In the fourth edition of our ‘Just Checking In’ series, we spoke to one man about his mental health experiences. We talked about his daily struggles and why Mixed Martial Arts has improved his life for the better.
When was the first time you became aware of your own mental health and realised that it wasn’t just physical pain you experienced?
I first became aware of my own mental health when I discovered sport. Mental health plays a critical role in sport; it can be the difference between performing to your full capability or crumbling to defeat. This dichotomy is similar to life in general.
When you go for a job interview or when you meet an important client, you get that same stress and anxiety as you would in sport. Even though these are all psychological pressures they can manifest themselves as stress if not managed properly.
It’s more important than ever that people take this issue seriously and understand that in this day and age stress is a big factor in leading a healthy life alongside your mental health.
If you had to describe how your mental health conditions affect you in your day-to-day life, what would you say?
The majority of people in society are trying to manage their mental health on a daily basis. Not everyone might have a mental health issue like depression or anxiety but everyone has to make sure their mental health is in a healthy state.
In this high-octane lifestyle many of us live in it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. From being contactable 24/7 via your mobile phone to ‘taking work home’, this constant engagement and disconnection is leading people to constant spikes of cortisol (“stress hormone”). Over time, this will start to take a toll on your body and soul.
You and your brother have a big connection to Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) mate? How did that start, what do you enjoy about it and how does it help your mental health?
To begin with, it was curiosity. We first watched it on TV back when it was free on Channel Bravo. We loved it and wanted to find out more. For the first event we ever watched, we stayed up all night. We were glued to the screen.
After being slightly confused as to what we were watching, we came back again the following week and kept on watching. As the sport developed, so did our interest.
At the time I was competing in kickboxing and my brother was competing in Brazilian jiu jitsu. Naturally, we wanted to transition into a more well-rounded fighting system which is now called MMA.
So, what is the appeal of MMA for you then?
What’s so attractive about a box of chocolates? It has something for everyone – a blend of favourites with new experiences, all wrapped up in a shiny box that exudes fun and excitement.
My MMA experience ties back to mental health. My brain likes novelty. If I was working 40+ hours a week and doing the same routine; work, home, work, home, day in day out then I wouldn’t feel happy. I’d hit a wall and my body would become bored and shut down.
Psychological pain can just as easily manifest into physical pain if you’re not careful. What might start out as poor mental health could lead to high blood pressure or other unforeseen consequences. Sometimes the solution to so many modern challenges is a simple one.
If you’re getting stuck in a rut in life, my advice would be to pick up a sport or a hobby that involves some form of movement and tap into those feel good chemicals like dopamine, serotonin and endorphins!
When you fought as an amateur what was it like stepping into the ring?
There’s nothing that compares to it. The whole process of stepping into a ring with another human being who has trained just as hard as you and has sacrificed just as much as you undoubtedly affects your mind. You can’t help it.
Was the build-up to the fight stressful, exciting or both?
At the time, it can make you nervous or excited depending on how you choose to look at it. Now, if you are asking me did I enjoy it or did I feel sick from the build up? Well, the answer is both.
However, it was in that process that I found various tools and techniques to tame that nervousness and silence the internal dialogue you have with yourself when you have fear knocking on the door.
In that high pressure environment, I had to put on my thinking hat and have a proactive vs reactive approach to the situation at hand. That’s the difference between coming out of the competition hardly hurt or seriously damaged. It’s this sport that has lead me to look at all the factors that effect the mind and the body. I will start with the biggest needle mover when in a stressful situation; breath work.
Simply by breathing in a certain manner you can calm your nervous system. When your lungs expand slowly, the vagus nerve detects the expansion and signals the brain to release acetylcholine, which tells your heart to slow down. A slowed heart rate calms your entire nervous system. So, you could start calming those feelings of worry with simple breath work. My process is as follows. Start by:
1) Exhale as normal through the nose
2) Pinch your nose with your fingers to hold the breath for 2 to 5 seconds
3) Now, breathe normally through the nose for 10 seconds
4) Repeat the first three steps and continue doing so until calm.
This process really helps calm me and any anxiety or nervousness I might have been feeling. However, different methods work for different people and you have to find the right one to help you.
Now you’ve stopped fighting competitively, how do you feel? Did you miss the buzz or was it a welcome relief from all the pain you had to endure?
I do miss competing. There’s no experience that comes close. Nothing. If you picture the most exciting moment in your life and times it by 200 and throw in a magic unicorn then you might get close!
I still train as it’s a great activity to cleanse my mind at the end of a busy day. Inside an environment which requires your full focus, the pressures of everyday life subside. When time and distractions don’t exist, it’s just you and nothing else and that’s a pretty nice feeling.
Do you think fitness can play a role in helping someone’s mental health? Has exercise and MMA helped you overcome doubts about yourself or helped with your anxiety for example?
100%! Like the father of medicine Hippocrates once stated, “walking is mans best medicine”. In my opinion, exercise plays a critical role in how people feel. It literally costs nothing; you can go for a walk or a jog and ignite your brain and hormones with these mood boosting chemical compounds. I especially enjoy exercising when the sun is shining!
Do you take any medication to help your anxiety and if so, what supplements have you found most useful to you?
I never took any medication when preparing for a competition. However, there are some tools that I feel people could benefit from (not just athletes):
Firstly: magnesium. Almost everyone is short on magnesium. Given how relaxed it makes people feel after taking it, most people benefit from taking magnesium first thing in the morning or in the evening.
Secondly: L-theanine. This is an amino acid found in green tea that is known to reduce stress and cause relaxation. In my experience, a particularly good one is Suntheanine, a specific form of L-Theanine.
Thirdly: DHA. DHA is part of the omega-3 fatty acids. We burn through a lot of this every day at a rapid rate. Supplementation wise, quality is everything so I might opt for taking Krill oil, Algea oil or consuming various oily fish such as salmon, oysters or anchovies.
What tools and methods do you find useful in helping you manage your mental health or mental health issues?
I cover four fundamental principles
- Movement (exercise)
- Stress management
Movement wise, anything is beneficial. Sitting is the new smoking!
If you have low mood, one method which might help is by going for a jog! My recommendation would be to jog for a minimum of 25-30 minutes at a slow/moderate pace.
Stress management: I would say there are various tools to tackle this; everything from increasing your sleep at night to having a digital detox of all electronics for the day.
Sleep: If you’re exercising regularly, increase the amount you sleep. If you’re stressed out, increase your sleep time. If you want to be more productive the next day, increase your sleep time.
Most of us are not getting enough sleep. If you want to improve your performance during the day then focus on the night – get to sleep early and make sure your not being interrupted so the body can repair.
This interview was published anonymously.
You can read more ‘Just Checking In’ conversations here.