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The Gift of Resilience

As I mentioned, this blog is not only going to be about lessons from the colonel, I will share perspectives from the many positive and wise people in my life. When my professional sports career ended, not on my own terms I might add, I was feeling lost. Who the hell am I without this title. As with many people leaving their profession, I struggled with identity. I didn’t know these things then, I just knew I didn’t feel like myself. Back then I didn’t even believe mental health was real. I just needed to work harder and I would improve. I figured it must have been diet related so I scheduled an appointment with my naturopath doctor to get some blood work. He did a male hormonal panel and a food allergy test. A couple weeks later I returned to my doctor for the report.

If any of you have ever been to a naturopath, the appointments aren’t your normal 45-minute wait in the lobby followed by a five-minute consultation. This appointment was at least an hour long. It was more of a biopsychosocial intake. He asked me a bunch of questions about my current environment and changes I was experiencing, with the biggest change no longer being a professional athlete. The first thing he said about my blood work was, “everything is basically fine except that you have the testosterone of a teenage girl.” He went on to say he’d assume I took testosterone before if he hadn’t known me so well and went on to say that he wasn’t going to prescribe me testosterone since I was only in my early thirties.

During the intake I mentioned that I was waking up with “butterflies” and constantly had a feeling that something bad was about to happen. I also told him my sleep patterns were shit and I was only getting about four hours of sleep a night. My doctor said my lack of sleep and “anxiety” were likely the cause of my low testosterone with the latter not being as much of a concern to him. I was caught off by the term “anxiety.” I told him they were butterflies, you know the ones that you have before a game or match and go away once the event begins. He just laughed. He gave me a couple natural sleep remedies and prescribed me to go to counseling and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. He told me to come back in six weeks and we will see how my male panel looks. Counseling definitely wasn’t happening but I was open to Jiu Jitsu.

Without going into too much details, my first class was great and terrible at the same time. I got my ass whooped by people half my size that definitely were never professional athletes. I was hooked. I went three days a week. I would go in with butterflies every morning, and they would disappear once we began rolling. I was experiencing a real threat such as someone trying to choke me out or break my arm (submissions). I would tap fast and tap often to these submissions which would tell my partner to let go. I’d ask the professor how to escape the predicaments I was in and I would further explore on YouTube when I went home. Before I knew it I could presents others with those same threats.

When I returned to my doctor and did my blood work, my testosterone was in a normal range. I was sleeping better and I didn’t even realize until he asked that I was no longer waking up with butterfly’s “anxiety” and my irrational fear that something bad was going to happen had decreased SIGNIFICANTLY. In a nutshell, my doctor said my nervous system was out of balance. I had irrational fears of threats that weren’t even there. Jiu Jitsu helped restore my balance by exposing my nervous system to real threats. Furthermore, through skill acquisition, I learned ways to mitigate or escape those threats allowing me to be less anxious overall.

As Bessel Van Der Kolk describes in The Body Keeps Score, the body responds to extreme experiences by secreting stress hormones. These hormones can give us the strength and endurance to respond to extreme situations. Some individuals, for various reasons can be in a place where these stress hormones are continuously being pumped and activation patterns that were meant for coping can turn against someone and fuel inappropriate fight, flight, and freeze responses (2014). That’s basically where I was, waking up to inappropriate fight, flight, and freeze responses. I am not saying Jiu Jitsu cured me, nor is it a panacea for mental health. Many people should seek professional advice, I eventually did and now I am able to give it. What I am saying is that each class definitely gave me a little gift of resilience and started me on my path of counseling, self-awareness, and adaptive coping.

For those that have “butterflies” like I did, try stepping out of your comfort zone. It doesn’t have to be a Jiu Jitsu class. Try something that sounds intriguing and scary at the same time. It could be a yoga class, chokes aren’t required. Behaviorists discovered long ago that when a person voluntarily exposes themselves to something they are afraid of, the result is often they become braver overall!

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