Honing Your Mental Health with Martial Arts

Honing Your Mental Health with Martial Arts

Honing Your Mental Health with Martial Arts

Written by Jennifer Dawson

“To me, martial arts means honestly expressing yourself” – Bruce Lee

In Australia, an estimated 45% of people will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. In any given year, around one million Australian adults battle depression, while two million are facing an uphill battle against anxiety. Scientists are constantly searching for ways to preserve sound mental health, and one way to do so, indicate their studies, is through the practice of martial arts. The millions of martial arts practitioners across the globe may vary in terms of their preferred art form and style, but one thing most have in common is first hand experience of how life-changing regular practice can be. Of course, supporting this sport with a sound nutritional regimen is key.

Martial Arts Builds Self-Esteem

One study published in the British Journal of Medical Psychology by Julian R. Fuller, found that practising martial arts can raise self-esteem, a quality which is crucial for sound mental health in adults as well as children. As noted by teacher Sherie Newman, “Liking ourselves and feeling capable are the foundations on which emotional health rests.” There are a plethora of books focusing on the things parents can do to raise their children’s self-esteem, but the role that sports - in particular, mindful martial arts - can play, is overlooked. A wide array of studies have been carried out from the late 1970s to current times, with results almost unanimously pointing to the ability of martial arts to boost self-confidence, self-reliance, and optimism.

Martial Arts to Battle Anxiety and Depression

Far from being the exclusive realm of adults, anxiety and depression affect many children and teens in Australia (for instance, around one in every 35 children aged four to 17 experiences a depressive disorder). Studies have shown that martial arts can significantly reduce levels of anxiety and depression (Cai, 2000) and promote greater emotional stability and assertiveness (Konzak and Boudreau, 1984). The latter researchers have shown that there is a positive relationship between the practice of martial arts and a reduction in aggression.

Many of the benefits mentioned above are linked with the stress busting effects of martial arts, which can help lower levels of stress hormone, cortisol. If your child is undergoing a particularly stressful period such as exams, support their martial arts practice with a sound diet and consider stress reducing supplements such as Ginkgo Biloba, a natural compound which studies have shown to lower stress without producing harmful side-effects. Of course, consult with your paediatrician about the appropriate stress remedies for your child.

The Ethical Component of Martial Arts

Keen practitioners and parents of children who take classes such as karate know that teachers often dedicate part of class time to sharing codes or rules. The Shaolin moral code, for instance, comprises a series of ethics, acts, and obligations students should aim for. In ancient karate forms such as Shotokan, meanwhile, a code has been handed down along the generations with a view to stressing the importance of peace, having the right attitude, and striving to be kind and respectful. These codes also stress the importance of self-control and of using one’s strength for a greater good.

In addition to promoting personal growth, self-acceptance, and social adroitness, various martial arts have also been found to be linked to better psychological wellbeing. In one fascinating study, Steyn and Roux (2009) compared the personal growth and acceptance scores of adolescents taking martial arts compared to those who played hockey, and those who did no sports at all. Results were predictably more positive in the martial arts (in this case Taekwondo) group than in the other two.

Sport is always a positive pastime when it comes to mental health, but martial arts seem to have a particularly positive effect on self-confidence, optimism, and behavioural control. If you are a parent with a child who loves martial arts, know that it is not too late for you to learn the arts yourself. A greater sense of mindfulness, inner growth, and humility are just a few important lessons that martial arts have to teach.

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