How I Used BJJ to Treat Depression and Discontinue SSRIs
I’ve always had an inclination toward depression and anxiety. It’s come and gone over the years, but thankfully it never overtook my life. I always knew that it would go away eventually, so whenever I would experience a depressive episode, I would just wait it out.
I’ve been in and out of cognitive behavioral therapy since I was a teenager, so I’d often attempt to work things out with my therapist. And thankfully, I have an amazing group of friends who have been in my life since childhood, so I have a solid network I can call upon.
About ten years ago, I had just moved across the country from Los Angeles back to New York, I was having difficulty getting settled in an apartment that felt like home, and my depression and anxiety began to really overtake my me to the point that it became difficult to function. I knew it was time to seek help.
I sought out a psychiatrist with the purpose of obtaining a prescription for SSRI medication. I had been trying to resist medication for a long time, but I couldn’t resist any longer. Within a few weeks of starting Fluoxetine (the generic form of Prozac), I felt much better. I could think more clearly, I felt more grounded, my mood was better, and even my social interactions felt better. While I wasn’t ecstatic about taking medication daily, I was so pleased with the results, and so glad to be rid of the depression and anxiety that I was willing to ignore my instincts, which were telling me that putting a drug into my body on a daily basis is something that should be avoided unless absolutely necessary.
The Benefits of BJJ for Mental Health
In another blog post, I wrote about the mental health benefits of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. When I began training first Krav Maga and then Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I knew I was onto something. I would leave class with a feeling of euphoria and with a light mood that I hadn’t felt in a long time. I began to think of my BJJ training as part of my prescription for better mental health. Indeed, I’ve since found that I function much better and am more grounded and happier whenever I’m training regularly.
Discontinuing the Medication
Eventually, I found myself considering the possibility of discontinuing my medication. After all, I was on a fairly small dose anyway. I consulted with my doctor and we decided that it was worth a try. The worst case scenario would be that I could resume the medication later if I needed it.
Under the guidance and care of my psychiatrist, I began to taper off the Fluoxetine over a period of several months. I also informed my BJJ instructor of this and he was very understanding and supportive. I felt the expected flu-like symptoms that often accompany SSRI withdrawal, but those only lasted a few weeks at most. I didn’t notice too much of a difference in how I felt for quite some time. I knew that I’d need to endure a stressful time in my life to ascertain how I was adapting.
Going SSRI Free
Over the past several months, I’ve endured some stresses from work in addition to having to adapt my training schedule to work around some minor injuries. I’ve learned that even without SSRIs, I’m able to function just fine. Even though my injuries mean that I must limit the amount and the intensity of the rolling that I’m able to do, I still attend class about 3x per week for drilling class. I can feel that I’m not getting an intense enough workout to combat the depressive episodes, but I can feel that the amount I’m doing is definitely helping. I can also sense that once I’m able to train with the intensity and frequency I was doing before, it’ll definitely be enough to combat my depression and anxiety by using BJJ as a tool.
The Role of Nutrition
I shouldn’t gloss over the role of nutrition in all of this. I’ve made lifestyle changes over the past several year which have helped tremendously. Most importantly, I focus on my nutrition. Not only do I count calories and watch my macros, I also am very conscious of making sure I eat a whole food based diet as much as possible. I still allow room for an occasional cookie or a hamburger, but I try to make sure that the overwhelming majority of the food that I consume is made from natural products. It’s also a huge help that my girlfriend lives the same way, so we can support one another in this.
I’ve been reading more and more about the benefits of nutrition in combating depression and anxiety, and I believe it. I also make a point of staying hydrated, with an average of about 10 glasses or more of water per day.
I should note that I almost never drink alcohol of use any drugs. I’ve heard a lot about the benefits of micro-dosing or marijuana use with treating depression and anxiety, but I don’t have any experience in that realm and will let someone else more knowledgable write about that.
Sleep is a bit trickier as I’ve suffered from insomnia for decades. When I’m consistently getting a restful night of sleep, I feel much better emotionally, but I’ve had to find techniques for combating the insomnia. I’ve tried the usually proper sleep hygiene, I’ve tried meds, and I’ve tried the standard herbal solutions. I’ve found that the only thing that works is to simply accept and be grateful for whatever amount of sleep I do get. Sometimes I get a solid eight hours and other times I struggle to get four to five hours. On those nights when I’m struggling to get a solid night of sleep, I simply let go of the struggle. Sometimes letting go of the pressure to get eight hours of sleep is enough to help me relax enough to get to sleep. If not, after several nights of substandard sleep I always manage to get in at least one or two of solid and deep sleep. This is something I’m continually working on and it will likely remain a work in progress for some time.
The key to my self-medication through Jiu Jitsu is the following formula: training Jiu Jitsu as often as my body will allow, eating a whole food based diet that is nutrient dense, and getting a solid night of sleep as often as possible.
It helps tremendously that I’m surrounded by amazing friends and family, and that my girlfriend is incredibly supportive as well as being one of the most positive people I’ve ever known.
Since discontinuing the meds, I still experience some depression and anxiety, but I recognize it immediately and will take immediate steps to combat it. In fact, while on the meds my highs and lows weren’t as extreme as they could have been, and I believe that kept me somewhat numbed to the depth of human emotion. While I must now accept and experience some depression and anxiety on occasion, I now have the tools to deal with it and I can enjoy the opportunity to experience much deeper happiness and elation in my life.
As if I needed even more things appreciate about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I’m truly grateful for this most unexpected gift the gentle art has given me.