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: i.hit.hard.mma@gmail.com

A Little About the Author

I’ve had a few blogs in the past (read: random fashion and lifestyle blogging whilst I was completing my studies), but nothing quite like I Hit Hard. Although I’d like this to be a space where many women can share their stories, I guess it would be a good idea to start with my own.

I skimmed the surface of my own journey in the I Hit Hard About page, but really, that’s just to give you an indication of why this website, and your experiences, are so important to me and to each other, within the fight community. I’d like to continue to use this space to leave a trail of notes about my ongoing journey, because I think that there are incredible commonalities between women, and their experiences, in the martial arts world, and I would feel humbled if even one other women would find mine useful or informative for their own path.

Although I’ve moved in and out of martial arts since I was around 8, I think that journey was not my own until I decided to look for a martial arts gym myself in September of 2016. At the time, I hadn’t stepped into a dojo or martial arts gym since I was 16.

For context – at 16, my dad had enrolled me in Jiu Jitsu classes whilst we were living on the Isle of Wight. I knew a little Japanese, and was looking forward to starting a Japanese martial art where I’d be able to practice the language along the way. I felt shy stepping into the dojo, everything felt unfamiliar, and there was no one else there my age.

In fact, I was the only girl there besides a very elderly woman who, credit to her, came regularly to train in spite of her limited mobility. We were more often than not partnered together, and this was a relief – the men in the class scared me. They stared at me in a way that I recognised as predatory. There was one man in particular who would often try to partner with me; he would sweat terribly and stare at my chest the entire lesson, never looking me in the face. It terrified me and I cried at home before every class. I was too embarrassed to tell my parents why I hated attending Jiu Jitsu so much. I felt conflicted, as a part of me simultaneously enjoyed what we covered in class – I loved the striking drills, and learning to use nunchakus was both a novelty and a challenge for 16 year old me.

I quit Jiu Jitsu. It wasn’t the art that was wrong for me, but the dojo. I’ve overcome a lot of different hurdles since then. I’ve struggled with generalised anxiety and depression for several years, as well as debilitating body and self-esteem issues. It has only been in the past 2 years or so that, through my own love and the love of those around me, I have nurtured a confidence and belief in myself that I’ve never had before.

It was at that time that I met my boyfriend, Taimour. Seeing his passion for Muay Thai, which he had been practicing for 6 years, made me want to rejoin a martial arts dojo again. Jiu jitsu, at this point, was no longer my primary interest. Having read the works and biography of Bruce Lee, I was on the look out for something akin to Jeet Kune Do. I wanted to think about functionality, conditioning and power.

My dad and I sat down in September 2016 and decided to find the ideal dojo for me by finding a Sensei who is a part of Bruce Lee’s legacy. My dad insisted that this is often the best way to find good trainers, particularly for JKD. There are several martial artists who operate in the UK and carry his legacy, having been trained by students of Bruce Lee, or their students.

A few places stuck out at the time, one being Bob Breen’s Academy. Master Bob Breen is a legend, having been trained by Dan Inasanto who was a key proponent of the Kali system, and one of Bruce Lee’s most successful students.

Another, was Bushin. Bushin’s head coach, Sensei Cailey Barker had been trained under Bob Breen himself and has black belts in a variety of different martial arts including JKD, Shorinji Kempo and Wing Chun. Other than Sensei’s lineage, there was something else that attracted me to Bushin straight away: the woman fighter in the promo video. I was completely awe struck by her – facing off three men in a dark alley with ease, disarming one of them who had a knife, ground and pounding another until he passed out. I saw a role model in her, and thought to myself ‘I want to be able to do that, to get as good as her’.

It’s easy to underestimate how important having a woman role model is, especially in a community where women continue to be marginalised, seeing a woman black belt do her thing is inspiring for newcomers like me.

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She, Fiona, was the first person I saw at my free trial session at Bushin, stretching to an unimaginable degree, whilst casually chowing down on a banana. She was brilliant and alongside the excellent calibre of teaching there, as well as the close-knit community feel to the class, I was hooked. I’ve never looked back since. Bushin has given me everything I craved from martial arts and more, and continues to challenge me to this day.

I have also recently joined London Fight Factory to pursue Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and have been training there since August 2017. My boyfriend has been training at LFF since January 2017 and after visiting the gym to watch him compete, it wasn’t long before I was regularly attending Gi and No-Gi sessions. The community there is incredible – everybody supports one another and you feel uplifted by the camaraderie that founder and head coach Luis Ribeiro “Manxinha” has built into the foundations of the club. BJJ in recent years has attracted many women to join the sport and there is a good number of regular women fighters at LFF. I’ve also fallen in love with BJJ as a martial art: I love being able to use my whole body to engage with my opponent and the mindfulness involved in the practice of feeling and using your body from head-to-toe.

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Having taken ownership of my own martial arts journey, I’ve found a community where women fighters are valued and encouraged, which has given me the confidence to put my whole self into the arts I practice – in Bushin and now in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu too. Being in dojos that respect women and put that respect into practice is unfortunately rare, but I’ve been lucky enough to find two such places, both with communities of people who have become like second families to me.

I don’t want to romanticise my journey, there are sometimes instances of sexism that I encounter, but it is my understanding that this will happen where there are men – and martial arts gyms are full of them. What matters is how the gym deals with these situations, and most importantly that I know I hit hard regardless of what men think.

 

 

Hard Hitters, Rollers, and Wrestlers Unite!

I can’t tell you how nerve-wrackingly exciting it is to put finger-to-keyboard and write my first post for I Hit Hard. I Hit Hard has been a few months in the making now, but I’ve admittedly shied away from writing any content on the website up till this point.

It makes sense to take this as an opportunity to give some context to the concept of I Hit Hard beyond the mission statement on the About page.

‘I Hit Hard’ as a statement has a breadth of history behind it. The point of using the statement ‘I Hit Hard’ is that it embodies not just my history, but the experiences, emotions, and journeys of hundreds of thousands of women martial artists who have been fighting for recognition and respect within the martial arts community. ‘I Hit Hard’ is pride in knowing that we have worked hard to fight hard – we are capable, powerful, strong and enough in our own rights.

Women are hard fighters, and our fights are hard-won – we have had to spend countless hours claiming space for ourselves; shifting mountains to prove that we deserve the space, time and respect that is automatically offered to men.

It’s hard to shift people, let alone narratives about people, but I am adamant that laying claim to our narratives – women’s narratives – within the fighting world, is a giant step in the right direction and a necessary continuation of the fierce assertions made by women martial artists:

We are here, we are fierce, we hit hard, we roll hard, we fight hard and we will not be silenced or ignored.

And that’s where I Hit Hard comes in. I hope it to be a platform where women martial artists can be the writers and producers of content relating to martial arts, whether that be fight analysis on the latest UFC women’s fight, or an interview with a BJJ woman black belt – I Hit Hard is by women, about women, for anyone who wants to understand our stories.