The Mental Health Epidemic.
According to World Health Organization (WHO), 1 in 4 people in the world suffers from some sort of mental health disorder. It is one of the world’s leading causes of ill-health and disability (1). However, there are individual differences both in the expression of mental health disorders and prognosis. Although I am very sympathetic and empathetic to everyone who is suffering from a mental health disorder, I wonder if the victimization surrounding mental health disorders has made individuals more likely to identify themselves with a mental health disorder. Is it appealing, perhaps subconsciously, to seek the attention of a diagnosis (self-diagnosis) and preferring to reject treatments? Or is it that traditional Western medicine might not be very effective in curing the mental health disorders? In this blog post, I will be sharing my own journey to recovery. I should insert my disclaimer here: I am not a doctor and this is not medical advice. Please ask your primary physician before following any of the protocols or examples in this blog post.
There are many different types of mental health disorders. Some of the more common ones include anxiety, depression, and autism. We all likely know of someone who is suffering from the aforementioned disorders or are experiencing them ourselves. I suffer from all three of the above, as well as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Hence, my statement regarding how I can both sympathize and emphasize with anyone who suffers from these disorders.
Let me start by defining these mental health disorders:
Depression is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest. Also called major depressive disorder or clinical depression, it affects how you feel, think, and behave, and it can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems. You may have trouble doing normal day-to-day activities, and sometimes you may feel as if life isn’t worth living (2).
Anxiety is a bit more tricky, as occasional anxiety is a normal part of human life. However, people with anxiety disorders frequently have intense, excessive, and persistent worry, and experience fear related to everyday situations. Often, anxiety disorders involve repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense unease, fear, or full on terror that reach a peak within minutes (panic attacks). (3)
Autism spectrum disorder is a condition related to brain development that impacts how a person perceives and socializes with others, causing problems in social interaction and communication. The disorder also includes limited and/or repetitive patterns of behavior. The term “spectrum” in autism spectrum disorder refers to the wide range of symptoms and severity (4).
There is a mental health crisis among teens in North America, especially amongst girls; the alarming trends of increasing suicide rates and hospital admission due to self-harm should at least raise some questions. According to Jonathan Haidt’s research, social media use, parental overprotection, “safetyism” in K-12, ideologies found in modern universities, political polarization, and some other trends, have contributed to the rise in mental health disorders among teens in Canada. For those of you interested, please see the link below for more information and empirical data on the “Coddling of the Canadian Mind (5)”
“Question for parents: do you want to make your children safe, or strong?” – Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.
How to Cope with Mental Health Disorders?
We live in a world that our primordial brains have not evolved fast enough to cope with effectively. Our brains are very complex but the systems our brains operate on can be very rudimentary: fear and reward. Mental health disorders many times have roots the fear and reward system.
For example, anxiety can be a reaction stemming from fear. Now imagine, if this reaction resulted with positive rewards, such as a valid reason to not go to work, eliciting care and sympathy from those around you, and getting what they want from caregivers or partners, etc.. These results might create a positive reward loop and foster future expression of anxiety for one to get what they want (renew the reward).
Or imagine a child throwing a temper tantrum getting what they want. What is more likely for the child to do in the future to get what they want? This is based on operant conditioning of the Learning Theory (6). We are born with a copious amount of DNA information and have the ability to manipulate caregivers without even realizing we are doing so. It is also very difficult to break these loops once they are set in place.
There are many ways to combat mental health disorders, CBT and exercise were the most effective treatment protocols for me and many others.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – CBT focuses on challenging and changing cognitive distortions (e.g. thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes) and behaviors, improving emotional regulation, and the development of personal coping strategies that target solving current problems. (7)
- Exercise – Improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function.2 Exercise has also been found to alleviate symptoms such as low self-esteem and social withdrawal. (8)
How can Martial Arts Help Someone with Mental Health Disorders?
Martial arts can help an individual with many facets of his or her mental health recovery journey. As I mentioned above, physical exercise has enormous benefit to one’s physical and mental health. Martial arts can be a fun form of physical exercise for those of you who find the gym and lifting weights boring. You can also build friendships and comradery among your fellow classmates.
Exposure therapy is a branch of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that can be very effective in treating obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), specific phobias, PTSD, and other anxiety disorders (9). Exposure therapy basically involves exposing someone to a controlled version of a stimulus that raises one’s anxiety and letting the brain learn that it is not doing to harm you. For example, treating an arachnophobe may involve a process of looking at a picture of a spider from a distance, then placing their hand on the picture even though their mind wants them to pull their hand away. Once this can be accomplished without panic they may view a live spider in a terrarium, hold the terrarium on their lap, then eventually touch the spider, and even hold it. Their anxiety will slowly subside with each measured, progressive exposure.
In the martial arts application, you are potentially exposing yourself to fear of violence, fear of harm, and fear of failure, just to name a few. By facing your fears in a controlled environment, your brain will learn to cope with them better. At the end of the day, fear is your brain telling you “this thing will kill you.” Your brain, being good at taking in information but terrible at interpreting it, does not know how to differentiate between real danger and perceived danger. Nobody said it was going to be comfortable to face your fears, but I think it is one of the most effective antidotes to many mental health disorders. Maybe exposure therapy is a means of “uncoddling” of the mind?
In my opinion, Urban Tactics Krav Maga school has effectively incorporated exposure therapy into their curriculum and testing. Many of us who had anxiety have improved our mental health and confidence through our Krav Maga journey. To be honest, my expectation of learning Krav Maga was that it was the deadliest martial art according to the top result on Google (10). I did not expect to face some of my fears and PTSD, nor did I expect to see improvements as I learned to deal with them better through exposure and continued training while facing injuries and failures. Unfortunately, I am now (very reluctantly) being forced to take a little break from intense training sessions due to personal reasons. I will be back to face my fears again in the not so distant future!
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” – Frank Herbert, Dune
What are your fears? Are you ready to face them?
Written by: Jojo F. – UTKM Orange Belt