Fighting for Focus: How Jiu-Jitsu Can Improve Mental Health

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Jiu-jitsu has helped Nada Ahmad in multiple ways.

By Nadine Sayed  

Nada Ahmad, a fighter in jiu-jitsu, finds empowerment and strength in this field of martial arts. Ahmad is a junior II student at the American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. She studies Visual Communication Design at the College of Architecture and Design.

Ahmad is a very optimistic person who discovered a sport that could help her become stronger, empowered and more at ease. It’s a new hobby she enjoys the most, a hobby that distracts her from issues and indeed a hobby that helps her cope with her mental health.

Ahmad explains how the sport became her hobby and how it helps her cope with various mental health issues. Jiu-jitsu also helped her to become who she is now.  

So, to start off, how did you first get into jiu-jitsu?

So, I’m not really good at telling stories. But, before I started jiu-jitsu I was actually a professional ballerina and gymnast from ages 4-17, and after I hit 17, I kept on dancing from time-time just for fun. My friend does jiu-jitsu, and I was going through a really bad mental health state, so my friend encouraged me to try it out as a form of distraction. So, when she took me, she told me that I was going to watch her fight, when in fact all of a sudden, she told me that I was going to train with her, so that’s how it all started. 

How does this sport play a role in your studies as a visual communication major? 

Okay, so everybody knows that CAAD is very hard and time-consuming, so it’s difficult finding a balance in both I guess. So last semester I was taking five courses and I’d skip practices a lot because I didn’t have enough time, but for this semester I had to prioritize jiu-jitsu in a way, so I decided to take 4 courses so I can focus on both, and so far, it’s been working really well. For example, when I don’t have classes in the morning, I’d do my work then, then I’d go to class, I work some more, then I go to jiu-jitsu, so I’ve been going multiple times a week, and honestly, it’s been working out well.  

Did you experience anything different mentally and physically while trying jiu-jitsu?

For sure, in the beginning, it was kind of confusing for every hobby you would get into, but for some reason my brain wanted to go back and back. Then suddenly I found out that every time I step into the mats, all the voices in my head would go silent and stop, so I think it became a healthy addiction, which became a really good coping mechanism for all the problems I was going through in life. My panic attacks became much less; my negative thinking would always shift to positive thoughts, and this is actually what a lot of people say when they start jiu-jitsu, in a way where it transforms their whole life and the way that they think. 

To higher the stakes up a bit, how did your struggle with mental health change after trying this type of martial arts?

So, I’ve been struggling with various mental health issues for a really long time now, and it’s not like they automatically disappeared after I started doing jiu-jitsu. It’s more like it became a coping mechanism for me in a sense of a distraction for a while. For example, some people use unhealthy coping mechanisms. I replaced my bad coping mechanism with jiu-jitsu. This has helped me reduce acting on my impulsive decisions and has helped me deal with my borderline personality disorder.

I’ve also been diagnosed with anorexia; I’ve been struggling with food since a very young age, but one thing I love about jiu-jitsu is that no one judges anyone’s body size and no one comments about anyone’s body. All sizes, and all ages, everyone is accepted there and is always welcomed, so that really helped with my body dysmorphia. Jiu-jitsu has motivated me to deal with food issues.  Whenever I have the thought of not eating again or restricting my meals,  I realize I won’t be able to train as hard anymore and that I won’t be able to improve or get stronger. So, jiu-jitsu really motivates me to keep eating, become healthy and keep a good routine for myself.  

How do you balance your social life with your athletics?

I’m not going to lie; this is for all athletes; your social life will definitely suffer. You will have to choose your priority of what you’ll want to do. But I guess I’d always make sure that I’ll hang out with my friends at least once a week, like once or twice a week. However, it’s not like I’m not interacting with people though; I have my teammates in jiu-jitsu that I interact with and I see my friends in dorms when I’m back. Maybe it’s not as much social interaction as I would want it to be, but I’m really happy with it.

To elaborate on my previous question, is it tiring to keep up the balance by going to jiu-jitsu consistently? 

It is definitely a very big struggle to compromise with multiple things, especially since I don’t have a car and the place is in Dubai, so it takes a lot of time for me to go there. I have to use the bus to go to the metro, then go to the place, so it takes an hour and a half to reach and come back; I’d say it shows how dedicated I am to the sport and how in love I am with the specific gym I go to, so I do have to compromise a lot, but it’s worth it for me in the end. 

How did jiu-jitsu boost your confidence in yourself?

It makes me feel empowered as a woman because it’s a male-dominated sport in a way, even though women have been participating in it more often, but it showed me what my body is capable of, how strong I am, how amazing my body could work in ways and what it could do for me and how it could handle pressure and hard work. Another thing is that it made me feel really safe, how I could protect myself if anything happened to me, which I have had and I think a lot of other girls have had bad experiences in the past, but now I feel really comfortable when it comes to self-defense and protect myself from incidents that could happen. 

Let’s say you are talking about your younger self. How would she feel about you now?

She’d definitely be proud of me for showing her how strong and independent she got throughout those years and how I’d always fight for her, and deep down I really want to go back and protect her with all my heart. 

How did you end up forming relationships with others in the gym? 

Well, since my friend was there, she helped introduce me to people, so it was easy to get to know people there, so I wasn’t really intimidated by anyone; everybody there was really welcoming and nice, which was really thoughtful of them, and this is how I started forming friendships with my teammates in that field.

What inspired you to continue pursuing jiu-jitsu?

I’d say 100% confidence boost and high self-esteem. I fell in love with it when I joined the first class and never wanted to stop going. It’s something I really enjoy doing; it’s a huge passion for me, and it made me cope with things in a much more positive mindset, both mentally and physically. I became much […] stronger in those aspects, and it really makes me feel really happy.

How does your family feel about you joining jiu-jitsu?

Initially, I didn’t tell my dad since it’s a fighting sport and people say it isn’t a feminine sport, so I never really told him at first. But when I did tell him, he didn’t like the idea of me participating in that sport, and he wasn’t really supportive of it, but then when he saw how it helped me mentally and made me feel better, he started encouraging me to go to more classes. He even came to one of my competitions, which was really nice of him, and it was something I have never expected, but overall, my family is supportive which makes me happy.

Do you classify jiu-jitsu as your “comfort place?” 

For sure, it is my happy place to look forward to every time as soon as I step foot on the mats, and it is my go-to as a break from reality. I feel a sense of refreshment when I go there, especially when the people there are supportive. It creates a safe and friendly environment, which as a result, became my comfort zone. 

What is your goal in jiu-jitsu? 

So, my goal is not just to level up to higher belts. My goal is to improve, challenge myself, become better for myself both mentally and physically, become stronger and develop good skills in jiu-jitsu. By gaining this achievement, I could use it as a tool for personal growth and enhance my overall well-being. 

Do you see yourself winning jiu-jitsu competitions in the future?

At first, I would tell myself I would never compete in competitions and that I’d go for fun, but when I tried my first competition, I immediately fell in love with competing as it gave me this adrenaline rush I’d crave, so it encouraged me to go to many more competitions in the future, and it’s something I love doing. 

As a jiu-jitsu fighter, what advice would you give those who want to participate in jiu-jitsu in the future?

I would definitely say to go for it, especially for women. I feel like it is important and beneficial for every woman to try a martial art sport. I feel like it’s really important for us to know how to fight for ourselves and protect ourselves. It makes you feel powerful and strong, and it sets you free.