My Buddy Colin Wee who runs Traditional Tae Kwon Do in Perth, Australia is an enterprising guy by anyone's standard. So I was pleased when he approached me and several other martial arts folks to create some articles so that he could explore areas and how they relate. I chose depression as a theme because of the issues I've been dealing with parents. Below is the article I wrote for him and here is his.
Depression, Symptoms And Its Treatment From the Martial Arts Perspective
Generally speaking, we all have ups and downs throughout the day, week, and season. Most folks are not usually aware of the moods that pass by if they are fleeting and mild. We tend to become aware of our emotional state when it starts impacting our quality of life. Because of cultural influence, this article focuses on the Western male. I can’t speak to other cultures but I can imagine in most patriarchal ones the emotional response is similar.
Although the polar opposite of depression is mania, we’ll focus on depression because it’s generally considered to be the more impactful of the two. That’s not to say that intense periods of mania aren’t destructive in their own way, but for the most part, it’s not generally considered bad during the initial stages.
In contrast, depression has noticeable symptomology that can be sometimes confused with a physical problem. Some symptoms can be a lack of energy, an inability to empathize with others, lack of appetite and disrupted sleep patterns.
Depression traditionally comes from one of three sources; environmental, physical or psychological. For people living in the North, the environmental effects of being in a situation where there is little to no light for long portions of the year can cause depression. Physical causes are usually attributed to head injury, but other neurological problems can cause the same symptoms. The final cause is psychological. The traditional reason is that there is an issue that is avoided, so it manifests in some form. In many cases, this turns out to be depression.
The ability to treat depression can be very difficult. Traditional therapies include medication and therapy. The therapy is conversation based analysis and can often take a long time for the patient to develop insight into the cause. If the patient is introduced into the process through doctors visit, the first thing that’s evaluated is the amount of sleep and activity the person has. If they are seen as a deficit in these areas, the doctors will prescribe medications to allow for sleep at the very least. Currently, those who have been diagnosed with depression will also be referred to therapy.
Another difficulty using a talking analysis is that a majority of men in Western culture have some degree of difficulty describing their emotions. It’s not only not having the self-knowledge and vocabulary that slow the process, but culture itself teaches the male (and some females) to suppress outward displays of emotion seen as negative from a very early age.
A common example is the response to ease the pain of a child. The child is placated and often told to be quiet. There is nothing wrong with that, but the trait strays into a possibly dysfunctional area when the suppression of the child’s emotional responses are continually reinforced. Examples of this might be, “suck it up” or “boys don’t cry.”
The counseling experience becomes difficult when the male has to learn to express emotions and emotional states that have been closed off since childhood. The counselor is challenged when the patient can only provide the response, “I’m sad.” While the client takes the time to learn to emote and explore his emotions, the depressive cycle will continue. Thus feedback on the counseling experience will be less than satisfactory.
If the patient (in this case the person experiencing medium to significant depression) can physically motivate themselves, activity is used to help moderate symptoms. The use of exercise is preferred to encourage the person to resume a healthy sleep cycle. The more the person has a habitual physical routine the better they are going to do during the recovery, which will shorten the process by lessening the symptomology.
Here is where martial arts excel in the treatment of symptoms. Running, bicycling, swimming and lifting weights are great for a person, but in each case, when a plateau is reached, the time to spend thinking gets longer and longer. If a person is healthy, then this time is productive in the sense that they have time to sort and process. If they are not healthy, this time is where cyclical, negative spirals in thought patterns tend to foment.
Martial arts, on the other hand, provide much of the same activity of the other sports, but adds a feature, the requirement to be present mentally. It’s a rare thing where the practitioner can participate in regular class work and think about much else. In schools with more conflict based practice, there is little more to focus on than what is occurring at the moment.
The depression sufferer can find a few hours of solace from symptoms and in time can realize a positive feedback cycle in time. The more practice the better they are going to feel.
In time, depending on the severity of the depression and the ability of the sufferer to address its cause, the lessening of symptoms will continue. However, it should be known that the path to recovery is always studded with set backs and pitfalls. The constant to this process should always be regular physical activity. The course of treatment may be irregular and even when the counselor and client believe they've come to a logical conclusion, further visits may be required to address emerging issues.
The best thing about a good martial arts school is the sense of shared activity and a feeling of a second family. Taking advantage of that environment to shore up one's emotional state is always recommended.
Potatoe Fist was a marriage and family counselor for ten years. He doesn't miss it all. He went into IT for a good reason. Thank god for all the beatings he took in his old school to help him through the hard times.