Tips To Overcome Anxiety In Jiu-Jitsu
Want to hear something crazy? I’m a jiu-jitsu purple belt… who suffers from anxiety attacks while training.
I think anxiety is the best way to describe it. I’m not exactly sure what to call it. Panic attacks? Claustrophobia? I don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter what I call it, all I know is how it feels.
It goes like this. There I am, on the mats, doing the sport I love most, just grappling away, happy go lucky, not a care in the world, when I get pinned down in a bottom position. My partner intends to keep me there, so they get heavy, really heavy, like a two-ton elephant sitting on my chest. This is good jiu-jitsu on their part. Pressure generally equals control, but it triggers something in me, something primal and unreasonable. And I’m left with debilitating fear.
It almost always comes on without warning, and when it does, I completely forget about all of my training and whatever the hell I was doing. I can’t rationalize or think clearly at all. My heart starts beating erratically. I feel like I’m suffocating. I feel utterly helpless.
In moments like this, luckily, a little glimmer of rational thought reminds me to tap just so I can escape and sit up. I probably look like a drowned rat that just clawed its way out of a storm sewer, wild-eyed and confused. And near tears, I play it off like it’s nothing because I don’t want my partner to feel as if they’ve done anything wrong because they haven’t.
That’s my confession. Probably didn’t see that one coming.
My not-so-tragic backstory
I have no idea how I got to this point. And I have no idea how it started. One day it just was.
In some twisted way, I’d like to confess some past traumatic experience worthy of an Oscar nomination, filled with mistrust and abuse. But no. My life has been pretty safe and insulated, and in the real world, I’ve never been abused or attacked. At least if I was the victim of trauma, I could explain why I get these attacks. But that’s not how the world works, it seems. Sometimes things just are.
I also couldn’t say what triggers these attacks. It doesn’t matter if I’m tired or rested, distracted, or focused. It doesn’t matter what size my partner is, even if I wish it was something like that. “Excuse me, sir, can you get your fat-body off of my head because it really freaks me out.” And it doesn’t matter how comfortable I am with my partner because I’ve had attacks while grappling with my husband.
But the most frustrating thing is they don’t happen all the time. Sometimes I go weeks, even months without one. I’ll totally forget they even existed at all, or maybe even hope that I’m cured. But then one day somebody puts the squeeze on me and the next thing I know I’m in crisis mode and trying to keep from hyperventilating.
The best I could do to offer up an “origin story” for my “condition” is to string together a series of events that I believe may have led to it.
It starts with a move for the school. Due to exorbitant rent, I believe, we found ourselves orphaned to another location. The new site was fine, having all the amenities we needed for classes (jiu-jitsu schools don’t need a whole lot more than mats). Still, the lighting was terrible and completely changed the mood of the space. It was so oppressive and dark. It might as well have been a lightbulb on a string. It was that bad. Believe me, it was enough to make anyone feel angsty.
The move created other challenges. The most significant being the loss of a long time training partner I wrongfully assumed would always be there.
But, we had stunted each other. We got wise to each other’s game, and it became predictable. Like a Waltz we’d danced a thousand times.
Her exit created a shift in my training that inevitably led to me becoming a better and more studious practitioner. Guess it worked out for the best in that respect.
In addition to her departure, other students moved on. We lost what few remaining women we had, and I was left without any girlfriends or a female support system. I felt alone and isolated.
I don’t blame them. They probably felt as unsafe and insecure as I did. Acceptance can be a bitter pill to swallow, but eventually, we all choke it down. I knew that more women would come. I just had to be patient.
Lastly, and probably the largest contributing factor to my anxiety/panic attacks came from my rank.
From white up to a second-stripe blue belt, people were going relatively easy on me, though I didn’t know it at the time. They were the kind of heavy that was tolerable, but never the “OMG I CAN’T BREATHE! I’M GOING TO DIE!” kind of heavy.
I recall having that third stripe placed on my belt, and my mat life changed forever.
Upper belts were suddenly less forgiving, and I found myself on the receiving end of many unpleasant and often suffocating, positions.
Suddenly I was trapped under someone and unsafe. My brain broke or something. At that moment, jiu-jitsu wasn’t fun anymore, and I was in danger.
But was I really in danger? No, but that’s what my mind believed.
This person was a threat, and I needed to escape immediately. So, I panicked and tapped… to absolutely nothing. At least, nothing worth tapping for, just a fat-body crushing my head. No biggie.
For all I’ve said, there’s really no exact moment that started it all. I think it was a slow build-up of drastic changes that inevitably overwhelmed me. In the end, my brain interpreted it as danger, and these anxiety attacks became a thing.
Tips and tricks
I wish I could say that I have a solution. A magical cure-all that will make you a God on the mats, but I don’t. I’m still bumbling my way through it. All I can do is offer the few techniques that have worked for me so far, and maybe they’ll work for you too.
*Note, Disclaimer, Fine-print, Whatever: I am NOT a doctor. If you suffer from panic attacks or anxiety, please seek medical advice from a trained physician.*
Bring your mind into the present
Focus on your breathing
In those rare instances, when I feel the anxiety descending like an oppressive black cloud, I take a deep breath and exhale slowly. This reconnects my brain with my body, allowing me to process the situation.
Sometimes all you need is that brief moment to realize you’re not in danger, and the anxiety passes.
Fake it till you make it
Create an illusion of space
Anxiety can be a real bitch. Sometimes an outside perspective can really bring things into focus. So I spoke with my black belt.
He admitted to some anxiety when rolling with larger individuals. Imagine that, a black belt, who’s been training twenty-five years still has the occasional bout of anxiety.
His recommendation was to do my best to keep my arms over my chest, to create an “illusion” of space.
This small, no tiny, adjustment, suddenly took the edge off my anxiety. I didn’t feel so claustrophobic and often was able to create space for an escape.
Escape! Escape! Escape!
Seriously, drill escapes
You often hear people say, “well, don’t let them get you there”, like avoiding an uncomfortable position is easy. But there is some truth to it.
After getting feedback from several training partners, I realized that escapes were a major hole in my game. Partners exploited it every chance they had. That’s a problem.
So, I went back to basics, fine-tuning what I knew, and learning a few new techniques.
Then I drilled them over and over until I was sick of them. Until they were second nature. Until I could do them without thinking.
And I still drill them. Keeping them fresh in my mind.
Fly blind, literally
Flow roll with your eyes closed
Jiu-jitsu relies more on “feel” than sight. The slight shift in their weight becomes a submission or an escape. That’s something you feel more than see.
Sometimes, just closing your eyes and removing the extra sensory input can narrow your focus and bring your mind into the present. You may feel silly doing this, but we roll around on the ground with strangers in pajamas. Is it really that strange?
*Second Note, Disclaimer, Fine-print, Whatever: If you’re having a really intense grappling session, I don’t recommend this. It’s more effective when you’re taking it easy, which, if you’re working through anxiety, I would assume you are.*
Suck it up cupcake
Fight through it
You may be wondering if fighting through it is a good idea when your anxiety tries to smother you, but hear me out.
That guy over there isn’t tapping. She’s not tapping either. So why am I tapping when everyone seems to be doing just fine.
Sometimes just looking around the room and seeing others in a similar position is motivation enough to push through.
This is probably my least favorite tactic, but you deserve to know all your options.
Train until it no longer hurts
Think of this like it’s a callus, better yet, a muscle. Where you’re continuously exposed to it, and over time you become immune.
Personally, I found this works best after I’ve tried the methods above. It’s a great way to practice what I’ve learned while getting an accurate reading of my anxiety level.
It also helps to try this with someone you trust. For me, that’s my husband.
Honestly, this is a little extreme, but you should be safe and comfortable in your gym. You should be able to express your fears to your instructor(s), and they should provide suggestions to help you work through it. If they’re not or you don’t feel safe, jiu-jitsu is universal, and there are always other schools.
Do your homework, have the courage to express your fears, and you’ll find the right gym.
Just go with the flow
As I write this, it occurs to me that my anxiety stems from fear, from feeling out of control. Being forced to yield to an uncertain future and trusting that everything will work out.
Jiu-jitsu doesn’t allow room for control freaks (this was a hard lesson to learn). You may be able to manipulate your opponent into giving up something, but you never truly know how he/she will respond. Sure, you may have your suspicions, but people don’t always fall for tricks, and most get wise to them.
You’re not alone
After speaking to pretty much everyone, I realized that anxiety is part of the journey for most people. It’s a natural part of the sport and is unique to each individual.
Mine just happened to start in the middle of my blue belt days, for my husband, he was a white belt. Even my black belt experiences anxiety from time to time.
Jiu-jitsu requires you to forget all thoughts of personal space and put trust in complete strangers. But it does get better. YOU get better.
There’s no cure-all in jiu-jitsu
Everyone on the internet likes to think they have the ultimate solution, but they don’t. It’s okay to be a work in progress. What works for one person may not work for you. Trust me, I’ve looked, and I’ve tried.
There’s no shortcut when it comes to conquering your fears, or in this case, anxiety, except to push forward and find what works for you. What works today may not work tomorrow, but you WILL find a solution, and I PROMISE you, it does get easier.
* If you’re experiencing anxiety when you grapple, please let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear your story and what tricks have worked for you and what didn’t.