Overcoming Panic and Claustrophobia on The BJJ Mats

“To be buried while alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality”. – Edgar Allan Poe, The Premature Burial

 For most beginners, BJJ can feel like some violent attempt at spelunking combined with the Kama Sutra. It’s all hopeless navigation through impossibly tight crevasses (no, that’s not what she said). Alongside visions of The Enigma of Amigara Fault the ensuing panic when getting crushed on the mats raises the notorious GTFO alarm bell. More importantly, it can also give rise to claustrophobia. A few spasms and gasps later, we sheepishly tap our way out from the depths of mount or side control, somewhat embarrassed but intact.

I certainly found myself grappling with claustrophobia more than anything else when I first jumped on the mats. Even just the physical proximity involved in grappling took some major adjustments let alone getting pinned and crushed by some behemoth. My very first roll was with Ian, a 6’2”, 200lb MMA fighter who had wrestled his entire life. He could not have been gentler with me. However, when he slapped on a collar tie and I found myself suddenly cheek-to-cheek with him, garish visions of Oz and Chris de Burgh accosted me.

As I continued to train over the next few months, my claustrophobia went from bad to worse in short order. Higher belts showed less and less mercy. I soon found myself gift wrapped and mounted on so many occasions I started to tie my white belt in a bow. Still, I knew that if I wanted to improve and grow I would have to manage my claustrophobia with some diligence and wisdom.

My old coach helped me out quite a bit with this common obstacle. It helped that he always preached survival above all else, especially for novices. He also insisted on maintaining composure when stuck in bad positions. He was notorious (in the best, possible way) for establishing high mount and just hanging out when he rolled with us. I swear he could eat tea-soaked madeleines and discuss Proust while holding us down. His aim though was not torture, but to develop our resilience in tough, seemingly bleak situations. It was not easy. We could tap at any time. However, making a game out of it was brilliant on my coach’s part. Slowly, but surely we learned to relax under pressure. The panic subsided. Gasps of air transformed into measured breaths until we were unceremoniously collar choked or armbarred. Of course.

This sort of exposure therapy plays a significant role in the clinical world as well. Psychologist Brenda Wiederhold from The Virtual Reality Medical Center uses VR to allow her patients to confront their phobias before facing them out in the real world:

“Some people can’t make that leap between sitting and imagining and going into the real world, which is where the virtual reality works,” Dr. Wiederhold said in a recent interview.

What also helped a lot for me were hill sprints though I think any kind of HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) will suffice. I just needed some activity that would blast my lungs in a controlled environment off the mats. This allowed me to understand between hopelessly labored breaths that I didn’t have to panic. It also let me take charge of my breathing rather than feeling like all those gasps on the mats were beyond my control.

One final suggestion to consider is to simply count when claustrophobia strikes. Say you’re stuck in some purple belt’s mount and he has some sadistic epiphany to use his sweaty gi to cover your face (not naming any names :-/). Try to count to ten or higher. Count every time the panic sets in and see how long you can survive. If you lasted ten seconds aim for fifteen or twenty next time. Remember, you can always tap, reset and try, try again.

What are your experiences with claustrophobia on the mats? Do you have any other tips or advice for dealing with it?

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