Mental Health Meets the UFC and MMA
There was a time when I thought a person must be crazy to compete or even train in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). Today, I know that those people classified “crazy,” (or “living with mental illness” to be politically correct) can benefit both physically and mentally from the many benefits of the sport. So, how can you battle bipolar disease with MMA? What are the mental health benefits of mixed martial arts?
Before I met MMA and the UFC, I was intimately familiar with bipolar disorder. In 2007, I was diagnosed with a high-functioning form of the disease characterized with frequent and long-lasting hypomanic (lesser forms of mania) episodes and few periods of depression. It’s not as glamorous as it sounds. The time span from when I first went to a doctor to the day I was accurately diagnosed was about 7 years, and it took a couple more for me to get to a really good, what I call, “headspace.” You can learn more about mental illness and bipolar disorder HERE.
People often suffer for years before getting a proper diagnosis, but once the problem is discovered, a combination of psychotropic drugs, therapy, and healthy life-style results in extremely productive lives. Exercise is recommended as part of an on-going treatment plan, and the discipline and rigor of MMA training mirrors the building blocks of improving mental health.
MMA as Treatment
Not only you, but doctors and patients around the globe may question engagement in MMA for mental health treatment. In light of recent tragic events, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone blathering on about mental illness in the most prejudice and uneducated ways. What they don’t address are patients committed to a successful treatment plan who have achieved stability and/or recovery. You can rest assured that an MMA student, who just happens to have a mental illness, will not storm a college campus and attempt rear naked chokes on its students.
Chemical imbalances in the brain are at the root of psychiatric conditions and are ultimately responsible for the differences in the mind of someone with mental illness. So how can MMA help? Keeping an overactive and anxious mind engaged and learning can help curb plaguing thoughts of anxiety or distraction. The human chess match that is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) is so mentally stimulating it can slow or even tire an overly active or distracted mind, possibly reducing the need for anti-anxiety or ADHD medications.
Mental illness can lead to struggles with poor self-esteem post diagnosis, as a person acclimates to what is often an entirely new life. MMA offers a mix of challenging training techniques that provide immediate achievement and gratification in a world where those outcomes are delayed. Simple things such as making it through drills without passing out, adorning a pink gi, and securing your first arm-bar go a long way in increasing self-esteem. People with mental illness and decreased self-confidence may socially isolate themselves, and MMA training is an opportunity to join a social network (outside of Facebook) that relies on their presence. Feeling needed can be therapeutic.
The effective medications patients take are life-savers, but the side effects can be hellish. Weight gain, dry-mouth, dehydration, constipation, and fatigue are just a few. The intensity of MMA workouts help combat all of these problems by: burning hundreds of calories; demanding the consumption of inordinate amounts of fluids; keeping the digestive tract’s contents moving; and increasing strength, cardiovascular fitness, and energy. The dry-mouth and dehydration is distracting, but an understanding trainer will let a student/fighter drink as much fluids as needed.
The mat is also a great place to release feelings of irritability and anger in a safe and controlled environment. MMA offers the chance to let loose while at the same time learning how to check ourselves before we wreck ourselves (Yes, that was an Ice Cube reference!). The required self-discipline and respect for instructors and opponents is one of the most vital takeaways from class, serving as a behavior modification system a person can’t find in psychiatric sessions or group therapy. And let’s face it, bag work and striking practice are perfect exercises for anyone to release a little rage.
Me, Myself, & MMA
I married in 2008 and in 2009 was introduced to the increasingly popular and mythically feared athletic undertaking that is Mixed Martial Arts by my husband. Initially, I semi-willingly watched UFC fights at local bars with my husband and friends thinking,
“I don’t get it. This is a bunch of sweaty guys holding onto each other like Girl Scouts camping in a thunderstorm.”
This was before my MMA education, of course. In his younger years, my husband trained and competed locally in MMA tournaments, so in the spirit of being a good wife I took an active interest in learning more about its history and art. After a few months of casual instruction in the living room, some carpet burns later, and a YouTube video of Shinya Aoki performing a rear naked choke, I was sold on the magic that is MMA.
The idea of MMA drew me to a new way of working out and staying fit. I wanted to engage in something I feared with bravery and gumption. Before my bipolar diagnosis, I was an overachiever all of my life, courtesy of endless energy, little need for sleep, and a constant need to move and do. Once I was diagnosed and medicated, the Energizer bunny I once was turned into more of a wind-up Easter egg teetering back and forth. What a shot to my self-confidence!
I decided to pop in for a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) class and quickly learned that a person does not simply “pop in” for a BJJ class. After the warm up and instructional portions, I already wanted to throw up and die. As a former runner and weight lifter, I can say that neither sport has anything on what I experienced that day, except what awaits me in each subsequent class.
Despite my exhaustion and persistent thirst in that first class, I refused to pass up the first opportunity to spar with someone other than my husband. As I squatted down and bumped fists with a man at least 40 pounds heavier and 6 inches taller, I kept those initial living room, carpet covered sessions in the front of my mind. Not surprisingly, my technique was anything but strategic, and I received what I consider the first “beat down” of my life. Post class, bruises formed, my feet bled from mat burns, and I adopted my post-workout waddle. Sound familiar? I was elated!
By participating in Mixed Martial Arts, I benefit from everything discussed above (times ten), though there are a few specific changes that are especially meaningful (feel free to laugh):
Squashing My Fears: I’m an overly anxious and doubting person. However, each time I walk through those gym doors and beat that nagging sense of insecurity, I am a stronger person in all areas of my life.
Bragging Rights: I should be more humble, but I’m not. I relish the occasion to tell someone about my new passion. I’m not interested in competing, and I may or may not test for a belt someday. For now, I’m content with the respect and support from family, friends, colleagues, and the checkout guy at Target who told me I look like someone dropped me in a ditch on the side of the road (had a few bruises that day).
Confidence: Physical fitness and maintaining a healthy weight also led me to MMA. I’m 33 years old, and staying fit can be tough. Hello, Ladies! You can relate; certain places begin to sag; other areas no longer stand at attention. I quickly learned that a tiny frame can be a disadvantage in a male-dominated sport. My focus shifted to being strong, healthy, and flippant about the number on the scale. (My sincerest sympathies to any fighters trying to cut weight right now). I also used to want bigger boobs, but now I’m glad to be part of the Itty Bitty Titty Committee. I reassured my sparring partner once by stating,
“Don’t hesitate to go around here (hands demonstrating my chest area). There’s not a whole lot going on under this gi.”
In addition to the increased confidence in my appearance, MMA is the only endeavor I don’t mind being horrible at. I still feel accomplished and confident after every ass-kicking. I’m always a tad nervous going to class. That’s just the person I am. However, each time I walk through those doors and beat that nagging sense of insecurity, I am a stronger person in all areas of my life.
In the spirit of due diligence, I must say it is truly important for someone living with mental illness to consult their doctor before starting a new exercise program, especially one as demanding as MMA