One of the biggest milestones in my own mental health journey was beginning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Ten years ago I was struggling with depression and anxiety and found that joining this community had surprising benefits. Finding a gym I was excited to go every night changed my everyday experience. Jiu jitsu became a source of enjoyment, belonging, meaning and confidence. While it’s been a huge source of wellness for me, I’ve long been reluctant to recommend it to others because my experience seemed specific just to me. I figured other people would find “their thing” which might provide similar benefits. But after a decade in the sport I’ve started to notice specific factors that make Jiu Jitsu particularly suited for enhancing mental wellness.
Jiu Jitsu isn’t a small phenomenon. It’s a rough estimate but there are about 500,000 Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioners in the US. The international organization, IBJJF, has 670,000 likes on facebook at the time of this writing. It’s a martial art and a sport that looks like wrestling in pajamas. It's a game with simple rules: without striking your opponent, place them in a position where they are forced to “tap out” lest they be injured or rendered unconscious or otherwise unable to continue fighting. The most common strategy to win this game is to wrestle to a superior position then use your arms and legs to control your opponent while you place pressure on the arteries in their neck or hyperextend one of their major joints. You can do this again and again because it’s easy to tap out when it begins to hurt but long before you are injured.
It sounds insane! It sounds risky! I was curious about the actual level of risk so I looked up some data. My friend, Ethan Kreiswirth wrote a study on incidence of injury at the 2009 World Jiu Jitsu Championship. At this high level of competition, the rate of injury was 24.9 per 1000 Athlete-Exposures (A-Es). To compare, college football games have a rate of 35.9 injuries per 1000 A-Es, college wrestling matches a rate of 26.4 injuries per 1000 A-Es, and college soccer games a rate of 18.8 injuries per 1000 A-Es. So competing in Jiu Jitsu is about as risky as wrestling, which is more dangerous than soccer but less than football. And practice in all these sports is significantly less risky than actual competition.
Enough about the risks. I’m interested in talking about the benefits. There are five major domains where Jiu Jitsu has specific, significant benefits that contribute to mental wellness:
Immediate Somatic: Jiu jitsu looks a lot like the natural play of many animals. It’s an inherently enjoyable physical activity. This playful, engaging activity is an excellent source of exercise. Physical contact with others fulfills a human need. Touch sends a powerful message: “you’re okay to touch and I’m okay touching you.”
Immediate Psychological: People who train know they feel markedly different after training than they did before. Jiu jitsu as stress relief is similar to but distinct from the catharsis that can be had while training. If you’re holding on to anger or resentment, training jiu jitsu can be an excellent way to get those feelings out. Jiu jitsu is also a source of flow, a state of being where sense of self is lost and one's mental process becomes seamlessly identified with the activity. Flow is marked by the absence of boredom, anxiety, and self-doubt and the presence of an energized focus. Psychology research on flow states is ongoing but suggests that there is a relationship between time spent in flow states and an increase in positive feelings and behavior as well as a reduction in negative feelings and behavior.
Long Term Psychological: People who train experience increased confidence and assuredness. Because of their connection to the martial arts community they have an excellent resource to develop connectedness to others. The stress we experience when training exposes us to serious anxiety and learning to manage that helps us learn to cope with stress and anxiety outside of jiu jitsu as well. The practice of jiu jitsu is an excellent outlet for aggression – we should not seek to eliminate this drive, but to find appropriate boundaries and outlets for our aggression. Training also helps develop focus, as growing our skills in jiu jitsu demands that we hone our skills through concentrating on tasks at hand.
Community: Training is an excellent form of socialization. For people in recovery from substance abuse, a jiu jitsu gym can be a place where you’re accountable to show up sober every evening. The gym is a place to experience the positivity that comes from having shared goals with other people that you develop through a shared culture. But jiu jitsu is larger than just the gym you join, it allows you to connect to a global sport.
Long Term Skill: Training is an opportunity to learn from people who have mastery in a skill. The transparent process by which we see others gain mastery leaves us with a solid pedagogy, a methodology for teaching and refining a skillset. Part of that pedagogy is critical thinking, a skill we have to utilize and grow in jiu jitsu in order to test ourselves and test techniques in a fast-moving problem solving task. Many jiu jitsu schools accept fights from all comers because these tests force us to confront the reality of our skills, something jiu jitsu practitioners take great pride in. The fundamental hypothesis of martial arts is this: with training, a smaller, weaker person can defeat a larger, stronger person. One of the best parts about Jiu Jitsu is the bang for your buck you get in proving this hypothesis.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is more than just a fighting style. It is a source for play, catharsis, growth, connectedness, and learning. As part of my work in mental health, I look forward to continuing to be a voice in the larger conversation about the particular ways Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is suited to enhancing mental wellbeing.