Some people fear that if they have problems keeping their temper, learning a martial art such as karate could cause them to lose control and really hurt someone. But is this fear justified and is it possible that instead of causing you to lose control, karate might be able to help you keep your cool, instead?
Does karate help with anger and discipline? Karate is physical exercise and the scientific evidence shows that it is a major help with anger, aggression, and discipline. Many karate practices also include meditation, which is scientifically proven to reduce anger and increase self discipline.
So, let’s take a closer look at karate, anger and why karate might be the perfect way to help you gain control of your anger and impose some emotional discipline on your life.
What Is Anger Exactly?
It might help, before we begin, to define what we mean by anger. This is important because it is often assumed that we all have the same understanding of emotions but this is not the case and in fact, many people do not have a clear understanding of their emotional language (there is even a word to describe such emotional blindness called Alexithymia).
So, according to the American Psychological Association, anger is “emotion characterized by antagonism toward someone or something you feel has deliberately done you wrong.”
There Is Nothing Wrong With Anger
It is important for us to recognize very early in this process that there is nothing wrong with being angry in some circumstances.
Imagine, you have had a long hard day at work and on the way home, you spend the last of your cash on some food and drink to take home. As you are crossing the road, a person on a passing motorbike snatches your food and drink from your hands and speeds off with them, never to be seen again.
It is perfectly natural to be angry about this. You have had someone deliberately do you wrong and that is what anger is for.
As Ken Eisold PhD told Psychology Today, “Anger is a normal, adaptive human emotion.”
Anger Can Be Positive
Anger may serve two positive purposes in our lives: the first is that it enables us to articulate why we are feeling bad and the second is to motivate us to solve the problems that make us feel bad.
When Anger Becomes Harmful
Anger only becomes harmful when it arrives in excessive quantities and where every minor bump in the road is greeted with the same fits of rage as major injustices.
Not only does this kind of anger make people unpleasant to be around, but it can increase their blood pressure (thus risking their health) and interfere with their ability to think clearly and make rational valuable decisions.
It is in the case of excessive anger that we should seek to learn to manage our anger. The occasional outburst of anger is healthy but non-stop anger is most definitely not.
As Bruce Lee said, “emotion can be the enemy. If you give into your emotion, you lose yourself.”
Before we see how karate might help someone manage their anger it might help just to sketch out what karate is and how it came about.
Karate is a modern invention. Though it finds its roots in both te, an early Japanese martial art, and Kung Fu, a Chinese martial art by the time karate was given structure and popularized in Japan (in the 1920s) there was no longer a real need for martial arts in the sense of a fighting discipline for war.
After all, the gun and the bomb had already proven to be far more effective than bare handed combat in winning wars.
Thus, karate was more about providing a student with a way of life (and indeed karate’s full title karate-do alludes to this in Japanese) than with a fighting system designed to do violence against others and oddly, students were instructed that if it were possible a karateka (a student of karate) ought to avoid fighting completely.
Thus, karate is not an art of unbridled violence, which would almost certainly be a bad idea for someone with anger management problems but a more subtle and innovative art which has real lessons for anger management.
How Karate Can Help With Anger Management Issues
The connections between the ability to control anger, martial arts (and more widely-exercise) and mindfulness are only beginning to be effectively explored in the laboratory. More and more evidence is surely still to emerge in the future as large scale investigations are conducted.
For now, however, there are five key areas for karate and its ability to manage anger: self-control, the ability to reduce stress via physical exercise, learning to focus, mindfulness and simply having an outlet for your anger. Let’s take a look at each area in a little more detail:
Self-Control: Values And Rules
One of the simplest ways that karate can help you manage your anger is by providing a framework of rules and values to work within.
Many people with issues around expressing their emotions are in this place because they did not effectively learn such a framework when they were young either at home or at school.
This is not to cast blame on someone’s parents or your teachers – nobody shows either group how to properly instill such self-control in children and even if they did, the methodology they used might not have been effective for their children.
The first lesson any dojo teaches is that you must treat other people with respect. You bow to show respect for your sensei. You bow to your opponent before sparring or a match. You know that you must not interrupt your sensei when he or she is talking.
You also learn that there are consequences for failing to follow these rules and the values of karate. We may be required to act out a physical punishment (such as bunny hopping) for transgressing the rules.
This is important because it allows us, over time, to develop self-control. We want to follow the rules because it wins the respect of our peers and our sensei and we don’t want to be punished for not doing so.
This is a very effective method of teaching self-control and one that has been used for centuries in Eastern Asia.
The Physical Reduction Of Stress
All physical activity has been proven to help lower levels of stress in the human body. Harvard Health says that there are mental benefits gained from aerobic exercise (that is exercise in which the heart rate is elevated) and among these benefits are a reduction in stress.
Stress is reduced because a raised heart rate forces the body to burn chemicals such as adrenalin and cortisol which are the neurochemicals that cause stress. As well as lowering stress, such exercise also helps the body to produce substances called endorphins.
Endorphins are our all-natural happy pill. In long distance runners they can produce an actual “high” but in almost all forms of exercise they lead to a greater feeling of well-being and general optimism.
It is hard to be angry when you are feeling good and stress-free.
It’s important to note that not only karate has this benefit and, indeed, all forms of exercise are able to help manage your stress levels. Even a simple walk around the block can get the endorphins flowing and the stress chemical levels plummeting. This might be worth remembering if you find yourself getting angry away from the dojo.
The American Psychological Association reports that regular exercise is reported to help manage stress in over 62% of adults!
Gaining The Ability To Focus
Karate is all about focus. A karateka is taught from the very beginning to focus on their body. They need to understand the proper positioning and the proper posture for each move. Learning to be aware of your body is an essential part of being able to fight successfully.
This awareness also requires a certain amount of mental capacity. This is capacity that your brain has to free up from somewhere. The more you concentrate on your body and how to carry out the right moves and positions in your karate – the more it becomes difficult to hold on to your emotions.
That’s because you do not have unlimited capacity in the brain, you can only bring your attention to bear on one thing, effectively, at a time. When you’re focusing on your body, you’re allowing other things to drift away from your attention.
So, even if you begin a karate session boiling with unexpressed anger, you may well find that within a few minutes, your rage begins to evaporate. You cannot hold your anger because you have other uses for your attention.
The Government of Western Australia recommends the use of mental distractions to help with anger management. Fortunately, karate is designed to provide such distractions so that you don’t have to go out of your way to find them.
The Discipline Of Karate (Mindfulness)
As with most martial arts developed in East Asia there is a large amount of mindfulness (or meditation) training involved in most karate dojos. Now, this may be taught separately as part of the philosophy of the dojo or it may be taught as part of lessons on fighting, both may be equally as effective.
Certainly, in Kung Fu (from which karate is drawn), practitioners are explicitly taught to meditate whilst sitting and whilst moving in Kung Fu forms in order to be able to most aware of their situation at all times.
In karate, much of mindfulness training comes in the form of Mokuso meditation and breathing techniques. It doesn’t matter too much how the meditation element comes about, what does matter is that meditation is proven to have real benefits for anger management.
A study reported in Psychology Today in 2016, found that just 20 minutes of meditation could help protect the body from the harmful effects of anger, in that it reduced blood pressure, decreased heart rate and enabled deeper more even breathing.
Another study in 2013, showed that just 5-10 minutes of meditation a day over a period of a week could significantly improve someone’s mood and make them much less prone to anger. The study recommended meditation as a very useful control for personal anger in both the medium and long-term.
An Outlet For Your Anger
The final benefit may be the most obvious of all. What do you want to do when you are angry? For most people it’s to make some noise and maybe to hit something. Guess what? You’re going to have plenty of opportunity to do both of those things in a karate session.
Karate practitioners are well known for being a noisy bunch. In fact, karate encourages the use of “kiah” which is a shout designed to demoralize an opponent when fighting. If you walk through any karate dojo during a training session, you will quickly come to realize that this is not a martial art of the timorous or quiet soul.
Shouting expends energy. The more energy you use in pursuit of karate, the less energy you have to bring to bear on anger. Your mind only has so much energy to give and it is not possible for it to spend that energy on anger when it is being spent elsewhere.
Karate is also a striking martial art. That is, it’s all about kicks, punches and strikes. If you feel the need to get physical, go line up against a bag and let your rage have free reign as you attack it. The bag won’t mind.
As you expend your physical energy beating up a bag, you will quickly find your emotions returning to normal. Again, there’s only so much energy that you can use at any one time, spend it on beating on a bag – you have none left to fuel your anger and rage.
A Scientific Shout Out For Karate
One more interesting piece of evidence for anger management is this study from March of 2012, which was published in the Iranian Journal of Pediatrics by Ziaee et al. It was a specific study on anger management which looked at both karate and judo and their role in helping teens manage their anger.
Surprisingly, they found that judo had no real effect on managing anger and that boys who undertook judo were as angry as those who took on no exercise program at all. However, they found that those who undertook a program of karate had significantly less anger than those who did not exercise.
This is nice confirmation that the other evidence stacks up and that karate delivers the anger management benefits we assumed that it would have.
Does karate help with anger and discipline? Karate most certainly does help with anger and discipline. The Iranian study shows beyond a shadow of doubt that karate helps manage anger and create discipline. And digging beneath the surface a little, we can see that there are at least 5 areas of karate practice that taken in isolation might help us manage anger too.
It is important to remember that not all anger is unhealthy and that when you are genuinely wronged by another person, it is OK to be angry. But if you find yourself angry all the time, then karate might be the cure that you’ve been looking for.