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

Fighter Interview: Bushin’s Fiona Lee

Fiona Lee is a black belt in Bushin and Shorinji Kempo. By day, Fiona works as an auditor at an investment bank, assessing its internal controls and risk management practices. By night, Fiona is a fierce fighter and assistant instructor at Bushin.

 

What made you get into martial arts?

Well, I started martial arts in my first year at university. The short answer is (laughs) – I did it because at university we were told that in order to get a job, you need to make your CV look better. So not just studying, not just working, you have to have something else. So I thought, ‘okay great, what can I do that is something different that will make me stand out compared to everybody else?’. I went through the university sports schedule and found that they offered martial arts classes. My brothers did martial arts at the time, so I decided that I’d also try it out!

At university, I picked the first martial art that was early enough in the day, and that happened to be Shorinji Kempo (laughs), which is where I met Cailey. It (the Shorinji Kempo class) was at 6pm, I remember. My last lecture ended at around 5pm, so my logic was that the one after Shorinji Kempo, which was Aikido, started at 8pm and I didn’t want to have to be in the library for around 3 hours after my lecture! Shorinji Kempo left me one hour to study between my lecture and the class.

I do remember that my first class was so intensive – but I did like it, or else I wouldn’t have carried on – that the next day I wasn’t able to walk. It was that intensive that I had to walk up and down stairs backwards! But I still enjoyed it, so it must have been a good sign.

So what made you stick it out? When I was at uni I started an Aikido class, but never continued with it as I found it too intensive at the time – my legs could not stretch that way!

I stuck with it because I actually enjoyed being with the people because none of the club members were students and that was a fresh perspective. Having been around students pretty much all day, I didn’t want to be stuck with them. I got to talk to people who had seen a bit more of life and were older than me, and I could just talk to them normally.

It was also an escape from studying. I was beating myself up through studying, saying things like ‘you’re never going to be good enough to get a job,’ etc. It became the only world that I had where I had a bit more control and I knew what I was good at or what I was okay at – and that I could see myself getting better in it. It was quite ego boosting for me.

That’s nice though! A lot of martial artists I’ve spoken to have said that part of why they continue to practice martial arts is that it has helped them with their anxiety, or making them feel more self confident, for example.

I had a lot of anger, and I needed to get that out – so it was my outlet for that as well. With all the frustrations of life, I could take it out in a safe environment and through an acceptable outlet. And I was learning something too, and I felt good that I was good at something. It made me believe that I could do Kempo well, and so I started to really view it as my niche.

I also found out very quickly in Kempo that I was very different to everyone else; a lot of techniques didn’t work on me because I have a low centre of gravity and am a bit more flexible than other people. I was also the only girl in the club for a long time and the only white belt in a group of black belts and brown belts. Accepting that difference, I kind of just got on with it, and thought to myself, well nobody is going to judge me for being wrong because I’m still new and I have a reason to be a little bit crappy?! And that drove me to be better and try and do it over and over again, and try and prove myself a lot more.

If you’re new to something and not sure what it entails, seeing someone who you think relates to you more, is important tweet this

So there were no other white belts besides you?!

Nope, it was just me for a good nine months, until after my first grading in the summer. So I started in January and six months later I did my first grading and then one by one more girls turned up, and people from different clubs started to join in the summer. It felt good at the time, like a different world. Somewhere where I felt comfortable and happy; an escape.

Do you think that it helps to have another woman who is more established in the club in order to encourage more women to join?

I think so. If you’re new to something and not sure what it entails, seeing someone who you think relates to you more is important. And seeing that if something doesn’t work, being able to think ‘if she can do it, then I can do it too’. It’s also good to have somebody to talk to, especially because techniques don’t work for everyone – we’re not all built the same way, we’re not the same height, same weight or people with the same physiology, so being able to share that with someone who is open to talking about it – not that the guys didn’t want to talk about it – but I think their approach was slightly different to that of a woman. For men, they can drive technique through with power, and it becomes a lot more like a ‘strength game’. Whereas for many women with a lot of the techniques that we do, especially with grappling for example, it’s not all about weight – it’s about how you move your entire body. You then quickly learn that you don’t need to necessarily use your entire arm strength against someone else – I can actually use my entire body weight against their arm. You end up being more in-tune with your own body. Some of the men that I trained with had stiffer hips, but could rely on their arm strength so they didn’t really see it that way, so it was good to talk to another woman who saw it the same way as me.

Why did you decide to move onto something like Bushin? It’s quite dissimilar to a more traditional martial art like Shorinji Kempo.

For a lot of reasons, I felt like I had to move on; I was going through a period of my life where things just seemed to stall. At that time, I’d finished my undergraduate, I didn’t know where to go in life and there were a lot of things happening at once. I was thinking, ‘what am I going to do with myself?’. And it sort of effected me emotionally, which went into my training as well, all while there was a lot of club politics going on too. I felt that it was important for me to take a break, just to figure out my next step. I didn’t want to carry on going through the same things where I felt frustrated, where I felt that I’d reached my peak a little bit. There was no-one there who I felt that I could train with who was on the same wavelength, and I was asking myself ‘should I try something completely different?’.

I think it was one of those crossroad moments where it was like, ‘do I want to carry on doing the old thing, or do I want to try something new and see what else I can do? Did I want to start afresh, like what I had when I first started Kempo?’. I needed to find something that makes me feel good. So, I decided to start with a clean slate, and start again.

But, it wasn’t easy! Coming from Kempo, Bushin was completely different, and if you ask Cailey, he’d probably agree that I wasn’t the best person in the room as I had a lot of old habits. I found it harder to adapt compared to the others who started Bushin as well. It was really difficult. I couldn’t figure it out in my head and I started over analysing things that I used to do in Kempo, like ‘you have to step this way, or your hand has to be over here’. But then I learnt with Bushin that I can actually learn to rely on my own intuition: if something feels right, then that’s what I should go with. I shouldn’t have to go down this ‘step here, move your hand here’ step-by-step thing if it doesn’t work for me. I had to learn to trust myself to say nah, I’m going to take a bit of a risk and adapt it my own way early and see if it works. If it doesn’t work, I’ll just try something else.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to a woman starting her first class?

I think you have to know why you’re doing it. If you’re just doing it because you feel unfit, that’s fine! You can do something that will help you get fit through martial arts – whether that be a full-contact martial art, or a boxercise class. I mean to be honest I had a pretty shallow reason for getting into it, ‘it’ll look good on my CV! It will help me get a job!’ – but it never got me a job interview, at all! I kept with it because I enjoyed it and I did it for me.

I think the thing I would probably say to anyone starting out is – do what makes you happy. If you want to do something that just involves hitting a couple of pads, that’s fine. Or if you want to do a martial art that involves more contact, that’s fine. If you want to do something where you really just want to hit someone in full-contact, that’s fine too — just do it in a safe way (laughs)! Just make sure you’re not breaking any laws, it’s fine as long as you find a safe environment for you!

Just do it, and maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. If it doesn’t work, find out why it doesn’t work and make it work! It made me less risk averse and more able to just do things. – tweet this

How much has your motivation to take up martial arts changed now?

It’s changed a lot, I think it’s taken a bit more of my life than I ever anticipated. Even though I had very shallow reasons to start a martial art in the beginning, doing it changed my perspective on life quite a lot, and the way I think as well. For example, when you try and break down a technique, I learnt to approach it in a very logical and systematic way, combined with intuition. And that’s how I try to approach day-to-day tasks now, and that’s how I am at work. I think that it really has affected the way that I think, the way I approach things. It’s probably even affected the way I talk to people as well! It really has infused with my way of life.

It also made me more confident talking to people from different backgrounds. That’s why I really appreciate starting out in a club where there were no students. Growing up I wasn’t very confident and I found it really difficult to talk to people at all – I was painfully shy. But then, starting university I decided that I was going to be a new person, as you do (laughs). One of my university lecturers told me ‘if you want to be confident, you have to fake confidence’, so I thought that if I wanted to talk to people from different backgrounds, I had to jump right in and just do it!

I take that approach with most things, especially in martial arts. Just do it, and maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. If it doesn’t work, find out why it doesn’t work and make it work! It made me less risk averse and more able to just do things.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?

It’s quite difficult, because I feel like I’m at the stage in my life where I want to focus more on my career. Getting to this point, I was just focusing on my ‘martial arts career’ as it were. And now, as I’m more confident in other aspects of my life, I want to invest more energy and effort into that. My work career is going to take more of a precedence now, so I’m probably going to have to dial back the amount of energy I invest into martial arts, but I’m not going to give it up – I’m just going to find a different way of approaching it.

I’ve passed that phase of thinking that I need to be the best and win competitions, I’ve already done that. That’s not my ultimate goal anymore. My goal now for my martial arts career is to find what I’m good at, and find new ways to be better at it. Also, I’d like to try different sports too. I tried Aikido for a while, but it didn’t really work for me so I stopped. I’ve now taken up yoga, which is completely different, but I feel that it will compliment my martial arts. It’s good for focusing on your core, so it doesn’t surprise me to hear that many martial artists are taking up yoga and pilates! I’ve also been going to the gym more to do strength training, which compliments what I do, but I’ve found that it also hinders me in terms of limiting my flexibility! So, I’m trying to find that balance. At this point in time, i’m still trying to understand what works for me rather than trying to be better than everybody else. I’m just trying to prove myself more and more.

I think that sometimes, not just in martial arts or sports, you can end up chasing an ideal…

Yes, wanting to be the best and be recognised – ‘I know her, she’s the best’. But I’ve kind of passed that now. That’s never really been a priority to be honest, I just wanted to compete with myself more. I don’t think I should beat myself up anymore when I’m in competition with myself, I should just appreciate what I have at the moment and use that as a motivation to be better rather than believing that I’m not good enough and beat myself up in order to be better. It’s a different kind of mindset, because I’m getting older. I’m not going to be the best anymore because my body is already starting to fall apart! Like, I had knee problems, my knee snapped and I couldn’t squat for a while; I had a fractured wrist a year ago and it’s not the same as it was before. A lot of things have made me appreciate that I need to not be so harsh on myself and just understand that if I’m rubbish at something… That’s okay!


Does Fiona’s experiences resonate with your own martial arts journey? Let us know in the comment section below!

* Music in trailer video sampled from Object Blue‘s track ‘In the station of the metro‘ *

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.

IMG_9468 copy

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.

IMG_9938

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.