Over the years I too have struggled with anxiety and my mental health. However, I always felt martial arts training helped. So, I did a survey and some further research to ask how martial arts can help with anxiety, confidence and mental health.
According to my independent survey and research on social media, over 70% of people said martial arts help improve mental health, including less stress, anxiety and depression, with reduced feelings of fear and inadequacy. Plus more confidence, better self-esteem, and a sense of calm and ease.
I personally felt the benefits on my mental health from martial arts training (mainly Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu).
But to find out if anyone else had too.
I set up a simple social media survey – and based off the results received, I found that others had experienced improvements with their mental health because of martial arts.
Social Media Survey
The survey asked two ‘open-ended’ questions:
- What problem in your life do you hope to overcome by learning martial arts?
- How would it make a difference in your life if martial arts could help with this problem?
Over 70% of the people who answered, said they use martial arts to overcome struggles with their mental health.
Notice how the questions did not lead the answers towards the topic of mental health.
Each question was ‘open-ended’ – meaning their answers could have been about anything.
But still, over 70% said their martial arts training helped them with their mental health.
In their responses, people said that martial arts helped them tackle:
- A lack of confidence
- And a fear of feeling weak or inadequate
With responses including:
- “helps me feel more confident in all aspects of my life”
- “gives me a focus and discipline in my life”
- “helps me take my mind off everything and live in the moment”
These responses are pretty profound and offer us an insight into how martial arts training is helping these people fight back against their personal struggles with mental health.
After the survey I decided to do more research into what might be going on and how martial arts can help.
Martial Arts Vs Anxiety, Confidence & Mental Health
According to Dr. Legg at Health Line, Anxiety is our body’s natural response to stress.
It can occur because of something specific in our lives – like the first day of school, a job interview, or an exam for example.
Or it can occur for no particular reason and be caused by general everyday life.
Some of the things that can help you improve it include:
- Improved sleep
- Healthier lifestyle
- Being present in the moment
All of which you get through martial arts training.
However, martial arts go deeper and offer more benefits, including:
- Confidence in yourself and your physical abilities
- Reducing feelings of insecurity
- Improving self-esteem
- Resulting in a sense of calm and ease
- Restful alertness and improved attention
- Emotional control
You can read the full article from Dr. Legg at HealthLine.com here.
Martial Arts & Confidence
Martial arts can improve your confidence in a physical sense – giving you peace of mind knowing you’re able to defend yourself should you need to.
However, this resilience of mind goes deeper and does more for you psychologically too.
You can discover more about self-defense in our article: 5 Best Martial Arts for Self-Defense & Why
Martial Arts go deeper and offer more benefits
Primal Minds: Low Self-Esteem & Insecurity
In his book ‘The Chimp Paradox’, Professor Steve Peters explains that we naturally operate in different states of mind.
And that each part of our brains plays a vital role in the way we interpret the world.
There is a part of our brains which instinctually reacts to the world in a judgemental, defensive and irrational way.
This part of the brain is home to our primal mind and is responsible for controlling our emotions.
According to Professor Peters, the primal part of our brains still acts in the same way as our primate cousins – the chimpanzee.
Meaning sometimes, it can literally cause us to interpret the world in the same primitive way as the chimp.
He goes on to explain how chimps live in troops for security so they can hunt together and fight off attacks from rival chimp-troops.
Meaning that for a chimp, having a secure belonging within a troop is essential for their survival.
For each chimp to maintain their belonging in the troop, they need to prove their worth within the hierarchy.
A chimp’s worth and rank within the hierarchy is dependent on the respect they receive from other chimps.
Meaning, there is a physical part of our brains which naturally compares us to others and how we match-up against them within the social hierarchy.
For a lot of us, it can cause a sense of unease, stress, and anxiety.
And it can cause, what’s known in psychology, as an ‘inferiority complex’ – described as:
- Intense feelings of inadequacy
- Constant comparison of yourself and others
- Uncertainty, self-doubt, and low self-esteem
The University of Texas published an article which said low self-esteem can create an increased likelihood of:
- And depression
With another study in the United States saying that people who suffer with low self-esteem are most likely to lash out in acts of aggression towards others or themselves.
Someone with low self-esteem often turns to external superficial things in an attempt to impress others.
To feel accepted, worthy and valued (within the troop).
The problem is, when we judge our own self-worth on other people’s acceptance and opinions of us – it leads to insecurity, a lack of confidence and anxiety.
How Do Martial Arts Help?
Martial arts have the power to dissolve this entire thought process – and give you peace of mind.
As we’ve seen, we have a primal instinct within us, which compares us to others.
It’s fearful, insecure and craves approval.
When it feels challenged or threatened – it causes feelings of inadequacy (like we don’t match-up).
Resulting in self-doubt, uncertainty –and the feeling we need to prove our worth.
Martial Arts Remove Uncertainty
Effective martial arts training, when done properly – will push you out of your comfort zone and give you a solid understanding of yourself and your physical abilities.
If you never push yourself out of your comfort zone or never test yourself – you never get a true sense of what you’re made of and your physical and mental resilience.
This leaves self-doubt, fear and uncertainty.
Note: Not all martial arts training is effective – to learn why check out our article: 5 Best Martial Arts for Self-Defense & Why
Effective training helps to reinforce a resilient state of mind.
Knowing you’re able to push yourself and your ability to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations.
You will begin to improve and reinforce your own perspective of yourself.
Psychologist Albert Bandura coined a concept known as self-efficacy; described as “your judgement of how well you can complete an action required to deal with a situation”.
Put simply, self-efficacy is how much do you truly believe in your own abilities?
Or how well do you think you’re able to achieve things?
Self-efficacy is based on the way you view your ability to:
- Behave in a difficult situation
- Control your emotions
- And perform in a physical way
The concept can be applied to all aspects of your life,butis especially relevant to martial arts.
In martial arts terms, self-efficacy can be seen as how confident you are in your own ability to deal with a real-life self-defense situation.
Or, how well you can control your emotions when faced with an aggressive person or hostile situation.
But that’s worst-case scenario.
As mentioned, training itself can act as the difficult situation during which you’re tested and begin to grow.
Your training should give you experience outside of your comfort zone and a solid understanding of all three of these things mentioned:
- How you behave in a difficult situation
- How well you’re able to control your emotions
- And how you perform physically
Your training acts as a real-world feedback loop.
Every time you step onto the training mats, you get a clear sense of who you are and what you’re capable of.
Meaning, martial arts begin to improve your perceived self-efficacy.
Removing self-doubt, uncertainty and feelings of inadequacy or unease.
Which helps improve the mental image you hold of yourself and boosts your self-esteem.
Knowing you don’t need to prove anything to anyone
Plus, all these benefits on top of the traditional benefits associated with exercise (pretty powerful stuff).
Nothing To Prove
With your martial arts training reinforcing a strong and secure perception of yourself – you’re left knowing you don’t need to prove anything to anyone.
One of the things that always strikes me when I meet a higher-ranking Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu belt or a professional fighter, is their sense of ease.
Some of the calmest, ‘at ease’ people I have ever met have been UFC fighters, former Muay Thai world champions with hundreds of fighters to their name, and BJJ black belts.
They seem to be free of the primal frustration and tensions.
Of which cause unease and anxiety for many people who never experience martial arts for themselves.
However, it’s not about becoming a professional fighter or black belt.
Being ‘the best fighter’ is not the point.
It’s about reinforcing a resilient state of mind through your training.
It’s about knowing yourself after being tested and pushed out of your comfort zone.
Becoming comfortable in the uncomfortable situations.
And therefore, not feeling the need to prove yourself with misdirected primal aggression (you know what you’re made of).
It’s about not putting yourself down because you feel you don’t match up in comparison to others.
The beauty of true martial arts and effective training, is you learn about yourself through the hardships of training.
And become content with yourself – becoming calm and at ease.
The classic, age-old martial art philosophy of learning to fight so you don’t need to fight is the point.
There’s an old martial art saying that goes:
It’s better to be a warrior in a garden than a gardener in a warAncient Proverb
And now modern psychology may agree.
Improved Focus & Living in the Moment
When you do martial arts, you are using both your mind and your body seamlessly in connection with each other.
As you’re engaged in the physical activity of training, at the same time, your mind is engaged in cognitive processing – at lighting speed.
This requires sustained focus, adaptability and control; of both your thought processes, and your physical body and movement.
You’re accessing memory storages to perform the physical techniques correctly.
As your opponent does one thing, you’re forced to react and switch your response on the spot.
Your mind adapts its thought processes to overcome the ever-changing external challenges – and the body responds accordingly.
This form of training is known as Integrative Body-Mind Training (IBMT) and is used as Attention State Training (AST).
According to an article done by Research Gate, Attention State Training is the ability to exercise and improve cognitive control during conflict tasks.
Described as a form of training which requires the cooperation of both your cognitive thought and focus, with your physical body and movements.
Tests have been done which show, both AST and IBMT result in:
- A restful alertness of your surroundings
- Improved attention
- Reduced stress, anxiety, anger and fatigue
- A controlled balanced state between thoughts, emotions, and the physical body
Imagine for example you’re caught in a tight submission in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or in a Thai Clinch defending knees in Muay Thai.
The only way to escape is to stay calm, control your stress levels, and think about the correct physical response.
Martial arts, at their core, require you to use both your mind and body every time you step onto the training mat.
Over time with continued practice, Integrative Body-Mind Training begins to trigger your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) to take over your martial arts training.
The ANS is an unconscious control system which regulates our bodily functions.
Also known as the flow state.
The flow state is similar to a state of meditation where you experience the fluidity between your body and mind while deeply absorbed in a task beyond distraction.
Meaning by being engaged in the activity of martial arts while focused, concentrated and absorbed in its thought processes – you’re able to switch off from the outside world and your internal ‘noise’ – or mind-chatter.
When you’re in the flow of training, it can lead to a sense of ecstasy and joy which (like in meditation) will carry over into the rest of your life.
[Flow State] usually occurs when your body and mind are stretched to their limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhilePsychologist Mihaly
You can read the full article on AST and IBMT from Research Gate here.