Have you ever had one of those days where you’re running late to work, force yourself into an overcrowded train and try to keep what little sanity you have left as you drink your third cup of coffee? That’s what stress looks like. And it manifests in various forms, from insomnia and headaches to losing your temper rather hastily. While there’s plenty of conversation around managing stress, this article will argue for the use of karate as a valuable tool for aiding in stress management. Startlingly, UK Youth, a national charity carried out a study on 1000 adults aged 18-25 and found that individuals spent roughly six hours a day feeling stressed and anxious. In a period when mental health issues are at an all-time high, it’s safe to assume that there is adequate need for initiative coping strategies.

My martial arts journey began at the age of ten and what started as a casual hobby has become an integral part of my life spanning over twelve years. I joined the instructing program early on which has given me a vast insight into understanding karate on a deeper level; for example, having to explain and demonstrate techniques to students and answering challenging questions about the practise. Alongside this, I took an interest in psychology and graduated from university last year. I now carry out intervention plans and therapy for clients suffering from mental health issues which has enabled me to experience the stress people suffer through daily. My training has been a positive factor in developing my therapeutic work as there is much to be taken from karate that is transferrable to all aspects of one’s life particularly in relation to stress.

The basic foundation of karate training lies with the three Ks, Kihon, Kata and Kumite. Let us first consider kumite or sparring.  Training against an opponent helps to develop skills such as timing and accuracy of movement. More importantly, it harnesses the ability to control our fight or flight response. Imagine a scenario; as you’re reading this, you look up and a person is standing there wielding a knife. What do you do? Do you run? Do you stay still and wait for their next move? Your heart is most likely racing while your brain tries to make a quick decision. The term fight or flight represents this choice our brain is making. When put in a stressful and dangerous situation, this physiological response system is our body’s way of handling stress.

Therefore, kumite which is practised weekly, fosters the ability to have control over this system because it is a preparation for the real thing. It requires us to develop skills such as concentration, strategy and accuracy. It is so much a part of the routine, having the adrenaline pumping and making on the spot decisions, that a student becomes accustomed to feeling stressed. This almost normalises the fight or flight response and is no longer a shock to the system. There is a sense of instinct and calmness that is acquired through developing our sparring; in fact, a study looking at the short term effect of martial arts training found that when measuring stress amongst karate students versus those who hadn’t trained in martial arts was considerably less when put under stress.

One area that is involved in our perceived sense of stress is our senses. This is evidenced by research whereby one study found that when participants inhaled aromas, it resulted in calmer moods and slower heart rates than their original baseline. Why is this relevant? As I mentioned previously, one of the three fundamentals of karate is kata. This is known as a form and considered to be the heart of karate. It is a set of movements that is structured in a certain format and requires focus and concentration. As soon as the kata is announced a person becomes completely focused on executing the set of movements to the best of their ability. Additionally, kata teaches one how to breathe. Certain movements require more forceful exhalation while others are slow and deliberate. These factors are what make kata a type of moving meditation and this is imperative when attempting to lower stress levels.

A study investigating the effect of kata on cognitive performance found that individuals had reduced anxiety after participating in kata practise for a number of weeks. I remember when I first started training, fully memorising a kata and feeling satisfied with it only for my Sensei to look at it and say “Ok well now do it ten more times!” As a youngster this can be frustrating but looking back, there is a lot to be said about the rigor of kata.

We practise the same forms over and over and by doing this, we achieve a level of concentration and determination that can only be found through kata. Just look at the hustle and bustle of daily life; the senses are constantly in overdrive, one eye on the tv, listening to someone chatter on the phone and planning tomorrow’s events. Kata gives us this sense of focus, just concentrating on the same set of movements again and again while our mind is given a rest.

Since graduating from university last year, I found it difficult to balance different areas in my life, to the point of cutting on sleep and meals. As one can imagine, environmental habits are imperative in maintaining a healthy mind. A recent US study, concluded that amongst older adults physical activity and a healthy diet were significant contributors to a higher well-being.

Last year, I had the opportunity to discuss this with a Master shiatsu practitioner and asked him for advice. He spoke about forming small habits that separated my work from home life, for example; changing my clothes and unwinding. This idea of a set ritual helps to focus the mind and acts as a focal point in transitioning to a different activity rather than being mentally in four or five different places.

I had a client a few months ago who suffered from severe anxiety and panic attacks; he was desperate for help stating that he had ‘tried everything’ from anxiety medication to private therapy, even hypnosis. My experience as a karate practitioner has taught me that there is nothing more powerful than meditation.  Every week at training, there are certain practises we complete before starting the lesson. Incense is lit, a bell is rung and meditation is carried out. As I mentioned with regards to kata, the sounds and the smells give a sense of focus and concentration so our hectic minds are able to slow down and process everything for a moment. For this reason, I wrote a set of instructions into his intervention plan which run as follows and can be a useful aid for stress in general:

  • Space – find a quiet and comfortable place where there is minimal interference for your senses i.e. a room that is at an adequate temperature, where you won’t have any interruptions and isn’t too dark or bright
  • Posture – sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes, relax your shoulders and keep your back straight
  • Breathing – breathe deeply in through your nose and exhale out through your mouth slowly, and continually repeat this
  • Focus – it’s important to concentrate only on your breathing. There may be moments where your mind suddenly decides that your leg is itching or that you haven’t decided what to eat for dinner tonight and this is normal. All that needs to be done, is to bring your mind back to the present and focus on the inhale and exhale. It may be helpful to have a calming smell by using incense or perfume
  • Feeling – complete this exercise for any length of time, your mind and body will tell you when the stress levels have been lowered; by the relaxation of muscles and the ability to think clearer

This technique is called Mokuso, the Japanese name for meditation and it is something we practise at the beginning of training every week, to focus our minds. While this may seem like an obvious and easy task to accomplish, ask yourself this. When was the last time you sat there, did and thought of nothing? I’m sure that is a difficult question to answer which highlights the importance of having the opportunity to focus ourselves.

The founder of karate, Gichin Funakoshi, once said ‘When you look at life think in terms of karate. But remember that karate is not only karate — it is life.’ Karate is something that is convenient for all areas of life and can be used as a coping mechanism. A few months ago I was taking part in a counselling course where we practised being a therapist and client. My partner started crying telling her story and my tutor commented on how calm I was for someone in that situation for the first time. That didn’t come out of nowhere; the sense of calmness came from years of kata practise, from learning to deal with unexpected scenarios through kumite and from learning to focus through meditating. It is a difficult task to sit there and do or think of nothing, but I challenge you to find five minutes today to carry out the exercise above and relieve yourself of any stress you are holding. Furthermore, consider pursuing a dojo that promotes this type of traditional training and see where the journey takes you.