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Training Karate can’t single-handedly cure depression. Taking up a new martial art can get you out of a rut in your life, and a good day at the dojo can definitely cheer you up, but depression is a little more complicated and harder to fight than that. As the Mayo Clinic points out, it is a serious mood disorder that requires more than a change of attitude or a new hobby to combat. “More than just a bout of the blues, depression isn’t a weakness and you can’t simply ‘snap out’ of it. Depression may require long-term treatment. But don’t get discouraged. Most people with depression feel better with medication, psychotherapy or both.”
Martial arts training won’t necessarily help everyone who has depression, either. Each case of depression is as unique as the individual who has it, with different symptoms and different concerns, and not every possible treatment and a coping mechanism will work for everyone. There are, however, a number of positive influences and attributes that martial arts supplies its students with that can be helpful if you’re struggling and looking for an activity to try alongside your current treatment plan.
If you or someone you love has depression, here are some of the potential benefits of a martial arts training routine.
1. Martial arts like Shotokan Karate provides a non-judgemental environment.
Depression lies to you. Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, fixating on past failures or self-blame are some of its common symptoms, which can leave someone who is dealing with depression somewhat sensitive to overt criticism and tough love. Depression is already giving them more than enough of that.
That’s why a positive gym environment can be a welcome change. Martial arts training with encouraging instructors and a supportive community can, for at least a while, distract a person from their negative self-perception and allow them to work toward a goal in a place where it is ok to try and ok to make mistakes.
2. Martial arts are great for stress relief.
Some stress is healthy in life, and not all stress will lead to depression, but too much of it for too long can be an issue for people who are already susceptible to the condition. “Like email and email spam, a little stress is good but too much is bad; you’ll need to shut down and reboot,” says Esther Sternberg, MD, a prominent stress researcher told WebMD in an article that explores the connection between stress and depression. Martial arts training can be a safe, healthy, and fun outlet for anyone who is taking on too much stress for too long in their daily lives. For more on the stress relief that martial arts supplies, visit our recent blogs on the topic here and here.
3. Physical activity can help ease depression.
As the Harvard Health Letter reported in 2013, research has shown that exercise can be an effective treatment for a certain portion of the population. “For some people it works as well as antidepressants, although exercise alone isn’t enough for someone with severe depression,” Dr. Michael Craig Miller, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, told the publication.
According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise can help treat depression by releasing endorphins (brain chemicals that can improve your sense of well-being), and taking your mind off of your worries. Regular exercise can also help you to gain confidence, enjoy more social interactions, and develop more healthy coping mechanisms for managing stress and anxiety. Martial arts training is a type of a physical activity that definitely encourages all of those things. Combined with the positive learning environment mentioned above, martial arts supplies a welcoming and nurturing option for anyone looking to help deal with their symptoms through exercise. (And if you’re not quite at the point where you can imagine joining a gym, here is a gentle and compassionate list of exercise options for when you don’t even feel like getting out of bed.)
4. Mindfulness can also help battle depression.
Distorted thinking and difficulty concentrating are common symptoms of depression. Mindfulness, a common component of most martial arts training, can provide someone who has depression with extremely effective tools to help manage those issues. “Mindfulness is a valuable practice for improving the cognitive symptoms of depression, such as distorted thinking and distractibility. It helps individuals recognize these more subtle symptoms, realize that thoughts are not facts and refocus their attention to the present,” Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. explains in Psych Central.
While the element of mindfulness will vary from style to style — Tai Chi, for example, very specifically focusses on meditation while a combat sport like karate encourages awareness of the mind/body connection in more general terms — most martial arts training will offer some psychological component that can benefit anyone who is looking for some help with their mindset.