To those unfamiliar with martial arts, it may seem a little counter intuitive to learn of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’s positive impacts on stress levels in the body.
In fact, people have been learning martial arts, including Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, to help them manage stress and lead calmer, more focused lives for thousands of years.
There are several reasons why BJJ is the perfect antidote to excess stress, and even more reasons everyone should take active steps to reduce stress.
Why Stress Over Stress?
Stress is a perfectly normal part of the human experience. At its core, stress is simply the way the mind and body respond to the demands of daily life.
Routine issues at work, school, social situations and all sorts of other stimuli can cause daily acute stress and its accompanying physical and mental symptoms. Fortunately, many people bounce back from daily stress and avoid long-term negative effects.
Managing traumatic or chronic stress, which are varieties triggered by major events or stress that lasts a long time, can be more challenging. The emotional, physical and cognitive symptoms of chronic stress stack up. During times of chronic/severe stress, the body never receives a clear signal that it’s safe to return to normal physical functioning.
Bodies without a consistent relief from stress are forced to react, resulting in disturbances to the immune system, digestion, cardiovascular function, sleep, and mental symptoms. According to the NIH, over time, “continued strain on your body from stress may contribute to serious health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other illnesses, including mental disorders such as depression or anxiety.”
The American Institute of Stress, states 77 percent of people have experienced physical symptoms caused by stress and another 73 percent experience regular psychological symptoms of stress.
Why Choose BJJ to Help Manage Stress?
So how can BJJ help people manage their stress levels on a daily basis and manage the mental and physical effects of prolonged stress?
If you dig a little deeper into the practice of BJJ, it’s easier to understand why.
When a person trains BJJ, they don’t only learn grappling skills. Students are repeatedly exposed to controlled situations where they simultaneously manage their minds, bodies, and personal response to physically stressful conditions.
If a person wants to excel at BJJ, physical training is important, but the changes that happen in their brain are just as important. Another word for this kind of brain power is “mindfulness,” or the focus on the “here and now.” Mindfulness is worth achieving: the people who practice mindfulness reap benefits such as improved health, better decision making, and better mental clarity.
Studies Support What Students of BJJ Already Know
Solid research is taking root: scientists are more readily accepting martial arts as go-to methods for stress management and attention training. It simply fosters concentration and mindfulness skills in a way most other activities cannot.
Recent research found great promise in teaching martial arts to people who struggle with ADHD. Another recent study provided evidence that mixed martial arts training, “helps improve working memory and the ability to inhibit natural responses in favor of more adaptive ones in school-aged children with ASD.”
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is particularly good at teaching people to perform better in stressful situations and those that require multitasking. Consistent practice enables people to find favorable pathways in their brains and behavior more easily: they can reach a controlled, relaxed state more quickly and work to solve problems rather than dwell on stressors. The benefits don’t end there; adolescent students consistently show improvements in “cognitive and affective self-regulation, prosocial behavior, classroom conduct and performance [in mental math…]”
Dr. David Ley, a clinical psychologist and a long-time student of BJJ, states that the core of the mental benefits of BJJ start with the struggle for physical dominance and the physiological and psychological changes they initiate. “…Our brains and bodies react, preparing us to flee or fight, but also to be very alert. Norepinephrine, adrenaline, and cortisol flood our bodies and synapses, decreasing our reaction times, increasing our heart rate and respiration, and enhancing our immediate focus and awareness,” says Ley. He makes examples of everyday worries: it’s difficult to worry about work when the brain is confronted with a survival situation. The body and mind must focus on the immediate situation at hand.
Mindfulness training, combined with the long-proven benefits of physical exercise, proves again and again to help with stress management.
Intense exercise triggers the brain to release Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, or BDNF, which is the protein responsible for repairing and protecting neural tissue. BDNF is also responsible for the “runners high,” or that extra boost of energy and good mood that follows an intense workout. Between BDNF, and the enhanced activity in the body and brain, people tend to feel more focused, more energized and also more able to relax after strenuous exercise.
Dr. Neil Farber talks about the benefits of physical and mental flexibility that come from studying martial arts in Psychology Today. “[it] reduces the chance of psychological injury in the form of stress,” says Lee. “Martial arts teach us to be strong yet flexible. Set goals yet be amenable to altering your path based on new circumstances and information.”
Give BJJ a Try
Stress isn’t going anywhere… but neither is BJJ.
Without an option to control every stressor that threatens to wreak havoc on health and lives, it’s up to individuals to take educated steps toward wellness and mindfulness. If BJJ wasn’t on your radar before, this may be a great reason to give it a try.