Can You Be Addicted to Jiu-Jitsu, and Does It Matter?

I am a fortunate person with a lot to be grateful for. Even so, for as long as I can remember, I have also experienced anxiety and depression. When I was 4 or 5, I worried that the Earth could run out of oxygen. I remember hoping it would happen when I was asleep so I would not have to experience suffocation. I never told my parents my worries because I did not know other kids thought any different.

(This was before I learned about photosynthesis, and now, while I like plants, I do not like that there will always be a power differential.)

As I got older, these kinds of thoughts stuck with me and changed as my experiences did. I began to worry about things like body image, my performance at school and work, my worth as a person, what I was doing with my life, whether I am lovable. I swear: I am generally okay. I just think too much.

Recently, I had a great conversation with Paul Moran of Open Mat Radio. Paul encapsulated my experience when he summarized a Buddhist saying that describes depression as dwelling on the past and anxiety as dwelling on the future. Because I cannot even leave well enough alone when it comes to feeling bad, I sometimes get depressed about things that did not actually happen and feel anxious about things that are highly unlikely to.

I have used many strategies for managing these tendencies, including talk therapy and antidepressants. Then along came Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. It will not be surprising to others who train that jiu-jitsu has been a source of super-good feels from the very first time I tried it. On our most rewarding days, jiu-jitsu washes over me like a wave of joy. Even on more low-key days, though, I end up with a contact high.

As I have become ensconced in a life structured around jiu-jitsu, I have also experienced the flip side of training, where if I cannot train, I get antsy or irritable. My reaction to disruptions in my training used to be intense. That reaction has become subtler recently, though it is still profound. Once I have trained again after a forced hiatus, I experience that post-session high and realize I have been moody (depressed) or cranky (anxious) in the absence of training.

It is not lost on me that I have used the word “high” more than once to describe the feeling I get from training. The things I noticed about how I feel when I train compared to when I do not made me wonder about the following questions:

Is it possible to be addicted to jiu-jitsu?

If it is, does it matter?

Clinical Jiu-Jitsu

My father is a retired psychologist who specialized in addictions counseling during his career. When I shared my questions and training experiences, he confirmed that what I was describing could fall under the heading of addiction. We dug a little deeper, looking for definitions of “addiction” to explore my questions further. Below is some of what we found.

From the Free Medical Dictionary: “Addiction is a persistent, compulsive dependence on a behavior or substance…Addiction has been extended…to include mood-altering behaviors or activities. Some researchers speak of two types of addictions: substance addictions (for example, alcoholism, drug abuse, and smoking); and process addictions (for example, gambling, spending, shopping, eating, and sexual activity).” 

From the American Society of Addiction Medicine: “Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response.”

From Psychology Today: “Addiction is a condition that results when a person ingests a substance (e.g., alcohol, cocaine, nicotine) or engages in an activity (e.g., gambling, sex, shopping) that can be pleasurable but the continued use/act of which becomes compulsive and interferes with ordinary life responsibilities, such as work, relationships, or health. Users may not be aware that their behavior is out of control and causing problems for themselves and others.”

Other definitions from reputable sources focused on substances as the target of abuse, but the ones above indicate a shift toward including activities as well, activities like training. These definitions also describe some of my thoughts and experiences with jiu-jitsu. I have felt “compulsively dependent” on jiu-jitsu. I have seen “significant” changes in my behaviors and interpersonal relationships, some of which could be described as “problematic.” I have experienced “interference with ordinary life responsibilities,” including work, relationships, and health, in that I have quit jobs, disrespected friendships, and exacerbated illness and injury to pursue training.

Add to that the mood enhancement I feel when I train and the discombobulation when I do not, and I lean toward yes, it is possible to be addicted to jiu-jitsu, and that in a real sense, I am.

This leads to my second question: Does it matter? If we accept the idea that practitioners can become addicted to training, is that something we should worry about? As individuals and as a community?

Practical Jiu-Jitsu Addiction

On its face, embracing a jiu-jitsu lifestyle seems uniformly positive. There are numerous stories of people at the beginning of their training journeys experiencing a domino effect: As they get in better shape, they make healthier diet, rest, and lifestyle choices so they can be at their best for training. These are surely positive things, given our culture’s focus on the importance of a healthy diet and regular exercise, right?

Maybe. In recent years, conditions like exercise bulimia (a preoccupation with exercising in order to burn excess calories) and orthorexia (a preoccupation with eating healthily) have risen in prominence. The idea is that even though exercise and healthy eating are considered good things, too much of them can be bad, as excessive attention to them can be disruptive. At times my attention to jiu-jitsu has been disruptive in that way.

In the language of addiction, I am in recovery. I am not willing to abstain from jiu-jitsu the way someone in recovery from an alcohol addiction might because training does bring me so much that is truly positive. Like someone in recovery from an eating disorder, then, I will always have to make sure that my orientation toward jiu-jitsu is on the healthier end of the spectrum and does not devolve into compulsion. This takes consistent effort, but I am pretty good at it now.

As I have learned more about my own relationship with jiu-jitsu, including the addictive elements of it, I have realized it is up to me to decide whether (in my case, when) my relationship with it is problematic. I recognize that not everyone who trains, not even everyone who trains more than would be healthy for me, is a jiu-jitsu addict. Still, comparing my relationship with jiu-jitsu to the nature of an addiction is helpful to me in doing what I need to to stay on the healthy side of the line.

What are your thoughts? Have you ever joked that you are addicted to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu? Have you not joked about it because it rang a little too true? Post your experiences to comments.

About Valerie Worthington

Here, in no particular order, are some of the things that define me: parents who are psychologists, a childhood spent in the New Jersey suburbs except for a year my family spent in Germany, studying English literature and learning theory, always trying for the funny--not matter how self-deprecating, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a martial art I have been training for almost 20 years. I travel a lot and enjoy snacks just as much. I am reasonably intelligent, but this is undercut by my love of irreverence and childish humor. I am also the author of Training Wheels: How a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Road Trip Jump-Started My Search for a Fulfilling Life.