People are increasingly coming forward to share their stories about mental health. This serves many purposes, such as raising awareness and providing support to others. However, as a society, we are only at the start of learning and sharing our experiences about this topic. I was therefore touched when Peter Reeve, a 2nd Dan Soo Bahk Do practitioner and Instructor at Norfolk Soo Bahk Do, contacted me to share his story and offered to write a guest article. I feel it may be helpful to learn how he uses martial arts to manage challenges to mental health.
Here is Peter’s story…
Starting on the martial arts path
My first exposure to martial arts was as a shy and timid 7 year old. My parents enrolled me at a Judo club to help raise my confidence and to equip me with self-defence skills. During this time in school, I was bullied. I trained in Judo for 3-4 years. I found that it helped to build my confidence. Although I was still getting bullied, training in martial arts helped me to remain calm.
As a teenager, I started training in Shotokan Karate. At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate the fundamentals of what was taught in the martial art. To me, the training environment was more of a way to socialise with others, and I left after 2 years. Later, I became curious to try out as many styles as I could, and so trained in a few more martial arts. However, I could honestly say that I didn’t really dedicate myself to train and really understand these Arts.
Experiencing mental health challenges
My first experience with mental health problems was when I was 15 years old. I was preparing to take my GCSE exams at home and had afterwards sat down to watch TV in the evening. As I watched TV, I suddenly felt a great adrenaline rush overcome me out of nowhere. My heart felt like it was going to explode out of my chest. All of my muscles had tightened and I couldn’t move or shout for help. The fear of it all made me think that I was going to die. This was my first panic attack and how I can best describe how these feel when I experience one.
After this episode, I had between 10-15 panic attacks each day. These left me fearful to leave home in case one happened in public. I still have panic attacks to this day, and it’s now something that I accept as part of my life.
My situation worsened in my early 20s due to a painful relationship breakup. One day I was a family man. I had a partner, a baby, lived in a nice home, and had a great job. Things were perfect. Next, I suddenly found myself single, homeless, and without a job. As a result, I fell into a deep depression that led me to try and take my own life.
At this point, my family realised just how bad things were and did what they could to support me. I’m extremely grateful for their love. With the support, I found that I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. However, I realised one important thing:
It’s not about curing. It’s about coping.
Returning to the martial arts path
I was walking home from my then latest therapy session thinking about how it went. During the session, I was asked what I used to do for fun, to which I replied: ‘train in martial arts’. Coincidently, I happened to see two Soo Bahk Do Moo Duk Kwan martial artists handing out leaflets about their dojang. I felt that meeting these practitioners that day was fate.
Like for many people, my biggest challenge was turning up to the first class. My second challenge was that I needed to be consistent.
As I was training, I began to use it as a vehicle to push myself out of a negative mindset and used it as a way to confront my fears and anxiety. For example, I’d always volunteer when the instructor wanted someone to do a demonstration to the class. The courage to do this reinforced a ‘can do’ attitude within me.
As with all things, the more that you do it, the easier it becomes.
Martial arts helped in other ways with my mental health challenges too. Because having a low mood is triggered by a serotonin imbalance, exercise is a great way for the body to release this chemical. Meditation and breathing exercises done in class also helped to calm my heart rate down and focus. In addition, the partner drills helped with developing friendships and increase teamwork skills.
It’s been 9 years now since I first began my journey in the Moo Duk Kwan. Martial arts training has really helped me manage my mental health challenges more than any other form of medication or therapy. Through training, I now feel proud of myself and have become much more tolerable of my mistakes. Training has given me a daily routine that continues to benefit my physical and mental wellbeing.
Having a positive mindset is really important to push through mental health challenges. For example, during my 2nd Dan grading in December 2018, I started to experience the symptoms of an impending anxiety attack. I focused my mind and repeatedly told myself that I deserved to be there testing with the other candidates. As a result, even though I was close to having an episode, my positive mindset led me to complete my performance. In June 2019, I’m happy to say that I received certification that I had passed.
I’ll leave this article by mentioning that when facing mental health issues, especially anxiety, I feel it’s important to remember that the symptoms you experience are a natural human response to stress and the discomfort. These will pass. For anyone supporting someone with mental health challenges, it’s crucial to let that person talk. Please listen to them without judgement or interruption. In most cases, the person facing mental health issues already places a lot of harsh judgement upon themselves and opening up to others can be quite difficult for them to do. Above all else, try and approach mental health challenges through the perspective of learning to manage things.
Interested to find out more about Peter Reeve and his dojang? Check out his club Facebook page at: Norfolk Soo Bahk Do.
Photos: © Peter Reeve (Norfolk Soo Bahk Do) and Shannon Shaw. All photos used with permission.