activities that I’ve dabbled with over my lifetime but I never really stuck w/ any of them. It wasn’t until a particular day on my couch at age 44 that I made a decision that changed my life and is the reason I am writing these words now. I decided to start training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Sitting on that couch I hadn’t moved in some time and recall just feeling like shit. My body ached from lack of exercise, a bad diet and improper sleep and mentally I was not sharp at all. I was kind of half-paying attention to everything going on around me. Out of nowhere I think I felt like I could see myself from the upper corner of the room – kind of like an out-of-body thing but that sounds goofy so let’s just call it a vision. I hated what I saw and realized something needed to change or I was going to die a lot sooner than I should and probably for reasons I had the power to change. So the decision was made – I wanted to learn Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Why did I choose BJJ?

“The Ultimate Fighter” was a show I enjoyed watching at the time. Years earlier I was flipping channels and landed on a UFC fight between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar. I didn’t know what the UFC was when I saw this fight but had been a big boxing fan since I was a kid. I grew up watching legends like Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns and later on Mike Tyson. This fight however, this wasn’t boxing. It was different and I loved it. If you ever want to know why Griffin/Bonnar is generally considered “most important fight in UFC history” you should really check it out. It got me to reading about the UFC. When you start learning about the UFC and its history, you learn about how it all started with a complete badass named Royce Gracie. I won’t go into the history of the Gracie family here, but suffice it to say that the Gracie family pretty much IS Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Royce Gracie was 185 lbs soaking wet and wound up demolishing guys that were significantly bigger and stronger than he was. It was because of his BJJ that he was able to win.

Learning about the Gracie history and BJJ and seeing what it represented fascinated me so I started looking for an academy where I could train. Very fortunately for me, I found URSA Academy near me and after doing my due diligence on them and other places to train around my area In May of 2012 I began my Jiu-Jitsu journey over the next several weeks and months I started getting myself into better and better shape and felt like I was taking ownership over my body again. After about 7 months I had lost almost 40 lbs without making any significant changes to my diet. More importantly, I started feeling better mentally and realized I was clear headed and highly motivated to continue.

About that time, the academy was looking to begin training new coaches. I inquired about the program and said that even though I was a white belt, I was interested in learning how to coach and wanted to join the program if they would have me. To my surprise they said yes and I started a very deliberate and structured training program to get certified as a coach in their academy.

I initially shadowed my Professor while he instructed and would serve as his “Uke”, or assistant. The most beneficial thing about this situation for me was that it made it almost impossible for me to say “I don’t feel like training tonight”.

I had made a commitment and if it were possible for me to be there, I needed to be there. I was very motivated, but I still consider my decision to coach as the single biggest contributing factor to my consistency of training and involvement with BJJ. If you train now or ever decide to train, I highly recommend looking into the possibility of coaching.

Fast forward to almost 6 years later and I am still training, still coaching and am feeling better mentally than I maybe have my entire life. There have been a few very brief periods of depression over this time, but they occured when I was sick or when I injured my knee and couldn’t train for a while. However, even when I was low I knew that when I was back on the mats, I would climb out of the fog and be good to go.

BJJ is a tremendous martial art and it will work you out like nothing you’ve ever done. I guarantee you that. Think of it this way….imagine you’re lifting weights and you’re bench pressing 180lbs. Now imagine that 180lbs trying to attack you with a choke or joint lock submission for 2, 3, 6 or (sometimes) 10 minutes. That’s how long a typical “roll” is in BJJ. That being said, I’ve had classes where we’ve rolled for almost an hour straight.

While this is certainly physically demanding, it also occupies a tremendous amount of mental energy as well. BJJ is often referred to as “human chess” because of the skill required to recognize position and react accordingly.

There may be more techniques than could be learned in a lifetime. On top of that, it’s impossible to be concerned about the normal worries of life (bills, chores, school, family issues…whatever) when someone is actively trying to choke you! So when you’re training, it’s like a little vacation from your normal way of thinking.

It is that combination of physical and mental conditioning that I am certain has contributed so strongly to my improved mental outlook since I started training.

I haven’t required meds since the day I began and don’t think I ever will again as long as I am able to train. BJJ has provided me confidence, a healthier body, a healthier mind, better relationships with my friends and family and skills that I use off the mats every day that I never would have guessed would ever happen.

If you or someone you know struggles with depression I simply cannot recommend training BJJ strongly enough. If it’s not your thing try to find another martial art or sport activity and push yourself through that wall. You will very much enjoy the person you find on the other side!

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