At 6’3″ and 245 lbs, Professor Eliot Marshall strikes an imposing figure. Throw in his black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, booming voice, and resonant self-assuredness, this former UFC fighter commands attention and respect in a way that few can. You might even call him fearsome. From the outside looking in, it would be easy to assume that the man is unshakable, afraid of nothing. You might be surprised to learn that he struggles with anxiety that sometimes keeps him up at night. The stigma surrounding mental health issues often creates the illusion that strength and vulnerability are mutually exclusive. But Eliot is here to combat that misconception, and has spent the last year pushing his own limits, challenging himself to find strength not only in spite of his vulnerability, but through it.
Struggling with Anxiety
Eliot’s anxiety first surfaced in 2002, but his first brush with it was relatively brief. It ebbed on its own, and for a long time he didn’t experience symptoms. Or, more likely, his symptoms were masked by his job. “In my UFC days, fighting hid my anxiety,” he says. Having stress about an upcoming fight, or about continuing to get fights and make money didn’t seem unusual. With something to map his anxiety onto, his feelings didn’t seem out of place.
But in 2016, with his pro MMA fighter days in the rearview, his anxiety was suddenly back with a vengeance. It was confusing at first. Feelings of fear and stress didn’t make sense. “My life was great,” he says. “I had my wife, two kids, a house–everything. I couldn’t ask for more. But I was worried about when things were going to go bad, and that thought manifested itself.” Worrying about what might go wrong made him scared of anything and everything. The anxiety gave him insomnia, and soon the worry itself became what was wrong.
This kind of recurrence of symptoms is common in anxiety disorders. Recovery and improvement aren’t necessarily linear, and this time Eliot sought help. He began seeing his therapist, Gail. He recently gave her a shoutout on Instagram, saying, “I see her every week, even when things are great. It’s my only appointment that I’m not willing to cancel. Sometimes we talk, sometimes we laugh, sometimes we talk about serious things, sometimes we talk nonsense, and sometimes I cry. If you need a Gail in your life, make it happen. If you need help getting a Gail in your life, hit me up.” Helping others to find their Gails has become Eliot’s mission.
Back in the Fire
One of the broad themes of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is becoming comfortable with discomfort. If you can survive eight minutes of being cross-faced, mounted, armbarred, and choked, the other struggles in your life start to seem less difficult. So Eliot’s philosophy is: “The obstacle is the way.” That which gives you hardship is also the source of your strength. Eliot decided that he was going to tackle his anxiety head-on. He reasons, “If we’re going to be scared and nervous, let’s force it upon ourselves. That’s when we get strong–when we get practice in being nervous. The more we can put ourselves in the fire, the better we get at burning in it. So I figured, let me give myself a reason to be scared.”
It had been a long time since he’d competed in Jiu Jitsu, and he realized he was ready for the challenge again. “I had become complacent, letting my past accolades to float me. It was time to put myself out there, and walk the walk. Rather than rely on what I had done, let’s go do something again! You always have to be challenged to become better.”
Eliot wants to set a good example, and encourage his students to take risks. He wants to show them the importance of applying pressure to themselves. He says, “Sometimes we get wrapped up in what our instructors, friends, or family will think of us when we lose. Nobody really cares, that’s all just in our head.” So he put himself back in the fire, and on July 17th, 2016, he returned to the Jiu Jitsu competition scene, defeating Warren Brooks as the co-main event at Fight to Win Pro 7 in Denver.
Competition Meets Philanthropy
Since that fight, Eliot has competed on two more Fight to Win Pro cards, as well as on another superfight card at MusclePharm. On Friday May 12th, he will compete in Fight to Win Pro 34, against Jared Dopp, and Eliot is excited. Dopp has been performing well in the Adult division, and Eliot is feeling great physically, and ready to test himself. His goal in participating in these events is to use his visibility as a platform to bring awareness to mental health issues. Tickets for Friday’s fight are available at cagetix.com and if you select Eliot as the fighter you want to support, a portion of your ticket fee will go directly to people struggling with anxiety and depression.
Eliot donates all the money he earns in competition, giving it to people who need assistance getting mental health support. You often hear about the inefficiency of non-profits: the bureaucracy, the high salaries of CEOs, and great expenses on things that don’t provide quantifiable benefit. Eliot’s approach is more direct. Right now, he simply gives funds directly to the people who need them. He is currently on the hunt for resources to build a foundation, and expand his giving. He’d eventually like to start teaching BJJ seminars, and giving all proceeds to the cause. If you or someone you know has expertise in this field, are interested in hosting a seminar, or are looking for help in dealing with your own anxiety or depression, you can contact Eliot on Facebook or Instagram (@firemarshall205).
Eliot is learning every day how to better manage his anxiety. Prior to his recent recurrence, he’d dabbled a bit in meditation, but now it’s become an essential part of his routine. He started out by using the Headspace app, and guided meditations by Sam Harris. He encourages anyone who is struggling with anxiety or depression to give it a try, and keep at it. “So many people think that practicing meditation is going to make them feel better immediately, but that’s not always the case. We’re playing the long game. If you stay consistent, you learn how to be in the present moment, to not be worried about the past or what’s coming. It took me nine months of meditating every day to even start to get there.”
And Eliot recognizes that it’s going to be a long road. “I’m a blue belt in mindfulness,” he smiles. His tips for others who want to start their training? “Don’t ever try to make a feeling leave. That’s its fuel. Wanting it to go away maintains our focus, and it’ll feed off that. When you feel that sadness, or whatever emotion you feel, just say ‘Hello.’ Just acknowledge it, and go about your day, and as you do that, the noise starts to fade.”