Illustration by Sarah Lutkenhaus

How A Boxing Class Helped Me With My Anxiety And Depression

And got my physical ass in shape

by Hafeezah Nazim

“How often do you exercise?” my therapist asked me one day in the middle of an intense session.

“Not unless it’s walking," I said. That was mostly the depression in me talking. I barely wanted to get out of bed in the morning, let alone exert energy I didn’t have on something that would ultimately make me feel sore and drained. Sure, I knew my therapist had (and still has) my best interests at heart, but exercise? I’d rather throw myself down a flight of stairs than jog up them.

He offered a smile, “I think it will really help you feel less lethargic, less angry. It might also help you sleep better at night. No pressure.” I told him that I would consider it.

Nearly three years later, I finally took his advice.

A little about me: The last time I properly worked out was in high school, and only because my performance was attached to a grade. There were two instances in college in which I managed to not do the bare minimum, which included a time when my roommate and I woke up early one morning to attend a Pilates class and a few isolated incidents when I had to make quick dashes to class after waking up late. There was also that one time this August when I learned three quick and equipment-free exercises,= to try and motivate me at home, but ultimately, I neglected that, too. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that in order for me to be continuously active, I would need discipline or guidance of someone else in the room.

So when I signed up to take a boxing class at Overthrow’s new Brooklyn, New York, location, I knew I was going to be in for the workout of a lifetime. And though I was anxious about how the week would go, deep down, I was excited.

I have been going to therapy for about three years and have been suffering from anxiety and depression for what seems to be the majority of my life. It’s been a pretty rough battle over the years, and while therapy has definitely helped me get through difficult parts of my life, I couldn't shake off a voice inside me that told me something was missing. I thought that because I was actively talking to a trained professional twice a week that I was being proactive in taking care of my mental health. But it turns out that while therapy is the first step towards seeking help, it’s not the only step one can take. After just one week of combining my boxing classes with therapy, I noticed an enormous change in my mental health, not only because I was getting active but also because for once in my life, I was able to get out my head and into my body.

Such was the case for Ro Malabanan, Overthrow Brooklyn’s general manager and one of my instructors for the week. A fitness instructor and personal trainer for over 20 years, Malabanan told me he began boxing at the age of 16. “Boxing has changed my life because it gave me purpose, a sense of direction,” he says. “When I was younger, I was lost and confused. I did not know what I wanted to do and be when I grew up. Boxing helped me channel that energy in a positive direction. It gave me the confidence to pursue my entrepreneurial goals, such as opening my own personal training business and eventually opening up my own boxing gym.”

As I opened up to him about my own struggles with anxiety and depression before our week of classes, Malabanan revealed some of his own, and how boxing got him through it all. “In 2008 when the recession hit, I lost everything, I was broke, down, out, and depressed. I kept training and teaching boxing, which gave me the energy to keep moving forward. One more round, one more day. It helped me to keep going. Eventually, I was presented with the opportunity to teach at Overthrow, and now, I am very happy that I can share the lessons and experiences that I learned from boxing with other people.”

His candor allowed me to truly ease into my classes sans anxiety. And now that I could focus with a clear and secure mindset, I found myself concentrating on the experience of being there.

Overthrow specializes in three 45-minute classes: one-on-one courses with a trainer; a ringwork class that focuses on footwork, boxing technique, and what it feels like to move and box like a fighter; and its namesake class, which blends shadowboxing, heavy bag work, and basic boxing. And for those fearful of being the least experienced person in the ring, don’t worry—the classes are filled with a melting pot of people of different races, ages, genders, and experience levels.

I started off with the Overthrow class on my first day, which may or may not have been a mistake for a rookie. The class was intense, to say the very least, but in the same way depression and anxiety can be. Along with needing to follow the instructor’s stern but encouraging instruction on which hits to throw (jab, cross, hook, uppercut) at the gym’s heavy bags or with classmates, I also needed to be able to switch off in the middle of each rep to do core-strengthening exercises, including squats, push-ups, burpees, and more. I was drenched in sweat five minutes in and wanted to quit. My anxiety that other people were watching me struggling to keep up and failing began to thwart my concentration and tears welled up in my eyes.

But I didn’t quit. Not just for this story, but because, for the past 22 years of my life, I haven’t quit yet. When I was struggling to breathe in the class, I remembered all the moments in my life when I wanted to throw in the towel but kept going. I recalled the days that I wanted to lay in bed and cry but chose to get up and go to my classes and internships. I remembered all the times in interviews where I had to sell myself and felt like a fraud. I swallowed and did more push-ups. I took a swig of water in transition between each routine and felt my heart beat in my chest, hard. And by the time the class was over, I felt like I wanted to fall down, but also strangely like I could run an entire marathon. I called my boyfriend later that day with tears in my eyes again, excited.

That first day was the hardest of the week, but that's what they always say about the first step of anything. I explained this revelation to Ro the next day as he wrapped my hands for our one-on-one class. He explained, “Boxing and exercise can be extremely powerful in helping people cope with various mental conditions. A sport like boxing helps develop your confidence, find your inner strength, and express your self-worth. Boxing helped me cope. Being able to continue boxing and develop myself as a trainer helped me get through [a] tough time in my life.”

“Overthrow is a place where those struggling with anxiety and depression can come and let it out,” adds Overthrow founder and CEO Joseph Goodwin. “As a person who definitely is afflicted by both, boxing is an amazing outlet, and the technique and rhythm of boxing are cathartic. Overthrow is a platform for people to be themselves and 'fight' for what they believe in.”

What do I believe in? I questioned as my week began to wind down. I know I believe in the healing powers of therapy and music, but was I ready to incorporate boxing into my journey toward happiness and self-healing? By the end of the week, my muscles were shouting, “No!” but my mind was screaming “Yes!”