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Mayhem, Martial Arts & Mental Health


By

Simon Morrell

This article contains words and scenes some readers might find upsetting.

 

Like a lot of people, I have always suffered from anxiety and I suppose to a certain extent, if I am talking as an honest man, still do. The thing is, it doesn’t engulf me anymore, not like the bad old days of panic attacks and agoraphobia and I have lots of things to thank for that, but two stick out the most. Obviously, the love of my wife (and childhood sweetheart) was a massive factor and influence in my recovery, but a close second, coming up on the inside track was Martial Arts.

 

However, before I get to the world of fighting (which turned out to be so much more than that), then I need to tell you about my suffering, the suffering of many others throughout the world because not everybody grasps exactly what people with varying degrees of Mental Health issues actual go through.

 

I am going to give you a short snapshot of the life of both the sufferers and the survivors and the things we go through to get to where we are today, and maybe, just maybe, you will see how Martial Arts can help you.

 

If you are familiar with my work, my books etc, you will know that my anxiety kicked off at a very early age, ignited by cruel bullies who matured into vicious youths, and then violent adults. Not exactly a nurturing place of development, and throw in a narcissistic father, well then say no more. So those were the cause of my fears, and they have been documented before, so that is all you need to know on that front.



Now the fears themselves. The anxiety, stress and what later became the phenomena that became known as panic attacks. If you have never experienced generalised anxiety, it is like somebody giving you a small fright every few seconds. A friend jumps out from behind a tree, startling you and causing a slow trickle of adrenalin. Somebody drops a large object behind you and the crash causes a sharp intake of breath. It might not sound that bad, but then imagine it every waking second of every single day. Believe me, it takes its toll.

 

Now, as time passes in this anxious state, certain people are sympathetic and certain people aren’t. Some go as far as to ridicule your condition and this, well, this just drops your self-esteem that little bit lower, and with it your anxiety increases. What started out as a manageable nuisance is now becoming something you carry everywhere, like a weight you don’t really want, and the circle keeps increasing.

 

Your confidence, if you ever had any, starts to fade, replaced instead by self-doubt, and you start to second-guess everything you do. Again, a certain brand of people will smell your fear and use it for their own enjoyment, a perverse sort of sideshow.

 

Your day becomes a toil until eventually you are hit by the big one. A PANIC ATTACK.

 

The first time I had a major one, I seriously thought I was going to die, and the terror I felt was something I wouldn’t wish on anyone. My wife, then girlfriend, and I were on holiday in the States, a long way from home. It was our last day and we had hours to pass before our flight home.


I hadn’t eaten very well that morning and as we wandered around a shopping centre, killing time, I started to feel a bit sick. My anxiety was not in a good place, and it increased as my nausea did. This sent my body into mild fight or flight, and I sought refuge away from the glaring lights of the shops and the crowds of people, except there wasn’t any refuge. The only place I could go to escape was our hire car, but the Florida heat beat down on me as I made my way through the car park, desperately trying not to run for want of feeling like a bigger idiot. This, I now realised, was classic fight or flight and it was growing out of control.

 

With so much adrenaline now coursing through my veins, my heart had no choice but to beat faster to make sure enough blood was moving around and, of course, what did the pounding heart mean? Well, it is obvious. I was having a heart attack.

 

My girlfriend was fantastic, and seeing my distress whilst realising we had hours before we could check in for our flight, she sought shelter, finding a small hotel room where I slept the afternoon away. Sadly, upon waking and realising our predicament, before I could even get out of bed my fight or flight was back, along with the promised heart attack (of which there was none, just a wild imagination brought about by fear).

 

We made it to the airport, and I was immediately taken to the first aid bay and hooked up to monitors. The help I was receiving was gratefully received, although the way it was given only added to the fear I felt.

 

We were rushed through to our flight to avoid any queues, but of course, the plane was full of rowdy holidaymakers making enough noise to confirm it was the last few hours of their break, but the adrenalin made their voices sound twenty times louder than they were and now I was trapped in a metal tube, some many miles above the Atlantic Ocean.


Julie watched on concerned, and rubbed my back as I vomited into the sick bag, desperate for sleep (escapism) yet longing to be home (safety). Some nine hours after take-off, but some fifteen hours after the episode began, we arrived home. The adrenaline was now a stream compared to the raging sea it had been early in the day, but it was still there, giving my heart a little rattle now and again to let me know it hadn’t gone away.

 

Bewildered with no clue as to what had just happened (panic attacks, as they became known, were months into the world’s future) I collapsed onto our bed when we arrived back at our little cottage. I would stay there for almost a week, jelly legs, screaming heart and bouts of breathlessness, exhausted by the fear, but jacked up on the adrenaline, until finally a doctor prescribed me sedatives, and the fairground that had become my life was replaced with living life through dull edges and no corners, just the feeling of sleepwalking through a swamp.

 

And that readers, is how a lifetime of slow-release adrenaline brought on by trauma can suddenly explode into a flash of terror before crash-landing and dominating your life until you can get a grip on it. That, well that is a panic attack in a nutshell. The aftermath was almost as bad.

 

For months I would stumble from one crisis to the next, one brand of anti-depressant to another, terrified that the fear would return and repeat itself, until walking to the nearby shops became a massive task.

 

Julie didn’t stand by and watch on though. She was proactive in my recovery with the right food and books to study, all aimed at getting me ‘better’ whatever that was, but something was missing, and it was she who found it.

 

I had previously had some success as a teenager in the world of Karate and as it happened, Julie had discovered a new club had opened just around the corner from our cottage. She suggested I try it, but the thought of standing in a room full of people, strangers no less, would kick in the adrenaline and so a night in front of the television was the winner instead.

 

Except Julie wouldn’t give in and convinced me to visit the sports centre on a quiet Sunday afternoon to look at the room the Karate people trained in. It was just that. It was just a room. No bogeymen, no out-of-control fires, no maniacs armed with knives, running amok. And so I committed. I promised Julie I would try it the following week, but the build-up to attending was pure torture. Slow-release adrenaline would be replaced with buckets of the stuff and the jelly legs were back. Still, I was determined and with shaky limbs, I made my way to the packed hall and introduced myself to the instructor.

 

Of course, he saw through my claim that I had an iron deficiency and so “Would it be alright if I stood by the door for some air?”

 

Looking back now, his face said it all as he recognised a guy in fight or flight and yet his tone suggested otherwise. Of course, it would be alright, whatever made me feel comfortable, and it was that night that started me back on the right track. There would be many other times I would fall and fail. After all, isn’t that what we do as humans, but isn’t it also true we can be incredibly resilient?

 

That night spanned into many years, and the confidence I took from just standing in a room full of people, was replaced with the desire to exceed at this thing. If I could just pass a couple of belts, well maybe I wouldn’t be such a failure after all, maybe there was hope.

 

But then I noticed I was no longer by the door. Without even realising it, I was now in the middle of the room with the guys and girls who had also taken belts and were also moving toward the coveted Black Belt, and I was one of them.

 

It now became a burning ambition to at least achieve my First Dan, wouldn’t that be something? But more than the belts, it was the confidence I had gleaned through camaraderie and friendships that would last years. Being picked up and pushed forward when knocked down in a fight and doing the same for my fellow Martial Artists.

 

Being encouraged to write my thoughts down and share them with the world. Being told, “Hey, that guy was wrong! You are good enough!” by some wonderful instructors, people who push you when you need pushing, not hold you down and try and drown you. People who want to see you be a tall poppy.

 

Panic attacks happen to me nowadays, it is the price we pay for the fast lifestyles we all lead, but now I don’t let them engulf me. Now, they can be a sign I need to rest, slow down a bit, try and get some sleep, but they are no longer the big factor in my life, they just run alongside it and have their say now and again, and that is okay. That I can live with.


Mayhem and Martial Arts, they both have their place in this thing we call our Mental Health. I would recommend anyone who is suffering with the issues outlined in this piece to at try a class. Just once, just once might be all it takes to get you hooked. It might be all you need to take the anxiety away.

Simon is available for talks, seminars, interviews and podcasts. Please contact Julie at info@simonmorrell.com for availability. 

 

 

 

 

 

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