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How Kickboxing Helps Me Channel My Anger and Manage My Depression

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Photography by Golero/Getty Image

Photography by Golero/Getty Image

by Anne-Marie Varga

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Joslyn Jelinek, LCSW

•••••

by Anne-Marie Varga

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Joslyn Jelinek, LCSW

•••••

This is my journey battling depression through kickboxing, discovering empowerment, and reclaiming some control over my mental health.

My good ol’ friend Depression — or as I like to call her, Maude — has recently paid me a visit.

Can’t say I’ve enjoyed her company. I quite honestly hate it when she crashes with me. She’s such a rude roommate. She takes up way too much space — rent-free, may I add — in my mind.

She helps herself to my insecurities and anxieties, which I have specifically kept on my shelf in the fridge. She never does her dishes, and she’s a total slob. She’s a horrible influence, really.

As much as I’d like to evict her and tell her that she’s no longer welcome, to tell her that our gross, parasitic relationship is over and that she’s the worst roommate ever, I can’t. She’s part of me. And, unfortunately, she’ll always have a place to stay in the apartments of my mind.

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Recognizing my personal signs of a depressive episode

I’ve felt my mental health slipping for the past 4 months or so. I’ve been living in a new country and finding it quite difficult to adapt. After 5 years of depression, with, on average, two episodes a year, I’ve learned to navigate the signs.

Withdrawing socially? Check. Chronically tired? Check. Desire to listen to podcasts rather than music as a way to avoid my own thoughts? Check. Rewatching “Pride and Prejudice” (1995) every night before bed? Check.

I feel that depression, historically, has been used interchangeably with sadness. If you’re depressed, you must be unable to get out of bed. If you’re depressed, you must be either gaining weight or losing it. If you’re depressed, you must be ignoring calls and texts. If you’re depressed, you must be suicidal.

While, yes, all of these things can be true, I’ve learned within the last 5 years that depression is not so much always extreme sadness or extreme apathy.

It’s, to me, losing the plot of my own story. It’s when my emotions control me, and I’ve temporarily forgotten how to control them. They overwhelm me completely. They’re untrained dogs, off-leash, unwilling, and unable to listen to my commands.

My depression has manifested as many things. Sadness, as described above, has often conducted the orchestra of my life. But other times, Fear has been the maestro. So has Apathy. And so has Anger. Sometimes, they’re all co-conductors.

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Using exercise to treat my irritability and anger

For years, I’ve been using exercise as a form of medication. I suppose I have Maude to thank for it. It was my depression that introduced me to a fitness regimen. Five years ago, during my first therapy session, my therapist suggested I try a form of exercise, like kickboxing, as a way to get some endorphins.

I tried one session and was hooked. I loved the release of energy. I loved having 45 minutes thinking about nothing but my body and form. I loved improving. Each punch became more powerful, each kick became more forceful, and each combo became more fluid. Leaving a kickboxing class, I felt strong and capable — two emotions I hadn’t felt in quite some time.

Amidst this current episode, I’ve felt sad, yes, but also very, very irritable — at strangers, at colleagues, at friends, and at myself. And I’ve had a strong desire to punch something. Really, really hard.

I’ve found in the past that anger has been an uncomfortable emotion for me to express. I don’t like how it feels and often suppress it — which may be to my own detriment. Studies used in a 2014 case report claim that conflicts with anger can play a “central role in the onset and persistence of depression.” Some consider depression to be a type of “self-directed anger.”

As I noticed my mental health slipping in the past few months, I asked a friend at my gym — a trained kickboxing trainer and competitor — for some personal kickboxing lessons.

The power of pushing myself

I was worried that my irritability was making me bitter and unlikeable in my daily life, and I know from experience that channeling emotions into something is better than holding them in. Plus, sessions with him would allow me the opportunity to punch that certain something really, really hard as I so badly wanted (and needed) to do.

My first kickboxing session was rough. I consider myself a fit human, but after taking a few years off from the sport, my body had to readjust to the level of stamina, coordination, and strength it required.

After warming up, my trainer, Max, held up pads and began calling out certain punches (i.e., jab, cross, hook, uppercut, etc.), increasing speed, and changing combos as we continued. With every punch, I felt something release within myself.

As we finished the first session, Max had me do a couple of 3-minute boxing rounds, again calling out punches (or just holding his pads in position) for me to hit. By the end of our 1-hour session, I was quite tired. My form was faltering. My punches felt weaker and slower. My mind was telling me I couldn’t do anymore.

But Max pushed me to continue. “You’ve got it in you,” he said. “Come on, hit it. Push through.”

It was during the last bit of class where, at my most fatigued, I felt my most powerful. I did have it in me. I could push through.

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Finding relief in kickboxing

As Max called out the punches, I thought about my work frustrations. I hit. I thought about my disappointment with my professional writing career. I hit. I thought about how badly I miss my friends and family. I hit. I thought about Maude. I hit.

The moment felt, in a way, out-of-body. During those 3-minute rounds, Max disappeared. The gym disappeared. My problems disappeared. Maude disappeared. The anger, irritability, and sadness that had been consuming my every waking moment for the past 4 months finally had someplace to go.

I had found a place where the untrained dogs could run wild, where unleashed emotions were actually welcomed and encouraged.

I’ve been kickboxing weekly for the past month or so. I’m obsessed with the feelings I have upon completing a session. I feel badass. I feel strong. I feel proud. I feel better.

The takeaway

The sessions come to an end, and though I’m tired, I don’t want to stop. I enjoy improving my form and becoming more disciplined with my movements. I love letting my anger and frustration run rampant. For an hour, Maude is silenced. And for the rest of the day, my anger and irritability simmer.

As I train, I feel my skills and form developing. I get a rush of validation each time I adhere to Max’s instructions and improve a punch or kick.

Though, I suppose, I have nothing to convince him of.

After all, he is the one who said it during that first session: You’ve got it in you. I’ve never had to prove a thing to him. He’s known it all along. It’s me. I’ve had to prove it to me.

Medically reviewed on May 16, 2024

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About the author

Anne-Marie Varga

Anne-Marie Varga has a dual degree in English Literature and French from the University of Michigan and a Master’s in Digital Media from New York University. She’s an aspiring novelist based in Brooklyn, New York, and is currently working in children’s book publishing. When she’s not writing, she’s most likely watching the Great British Bakeoff or doing her part to dismantle the patriarchy. You can check her out on Instagram, Twitter, or at her website.

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