Fighting Through Mental Illness: how martial arts helped with depression and anxiety

When I strike, a calmness washes over me. The full body focus I experience enables me to fully immerse myself in the present. Nothing compares to the sensation of being in-tune with my physical self, my surroundings and the power my body is capable of exerting, all at once. It lights a fire in me that stabilises my senses and grounds my emotions. As I fight my energy often wanes, but the ecstasy of being in the moment pushes me further. Not over an edge, but into a post-tired state, where I discover I can go physically and mentally further than I’d ever imagined. Fighting has allowed me to trace and learn my physical and mental boundaries, and appreciate how far I can take myself.

In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, rolling has shown me a new kind of intimacy and mindfulness of the self and of the person I am rolling with. I am guided through a mental landscape that requires my thought processes to travel to the tips of my toes and fingers. I grip, dive, enfold and, often, stumble. I have found the collision and melting of bodies into one another as I roll meditative. I love the shapes I can form with my partner, and discovering that I can attain consciousness at multiple physical touch points. On the mats, I feel like I’m suspended in the ocean, which can sometimes be overwhelming, but I’ve learnt to let that feeling pass through me. I’ve learnt that it’s okay to feel like you’re drowning. Rolling has taught me to let go of anxious states of mind, and to know that they don’t last forever unless I cling to them. Letting go, mentally and physically, has been transformative.

It feels amazing to fight, to learn about myself in ways I didn’t know were possible, to love what I can do and be excited by my own potential. Through martial arts, I’ve found myself thinking: Yeah, I did that – and I am capable of so much more.

Many women live with mental illnesses, and I am one of them. I feel vulnerable talking about my mental health so publicly, but in the spirit of International Women’s Day, I want to share my experiences with depression and anxiety to show that what makes us vulnerable can also lead us to find great strength and grounded-ness. I firmly believe that had I not spent so many difficult years battling with depression and anxiety, I would not be the person I am today, and I would not have the motivation nor the tenacity that I carry with me to train hard in the martial arts I practice. I also see martial arts as being a pivotal part of my mental health journey, having been a means through which I have freed myself from many of the toxic narratives that had kept me in a depressive and anxious state for so long.

I remember reading a Guardian article a year or so ago that described having depression as akin to looking through thick ice. It resonated with my experience of living with depression so well: peering out at the world through thick, opaque ice that made everything on the outside appear distant, foggy and blurred. When you’re depressed, the way you view what is around you changes, as well as your sense of self and your perception of your place in the world.

I think I had been depressed for several years before I was able to truly see myself as having depression. I first accepted that I was depressed when I found commonality with some of the close women friends I had made at university who were experiencing similar mental health struggles to my own. At that time, the labels ‘depression’ and ‘depressed’ were unfamiliar and bitter in my mouth. But, like the heaviness in my lungs and stomach that I carried with me day-in and day-out, I absorbed these words and tried to make sense of them.

In my late teens and early twenties, I couldn’t get out of bed. My body and mind felt harnessed to my mattress, and I had no will or desire to move until 2pm or so in the afternoon. This wasn’t helped by my inability to sleep. I would hyperventilate in my room, anxious, afraid and desperately lonely. I was scared about what was happening to me, where every day became a struggle to the point where I thought I was going insane. When you’re in the thick of it like I was, it’s so hard to pin-point what is happening to you and why. There is a lot to uncover when you experience mental illness: where did it come from? Why am I experiencing these things? What does it all mean?

I knew that what I was experiencing was related to the toxic and volatile relationship I had with my body. I despised my physical self, having absorbed from a very young age that my body, in all its fatness and largeness – was monstrous, grotesque and unacceptable. There was a voice in the back of my mind narrating this hatred of myself every waking second of the day, thoughts like: ‘don’t walk that way, you’re disgusting stomach will show’, ‘you can’t sit like that because it will make you look horrific’, ‘you would never be able to wear anything like that because your body is too ugly’. It was a lot to deal with, mentally, and looking back I have no idea how I dealt with it.

A sketch I drew in 2015 depicting my conflict over ‘self love’

It was only after university that I begun to look to exercise as a serious outlet to support myself. Before starting martial arts, I found that my initial venture into exercise and fitness only reinforced my toxic relationship with my body – do it to the point of exhaustion, or punish and reprimand yourself. Eventually, my curiosity lead me to begin lifting weights in my local gym. Weight lifting was the first form of exercise that had a positive effect on me because it highlighted an attribute of myself that I’d always been proud of – my strength.

Martial arts went several steps further than that, and it has taught me many things over the years. Most importantly, it has shown me that:

  • I can be dynamic and open with my body. Since I can first remember I have been taught to compartmentalise my body and contort it into acceptable shapes and sizes that were palatable to others. This, many women are socialised to do, and it became central to how I existed as I grew older where the apparent unsightliness of my large body continued to be emphasised by others. Moving in combat slowly bore away at these narratives in my mind, as it enabled me to move my body in ways I had been afraid to in the past. It no longer mattered that I jiggled when I pivoted my hips, my mind was too focused on perfecting my jab. I didn’t care anymore that my stomach rolled with me when I narrowed my body into a fighting stance, I just wanted to optimise my basic position work.And I felt good about it, knowing that moving in such a way was turning me into a better fighter. In turn, I began to appreciate what my body could do for me. I inadvertently was retraining my mind to think about myself positively – something I had no will or means to do previously.
  • I can love myself, fully. ’Ananya, you have to find a way to love yourself and be kind to yourself,’ said my counsellor for the hundredth time. I was infuriated and confused by the ease with which she expected me to achieve this, because when I thought about myself it was so far away from being full of love and kindness. I felt repulsed by myself. How could I turn that around? Martial arts have taught me that attaining love for oneself is not something someone can force to happen – it is a process. For me, it had to come through something else, as willing myself there by mindful thinking alone was clearly not working. That something else, a vehicle through which I could love myself, has been fighting. It’s hard to write down exactly where and when I began to love myself, or exactly what part of my martial arts journey was the spark that ignited that ability in me, but all I know is that I do love myself now. From my experience, I think a huge component has been the self-forgiveness I have learnt through martial arts. It’s okay to make mistakes and be imperfect, what’s important is what you learn through your mistakes and forgive yourself for making them.
  • I can unapologetically occupy space. My relationship with martial arts has always been about the occupation of space: as a woman in male-dominated clubs and as someone who struggles with body image and self-esteem. Crucial to my mental health journey, training in martial arts has taught me to own the space my body occupies. Having grown up obsessing over needing to contort, starve and beat myself into being smaller and slimmer, valuing my body for how it is naturally has been indispensable to my mental well-being. I feel proud of my height, weight and shape, and the fact that I take up space. I no longer feel that my body is a hinderance to who I want to be, or dissimilar to who I am on the inside. Fighting has created an equilibrium where my mind and body work in unison in order to be optimised in training. This has translated into how I view and hold myself in general, no longer apologising for my physical self and the weight that I carry.

I feel moved by the growing number of people who are vocal about their relationship with mental health and martial arts. Campaigns like Mindmats and Submit The Stigma, as well as podcasts like Fight Like a Girl have been raising awareness about mental health by platforming stories of fighters affected by mental illness and how martial arts has benefited them mentally.

I wanted to share my mental health story on International Women’s Day because mental illness effects so many women around us. And those women who struggle, but still manage to train and fight, deserve to be celebrated and heard. I am one of many who have found martial arts and combat sport to be places where I can mentally grow and heal. Fighting has paved a way for me to turn my vulnerabilities into becoming my strengths: I have finally reclaimed my body from my anxiety and depression, and that is something I try to acknowledge every day.

If you have a story to tell about your mental health and martial arts journey, I Hit Hard wants to hear from you! We are looking to publish stories each month from women fighters on mental health. If you would like to submit a piece, get in touch by emailing:

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I Hit Hard

I Hit Hard is a high-quality platform that demands that women martial artists be heard, where our stories, experiences and battles are told and shared with dignity, justice and love.

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