Fighting Shadows of Depression

Depression and shadow boxing have a lot in common. Admittedly, as a licensed psychologist in Peachtree City, I’m probably the least qualified expert on the fine art of shadow boxing, but let me explain.

Shadow boxing is one of the oldest and most time-tested forms of boxing training. You’ve probably seen it in countless movies during training montages where the boxer stands in front of a mirror, punching, dipping and dodging. You punch, but you also try and move out of the way so that your punch doesn’t hit your reflection. It’s more than a physical warm-up. In essence, you’re fighting not only yourself, but also a better version of yourself.

The metaphor really struck home after hearing the story of famed MMA (that’s mixed martial arts, I recently learned) fighter Ronda Rousey and her public struggles with depression, low self-esteem and suicidal thoughts.

To help frame this story, here’s the tale of the tape:

  • Ronda is a California girl, born in 1987
  • Suffered from a severe speech disorder at an early age
  • Father committed suicide after an accident left him paralyzed
  • Started judo at age 11 and went on to win an Olympic Bronze Medal (first U.S. woman to medal in Olympic Judo)
  • Before her November 2015 fight with Holly Holm she had a perfect record and was the most feared female fighter in the world
  • After that loss, Ronda was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, starred in the remake of the movie “Roadhouse” and was active on the TV talk show circuit

This is all to say that by just about every definition of today’s society, Ronda Rousey is a success. But this has come at a cost. As Jennifer Teubl wrote in a recent blog post, after Ronda’s shocking loss in November…her first-ever MMA loss…Ronda was stunned, she suffered from depression and even contemplated suicide. This is a common reaction to traumatic events. Self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff wrote in a 2014 paper that “When we feel threatened by external danger, our survival often depends on our ability to fight, flee or freeze. But when we’re threatened internally by intense emotions such as dread or shame, the fight-flight-freeze response turns into an unholy trinity of self-criticism, self-isolation and self-absorption.”

This is exactly where Ronda was the days and weeks after her loss. Like many of us, she stood in front of her mirror and the shadows began punching back faster than she could move out of the way. Ms. Rousey’s reaction makes sense given this was loss ruined an otherwise perfect career. Think about it – you train every day for the past five years, pouring countless hours of pain, sweat and bruising into honing and perfecting your craft, you shun friendships, you deprive yourself of normalcy, and in the blink of an eye, it’s gone. How do you deal with that? How to you reconcile everything you’ve invested for half a decade and it’s all gone, and it’s all your fault. The shadow has overpowered you and you don’t know what to do, where to turn or how to move on.

I’ve been there. We all have had depression to one degree or another. You may be there right now. If your shadow is punching back faster and harder than you can get out of the way, I challenge you to change your tactics. Stand back a second and pause. Take a moment to re-evaluate the real situation when you’re not in the heat of the battle.

At The Life Change Group we’ve found that one of the most popular strategies to achieve that perspective is to use mindfulness techniques. The Harvard Business Review did a study in 2011 showing that “present moment awareness (aka mindfulness) changes the brain…with a study on participants who completed an eight-week mindfulness program, we observed significant increases in the density of their grey matter.” Mindfulness literally changes the wiring of the brain and allows us to deal with traumatic situations in better ways. Sometimes you need to stop punching and think. As the HBR article continues, mindfulness is “a way to keep our brains healthy, to support self-regulation and effective decision-making capabilities, and to protect ourselves from toxic stress.”

Whether you’re a teacher, housewife, student or the former heavyweight champion of the world, the key to beating the demons of depression in your life may not be in how fast you can punch, but rather how quickly you can steady yourself, regain control of your mind and visualize the possible ways to solve your problem.

By: Dr. Pam Wright, Founder and Clinical Director, The Life Change Group