This article grew out of an email conversation I had with a reader of the Grapplearts newsletter about his problems with claustrophobia while grappling (read about the initial conversation here). How could he possibly control this awful feeling?
At first I suggested various structural or technical solutions to avoid getting crushed on the bottom, for example:
- breathing when you are on the bottom
- keeping the mouth open to survive the smother
- getting on your side a bit instead of being flat on your back,
- keeping his weight off of you with your elbows and forearms (i.e. defensive posture)
But it turned out that the problem ran little deeper than the could be solved by technique alone.
Technical solutions are always nice, but since the problem’s origin was psychological (and since I don’t have any personal experience with claustrophobia) I then opened up the discussion to input from the readership of the Grapplearts newsletter.
It turns out that claustrophobia issues among grapplers are a lot more common than one might imagine, and this led to a very robust conversation about this topic. What follows is feedback and advice on dealing with claustrophobia from a broad cross-section of the grappling community…
I’m no medical expert on the subject by any means, but I’m wondering if this condition is not just “while grappling”. In other words, if you put this person in a very small place, like an airplane bathroom (for example), does the feeling also occur? Below is cut and paste I found in article on the subject. The standard approach seems to be a little therapy and exposure to the fear (which he is getting), avoidance is worst approach.
Treating phobias, including claustrophobia, relies on psychological methods. Depending on the person, some of these methods may include:
- Flooding – this is a form of exposure treatment, where the person is exposed to their phobic trigger until the anxiety attack passes. The realization that they have encountered their most dreaded object or situation, and come to no actual harm, can be a powerful form of therapy.
- Counter-conditioning – if the person is far too fearful to attempt flooding, then counter-conditioning can be an option. The person is taught to use specific relaxation and visualization techniques when experiencing phobia-related anxiety. The phobic trigger is slowly introduced, step-by-step, while the person concentrates on attaining physical and mental relaxation. Eventually, they can confront the source of their fear without feeling anxious. This is known as systematic desensitization.
- Modeling – the person watches other people confront the phobic trigger without fear, and is encouraged to imitate that confidence.
- Cognitive behavior therapy – the person is encouraged to confront and change the specific thoughts and attitudes that lead to feelings of fear.
- Medications – such as tranquillizers and anti-depressants. Drugs known as beta blockers may be used to treat the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as a pounding heart.”
I’m really glad this topic came up, it surfaces too rarely. I’ve had a few friends and students who shared this issue along with me; so hopefully claustrophobia sufferers can benefit from some of our experiences.
Claustrophobia and anxiety/panic attacks during intense grappling are much more prevalent than one would think. At least, more prevalent than many of those in the grappling world would think. But if you were a chess champion, a tennis player, a downhill skier, or even a basketball star, the notion of becoming claustrophobic while being crushed, controlled, and smothered against your will for extended periods of time would probably make perfect sense! Not so in the grappling and mixed martial arts world; it’s something that is hardly ever talked about, and therefore considered rare. But think about it; after several months or years of training, no one wants to say, “I tapped out because I was irrationally and uncontrollably afraid, and if you didn’t stop holding me down right then and there, I think I might have died.” Instead, random dirt gets in the eye; people with good cardio suddenly “gas” and have to stop; healthy people suddenly develop a phantom injury which disappears soon after the session ends; seasoned veterans suddenly make rookie mistakes and get caught in flash submission holds. In a sport where toughness and “heart” are often the measuring stick by which fighters are judged, no one wants to admit they have a chink in their mental armor.
I personally think more people quit grappling from claustrophobia and anxiety-related issues than anything other factor, bar none. They may say that it was too big of a time commitment, or that it was too expensive, or their bad knee just wouldn’t let them train the way they wanted to. But those things are just on the surface, things that made it easy to give up grappling and go back to mountain biking, golf, anything that doesn’t involve being physically smothered and controlled against your will. This happens to beginners, but I think it happens even more to those who have a moderate level of experience under their belts. When you first begin grappling, it’s considered OK to tap to just about anything. You get a little winded, bang your knee, have a hangnail? Tap out, no one expects more of you. But as you begin to progress, you are expected to withstand more and more physical and mental discomfort before you throw in the proverbial towel. You may not have the physical skills to get yourself out of uncomfortable situations, but tapping to anything other than a well-applied submission hold becomes less and less of an option.
Some intermediate grapplers have the inherent mental and emotional makeup to breeze right through this stage. Others weren’t born with it, were never told it was possible to train it and begin to live in misery. Every grappling session becomes a nightmare in their minds before it even begins. They wake up sweating at night, thinking about how the upper belts will dominate them tomorrow, how the big, strong guys who don’t know any submission holds will plow through their guards and simply hold them down for the entire length of the session. They might find the courage to go train the next day, but the session will not be one of pleasure and learning for them. It will be an exercise in avoiding that pain, that panic, at all costs, whether it means playing a totally defensive game so they are not pinned, or avoiding a person they know will be a particularly tough roll. For some, they will find a way to drag themselves through this stage until one day, the anxiety is gone, or at least reduced. For most, however, it is only a matter of time before their emotional and mental discomfort takes the last bit of fun out of grappling, and they quit.
Some hardcore folks may say “good riddance, this sport isn’t for everyone.” I disagree; I am of the old school, Helio Gracie mindset that grappling, jiu-jitsu in particular, CAN be for everyone. Jiu-jitsu is well known for giving a physically weaker person a chance to defeat a stronger one. But what about someone who is not physically, but mentally vulnerable? We talk about sharpening our technique, strengthening our muscles, boosting our endurance. More than talk, we do countless exercises and drills to increase these attributes. But how many times does a grappling class include mental drills? Emotional drills? Almost never! We just train the physical, and assume that the mental and emotional aspects will just work themselves out along the way. That, or the person who cannot adapt quickly enough will be weeded out by a sort of natural selection. While this may be acceptable to some, if jiu-jitsu is truly the art that it claims to be, we as a grappling community can’t allow this to go unaddressed.
You probably won’t be surprised at this point to learn that I went through this myself, and it very nearly ended my career as a grappler. For me, being proactive was the way to beat this fear. I sought out the help of a sports psychologist, I read books on mental toughness, and I talked to other people who experienced the same thing. Believe me, there were more out there than you would believe. I didn’t find any ‘Claustrophobic Grapplers Anonymous’ groups, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn they exist.
For me, the most important step in defeating my anxiety was a series of situational drills that I did with my instructor and some trusted friends. Before I get into the details of that, however, let me repost something that Gordon Hester, a Rickson Gracie black belt, posted on the Underground Forum a while ago. It gave me the confidence that if someone who has achieved a black belt under Rickson had these same fears and conquered them, so can any of us:
“I basically told Rickson I seemed to gas out on the mats when I felt stuck or in trouble (especially on the bottom). It was almost like a form of panic. This is when he told me to learn to train like a rat instead of always being the lion. He said the rat’s only motive is to survive. When I learned to play in trouble and survive the attacks of the lion, the mental stress went away and my cardio was better. I learned to actually put myself in trouble with my students so I could learn to mentally deal with any situation. I knew that if I could alleviate mental confusion and chaos, I could eliminate the problem of gassing out for this reason. It really did make a big difference in my training.”
This advice was gold for me. In addition to adopting this type of mental attitude, what I recommend is working your positional escapes to DEATH. Become a master of escapes, and also a master of relaxing. You can tell yourself “oh I will just relax and breathe whenever I get pinned”, but when its happening under live conditions, all that self-talk can go right out the window if you have not put yourself in those scenarios beforehand. Having a coach or training partner who is dedicated to helping you with this is very important. You may have to set up private lessons or time outside class to work on this, but believe me, it will be worth it in the end. I broke this up into three different sections. You could work on all three in one session, or work on them for awhile individually.
In this stage, all you are going to do is develop your ability to be calm on the bottom. You’ll need to have a timer of some sort, you can get a nice loud electronic kitchen timer from Wal-Mart or the like. The timer helps. The timer is your friend. The timer lets you know that you can anything for just one more minute.
- Do calisthenics of some kind to get your heart rate up hard and fast. Sit-outs, squat jumps, wind sprints, something like that. Or you can drill takedowns on your partner over and over. Whatever you like. Do them for about a minute so you are nice and winded.
- Immediate have your partner take top control on you – sidebody, north/south, head and arm, mount; whichever is your least favorite. Have them hold you there for at least 30 seconds with a moderate amount of pressure and tightness.
- Do not try to escape! Simply focus on relaxing, breathing, getting your arms into posture, and surviving. Notice where your partner’s weight is placed, where his legs and arms are positioned. This will help in your escape choices later, but for now you are just observing while you relax.
- Gradually increase both the time and the amount of pressure that your partner puts on you. Do this at your own pace, at whatever increments you need to push yourself, but still feel comfortable. At any point, if you start getting panicked, you can tap out and your partner will release you. This applies to all of the stages you’ll go through! Take a few deep breaths to calm yourself, then have him get right back down on top of you.
Now you are going to start integrating escape attempts with periods of survival.
- Same thing as before, get yourself good and winded so you can simulate the feeling you may have while you are rolling as quickly as possible. You are creating a new comfort zone for yourself.
- Now when your partner pins you, you are going to begin your escape attempts. Have your partner coach you. When he says “Go!” you are going to try hard to escape his pins for 10-20 seconds, using lots of hip movement and combinations. He is going to try his HARDEST not to let you escape. If you do escape, immediately have him re-pin you. In any case, as soon as those 20 seconds are up (your coach/partner will tell you when), go into survival mode and relax for another 10-20 seconds. You are NOT ALLOWED to make any escape attempts during that time, you simply have to protect yourself, breathe, and relax. When your 20 seconds are over, begin trying hard to escape again. Repeat this process for a 1 minute round, then 2, then 3, etc., until you’ve worked up to at least 5 minutes. If you begin feeling panicked at any point, say something to your partner and have them start verbally coaching you. Or they can be doing this the whole time. They can tell you to relax, breathe, think about your posture, tell you you’re alright, etc. This can be a very important factor. Right now, you lack the internal voice that keeps you calm, so your coach’s voice will be there for you, helping you to relax and make your next move. Eventually, you won’t need that external voice because the one inside your head will know what to do and say.
Finally, you are going to go into escape mode full on, going into ‘survival mode’ only when you need to rest or feel yourself starting to panic.
- same type of progression as before. Get yourself nice and winded…
- …then have your partner pin you and not let you up. Begin your escape attempts, pausing only when you need to. If you escape, immediately go back down again. Start with a 1 minute round, and see how long of a round you can work your way up to. When you have worked yourself up to a 10 minute round of being pinned on the bottom and you are no longer feeling panicked, you have really made progress!
The most important thing is to let go of your ego, let go of your embarrassment, and look at this issue as something to tackle head on. It takes more courage and heart to do this kind of training when you have anxiety than it does to win tournaments. Here is something else that’s important, something that my sports psychologist told me: if you start to make progress, but then have a relapse (panic attack), don’t look at it like you are starting from square 1 again. Just think you slipped a little back down the slope, but are going to climb right back up where you were and beyond very soon.
Here’s another little mental trick. If you are rolling with someone and you start to feel panicked, give yourself permission to tap. Get rid of your pride and ego and let it be alright for you to tap out and take a little break for a second. Tap if you need to. Then next time, if you want to, you can push yourself a little. If you feel the urge to tap coming on, think to yourself “I’m going to wait 10 seconds, and if I still want to tap at the end of that time, I will, and it will be alright.” Wait those 10 seconds, try to relax and go to your ‘Happy Place’ a la the movie Happy Gilmore. Your place may be filled with beer, scantily clad blondes, and midgets on tricycles, or it may not – but either way, try to go there and relax for just a few moments. Most of the time, when those 10 seconds are up, your opponent will have moved, you will have chilled out, and you won’t feel panicked any more. Keep on rolling and give yourself a pat on the back! It’s very cool to be a ‘tough guy’ and just go through life never worrying about a thing; but I think it takes much more bravery and heart to discover your fears, face them head on, and defeat them.
Stephan, I am one of those claustrophobia BJJ guys. Your tips were enormously helpful to me. I now realize its OK, very common and normal, yet not spoken of frequently. After 17 months of BJJ I have found that the claustrophobia is getting much better, the more I deal with it. I also realize it tends to come on mostly if im gassed.
Something I do to stay a little relaxed is to giggle when I roll. This eases any claustrophobia or panic that may be rising. It’s as if I tell myself “hey here comes that obnoxious neighbor I’m going to have to deal with again.” My training partners either dont notice or dont care if I do it. I know one blue belt that kind of hums a tune and I think thats her way of dealing with heavier opponents. Haha I just have to always make certain my partner doesnt think I’m giggling at them!
I used to experience this sensation all the time when I started. I still do on occasion, but not as much now. I attribute the following 2 factors as having greatly reduced that “drowning sensation”:
- First: conditioning. While I thought that I was in shape when I first started, it wasn’t grappling/mat wrestling shape. Lots of rolling increased my jits cardio and reduced the likelihood of fatigue submissions on my part.
- Second, I intentionally have some of my training partners start with a superior position – giving up the mount or side control to start. This develops the mental aspect of my game, so that when I’m actually placed in a similar
bad position when rolling, I can say to myself “I’ve been here before, don’t panic.”
I, and someone I train with, have both had claustrophobia when grappling (we are blue and purple belts respectively). Unfortunately the best thing one can do is go see a professional, our bouts of claustrophobia both started after “life changing events” (in both cases divorce). Having a panic disorder after these things is pretty common, so sufferers might want to examine those areas of your life.
The things that helped me through it are
- Seeing a professional
- Learning to breathe properly
Most people start to hyperventilate when they are in a state of panic (it doesn’t have to be real danger, your brain just tells you it is), and start breathing through their chest. The pressure when someone is cross side or mount is mostly on your chest so you feel like you can’t breathe. The thing is that you only really need to move your stomach to breathe properly, and you can lift a lot of weight with your abs. There are two books which I found useful: The Feeling Good Handbook by David D. Burns and The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook, Fourth Edition.
I’m a claustrophobe myself. My Close Quarter Combat (CQC) teacher found an answer for me. Say to yourself “I am one of the best there is at working from this position and I’ll be out of it soon.” It worked somewhat in the beginning. It works for the beginner’s smother. But I have to think about my breathing too. Problem is that thinking about your breathing makes it worse. It makes you breathe well but it makes you realize how little air there is; How hot the air is; How his gi is covering your mouth or nose. So I have to breathe well and then think about something else.
My teacher used to work on his wrestling positioning while I would try to get out from under him. Our training sessions were based on Hock’s CQC. He would discourage wrestling and encourage escaping — self defence rather than competition. To get out or disengage I would shrimp or create space — the usual. But if it took more than a few seconds then I was to initiate a finger crank, or place my palm on his cheek (slowly and deliberately) and gently place my thumb on his eye ball. When I found his eyeball 10 times the warm up was over. I say warm up because he would go just hard enough to frustrate me. He would often get me folded over and freaked out. Some times I would actually say “get off or I’m going to freak out!” He became one of my best friends so I was actually comfortable admitting my anxiety. But the more I trained at acquiring the eye from almost any position the less I freaked out. Now he would not have the back with hooks in or anything but you get the idea.
Part of self defence thinking is focusing on disengaging from your attacker. Diffusing a situation before it develops. Evading a situation as it develops. Escaping a situation after it develops. Sometimes with brute force but also with the simple act of disengaging. We would practice ‘command presence’ such as yelling “stay down” and “leave me alone”. As a beginner I would often train with low level BJJ students. They always tried to find the counter, get a better position, stay engaged. They would often get perplexed when we would grab an arm or leg and simply push it off and get up off the ground. When they trained together the drills would go forever as they tried to out maneuver each other. We had to start punishing them if they stayed engaged from more that 10 or 15 seconds just so we had enough class time to get our repetitions in. We worked from the point of view that dangerous fights last only a few moments.
Now that I train in other arts – my teacher has moved away – I still use what I learned from him. Partly because I am no longer training with my close friends and I’m too embarrassed to scream “I’m going to gouge your fucking eyes out if you don’t get off of me!” :>
- I am usually training in a safe place. I’m still on the bottom suffering because I want to be there. I want to try and win. If I’m overwhelmed I can always tap.
- I no longer think about “being one of the best from this position”. Now I think “Where is his eye?” Once I can see a path to his eye — thinking in a self-defence mode I have some choice. He is following rules. What if i don’t? Then I switch to “Now breathe for few seconds and try something else.” If my arms are tied up then I think about what part of his body I could smash with my knees? What would happen if I smashed his neck? What would this look like if we were standing? That gets me thinking about other body parts than the ones I have engaged. That usually leads me to some other approach than what I’m currently using.
“You can get out of this one of three ways: You can make him disengage as if you were in a fight and there are no rules. You can breathe well and use a different approach than what is not working now. Or tap. Lots of options.” Usually I’m in a better position before I’m finished talking to myself. I’m at least in a position where I can breathe again.
So I guess it is my own competitiveness that works against me. I get so focused on trying to win that I both forget to breathe and forget it is a competition – a game. I’m really there to have fun and do my best. If I learn to defend myself all the better. If I don’t want to tap because “I’m freaked” then I can give him an arm or something and he can win legit … but I don’t. :>
The “Squeamish Samurai”
Being claustrophobic is, as the word suggest, a phobia, and as such it should be treated. Some would say, that it is a misrepresentation of reality, but for the guy who is experiencing it, it’s very real.
Here is my advice: find a good friend – a grappling friend maybe – and work out the problem, slowly and progressively from inside and out. Tell the friend about your problem; get into the difficult positions and feel the anxiety, slowly and progressively, knowing that you are absolutely safe, and your FEELINGS (ie your brain )are cheating you. Take it from there and stay progressively longer and longer times in the difficult situations. In this safe and friendly environment, the problem will dissolve over time.
Cia and take care
I think the student would benefit from a progressive desensitization program that could be setup in conjunction with a sport psychologist and perhaps a sport scientist. They would need to progressive him slowly from where he is comfortable (maybe light control with someone small at his side and progress him to more challenging situations, i.e. tighter control through to heavier opponents etc. – adding in fatigue later ) – just a rough idea. I think that he would benefit from a sport psychologist who could focus on breathing and relaxation techniques and mental imagery.
I’ve had a similar problem when grappling with much larger opponents. I don’t get it now but here are some tips:
- Performance breathing. This is the Scott Sonnon style of breathing, it’s a massive help (Rickson Gracie and the total immersion swim coach seem to advocate something similar). Basically when you’re in any position which is leading to those feelings of insecurity you focus on breathing out. Forget about inhaling, this take care of itself, just breathe out all the stress and feelings of anxiety the bad position is causing. It also helps your movement as well if you remember to breathe out on the effort. So to sum up whenever you find yourself getting anxious focus not on holding your breath (this will make you more stressed) but on breathing out in long breaths.
- Self talk. Get your self talk sorted out so that it is positive. This is an old Arnold thing (not a grappler but it does work wonders): he used to hate training his legs so he’d tell himself that he loved leg day. So this guy who is getting stressed when in side control needs to reframe this and say to himself “I love being in side control because it helps me work on my escapes from there and so on”. He could then start making sure he starts each session in side control because he loves it so much and so on building it up that way.
- Use a combination of the above two tips rather than one on its own.
I’ve been suffering from claustrophobia issues for as long as I can remember. I remember that I couldn’t handle sitting in a shopping cart as a child due to the “irrational” fear that I’d be stuck there. It’s ironic: your brain knows that these fears are silly, yet that brain has its work cut out for it when trying to convince the rest of your body. Now that I’ve grown out of riding in a shopping cart, my issues of claustrophobia have changed. There are times where I’m “trapped” even in a spacious area just because there are too many people around me yet I could go sit in an enclosed box by myself indefinitely. Sometimes I’m okay going into small caves, yet being in a car with all the windows up freaks me out. Oftentimes I start to notice how tight my shoes are and can’t get them off my feet fast enough. It can be a very bizarre mind trip.
Since I started grappling, I’ve had more than a few sessions where I’ve had to tap simply because I feel like I’m being smothered. I hate those moments with a passion. Once, it was so bad that I couldn’t start breathing like a normal person again for a good three minutes. Nothing was going through my windpipe. I had walked outside to try to get some air and I actually put myself onto the grass so I wouldn’t hit my head on the wall or ground when I passed out. Thankfully I started to breathe on my own before it got too dramatic.
It’s ridiculously crazy to me, as I sit here safe at a computer, but in the moment, nobody can convince me that I’m going to be okay. The funniest part of it all is how often it happens when I’m working with my husband. We take private lessons together with our instructor so that gives us a lot of opportunities to work with each other. I know that if anybody doesn’t want to kill me, it’s him. So why, then, do I just know that I’m going to die if his arm happens to be covering my mouth or if I can’t move out from under his weight?
I’m very lucky that my instructor doesn’t think I’m a total basket case for this. He gives me time, doesn’t make a big deal about it, and has given me the comfort of reminding me that I’m not alone. There are times that I’m grappling with him when I’m pretty sure he’s trying to help me work through it. It’s like he’ll keep me from getting air for just a moment between uncomfortable and panic, then he’ll let up. He’s pretty intuitive and is extremely aware of everything going on, which really helps me trust that he’s not going to “accidentally” do me in. To my best knowledge, that’s what the fear really boils down to. I know my hubby doesn’t want to kill me, but I don’t know that he won’t just happen to because he’s concentrating more on getting an armbar than the fact that he’s smothering me.
Though I don’t have any magical solutions, I’ve heard of people using the technique of keeping their mouth as wide open as possible when they feel that they’re about to be in a position where they might be smothered. That allows the maximum air intake, psychologically. I’m pretty sure it’s counter-productive to really teaching your lungs to reach a good training capacity, but it might just keep a person in the game. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help when a person is trapped. I, personally, have found that when I’m trapped, I’m a little better off when I concentrate on parts of my body that aren’t trapped. If somebody is cross-side on me, for example, I almost exaggerate movements my legs are doing just so I can enhance the sensation of air on them. Soon, I’ll be concentrating more on that than the 200 lbs across my lungs. Because you have to be aware of so many things while grappling, concentrating so hard on things that aren’t trapped doesn’t seem to take my mind away from my efforts. It’s definitely worth a shot.
I’m really looking forward to hearing other suggestions. It’s so maddening to have to give up an otherwise awesome session just because somebody has my face covered. I have yet to find any trick in the book that works for me when I’m being smothered. Short of psychological counseling or my instructor’s repeated work on me, I’m not sure that I’ll ever find a satisfactory solution, but I’m going to remain optimistic. I know that everybody responds differently to things so hopefully this will help someone.
I struggle with the same issue (claustrophobia). I’ve grappled for awhile but admittedly don’t dedicate the necessary time weekly to say that I’m consistent (I have three small kids, a wife in school and I work a time-intensive job).
To address my problem, I first improved my cardio, which helped. Then I learned some escapes, which also helped but there are always times when I get caught in something tight and experience that same panic. The only thing I’ve found that helps is to focus on breathing. When I can control my self-talk and remind myself I can get out at anytime I want (by tapping) it’s marginally better. For me, the claustrophobia is really only a moment. I know if I can hold out for just a couple of beats, the panic crests and subsides which can swing the momentum enough for me to keep working.
I try to avoid the “can’t breathe” squeeze at almost any cost. I’ll go belly down and try and work to turtle to avoid it. The other thing I do is to “show” a submission to bait them to move if I do get squeezed. If they go for the sub at least it allows me to regain control for a split second and hopefully not actually get caught when baiting.
I don’t know what head issues cause me to experience this (because it is mental), but for me personally, claustrophobia keeps me coming back to the mat. You can look at it as unpleasant or as an opportunity. For the most part, I choose the latter. I’ve worked with guys that would label me as an ‘early tapper’ who have themselves quit jujitsu. Just because you tap doesn’t mean you quit. I haven’t found the counter technique yet, I just know it’s on the mat somewhere so I’ll keep looking.
I have a few ideas I use to combat claustrophobia:
- I shut down most of my body and just relax. Being under a tight side control is like quicksand, if you struggle and move all your limbs you’ll feel it a lot more and tire faster. I mentally relax all my limbs, shut down power to most of my body and concentrate my power into establishing posture with my arms, such as getting my outer forearm across his throat so that he cannot pressure down too much. Also, turning to my side so that it deflects their weight.
- I think to myself “it could be worse”. For example, I’ll think hey at least I’m not trapped underwater or in a fire or underground. Then the small amount of air I do get feels like a lot more and I relax more.
- I embrace my fears. Like a chain, which is only as strong as its weakest link. If you absolutely hate bottom of side mount, or guillotine choke from your opponents guard, you need to start training from this position a lot more. Pick a good training partner, have them start rolling from the position after you are “ready” and have established your posture. This mentally dilutes the anxiety I face worrying that Murphy’s’ Law will kick in and I will end up in the position that I dread.
The main point is that this is mental, not physical. The anxiety of the move is worse than the move itself, and it will freeze and distract you in training if you do not become comfortable with it. When you get caught, you should just focus all your mental energy on making your escapes work and keep a positive attitude that they will work. If you don’t concentrate on escaping and keep a positive focus, your mind will quickly fill with negative thoughts and emotions, and this weakens you and makes your opponents job easier.
I hope that helps.
San Diego CA
I just thought I would chime in on the claustrophobia issue. I wrestled quite a bit a few years ago and just got back on the mats a few months ago, training in mixed martial arts. While I was wrestling, I never noticed this reaction (I suppose because the match is over when you’re pinned on your back) but with grappling now, I occasionally do experience claustrophobia in certain positions, especially side control with a lot of chest pressure . I think it has to do with my lack of options in these positions, and so far my workaround has been “avoid these positions at all costs”. I will often give up another bad position or submission to avoid these situations. This is obviously not a great approach, but until I can find a way to remain cool under that side control it’s the best I can do. I look forward to reading what others contribute…
I know several guys who suffer from claustrophobia, including the guy who introduced me to BJJ. He has been training for almost 4 years and he still struggles with it. The one thing that I think would help is for new students to spend allot more time working escapes and guard replacements in the beginning instead of just trying to avoid the bottom game at all costs.
The one thing my instructor told my buddy was to try to get onto your side whenever possible. By getting onto your side you able to reduce the ‘crushing’ pressure your opponent can apply when could mean the difference between panicking and initiating an escape.
I had a real tough time with claustrophobia when I started: nothing worse than freaking out simple side control or something like it. What really helped me out was admitting to a friend that I had this problem: that in itself was a relief. We worked on crossbody, north-south, etc. for quite a while. He held me down and I laid there.
I also went into my mind and imagined myself getting bigger while my opponent got smaller. I meditated on this in the sauna (obviously not while training) and I still do once in a while
All this is difficult to understand for someone who is not claustrophobic. I have the same reaction to people who are scared of heights (i.e. I ask “what’s your problem?). Humans are born with only two phobias: fear of falling and fear of loud noises, everything else is learned, which means it can be unlearned. The sufferer should start trying to write down what he wants and read it before going to bed each night to start reprogramming the subconscious: that’s where both the problem and the solution lie.
I have been grappling for almost 2 years now, and just as the author of the letter you posted, I occasionally suffer from a form of mild claustrophobia while grappling.
What was really strange is that I went my first year without any claustrophobic incidents, it was only in the late fall of my second year that I began to have these panic attacks while in side control. And believe me, they were panic attacks. I would have to tap out from them and I would be done for 10 minutes, sometimes the whole day.
I tried breathing exercises, having my friends pin me hard to the mat so I could get used to it, being in top conditioning, etc., but nothing helped.
But then something occurred to me while watching and advertisement on TV. I saw an ad for people who suffer from panic attacks, and the commercial was promoting a type of medication I had been on years past for seasonal affective disorder (aka seasonal depression). It then occurred to me that since these panic attacks where happening at the same time as the seasonal affective disorder was setting in, that somehow the same chemical imbalance responsible for the seasonal affective disorder was responsible for the panic attacks.
Sure enough, I spoke to my doctor, he prescribed a gentle antidepressive at half the dosage for full-on depression and it wiped out the panic attacks.
Now I’m not one to generally recommend drugs, but in this case I had tried everything to combat these panic attacks. I honestly thought I was looking at the end of my grappling career, and so (temporarily-until the seasons change) using this medication has really saved me.
I would ask your reader if he has had a history of serotonin imbalance (manifesting in seasonal affective disorder, depression, other panic attacks, anxiety) and if so that he should consult a doctor and consider (at least for a while) using a mild antidepressant.
The bottom line is that claustrophobia is an anxiety disorder that needs to be treated through psychotherapy. Usually claustrophobia arises from a traumatic incident that occurred in childhood, in a confined space or in a crowd. There are techniques in therapy that can be used to re-process traumatic incidents, such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. If someone finds they can’t cope with claustrophobia on their own, they need to seek professional help. It’s senseless to live with claustrophobia when there are treatments available in therapy.
I have 1.75 years experience grappling. Sometimes I get a little claustrophobia when in bad situations. To remedy this, I usually close my eyes and think about the situation logically in my mind. I try to detach myself and think about countering his moves as if I was on the sidelines. In worse cases, I count down from 10 or think about other things momentarily. According to dialectical behavioral therapy, your feelings are influenced by your thoughts, so if you modify your thoughts you begin to modify your feelings.
I would classify myself as having a minor case of claustrophobia. Cramped places, liked crowded elevators and what not, give me a feeling like vertigo. The only times I ever felt that way when I was rolling was when my sparring partner would put a lot of pressure on me during the north-south position. It was the feeling that I couldn’t breathe and I would start to panic as well. Also bigger partners would just try to smother me when on the mount by smashing their chest in my face so I can’t breathe. I used one of your old tips by opening the mouth as much as I could so it’s hard to cover up, and I’ll always have a little opening for air. So pretty much, when I start to panic, I try to relax, turn my head, and breathe until I feel ready to escape.
“Bay Area needs more No Gi schools”
I read your question about claustrophobia when grappling and thought that I would drop you a line re my experience in working with a training partner who on occasions would appear to suffer from this. I work with people with anxiety disorders so I recognized the symptoms very quickly the first time it happened.
Usually my training partner would panic if being held in the cross body (side mount) position, though on occasion they also experienced it when being held in the north south (top body) position as well. It appeared to relate to pressure on their chest restricting their breathing and the sense of closeness that comes with grappling.
On most occasions I did as follows: I would continue to hold the position but inform them we were taking a break and lift my weight from their chest (though not off them). I would raise my body up giving them sufficient space to feel better. I would ask them to tell me when they were ready and then we would start grappling again in the same position. Essentially I would repeat the exercise as often as they would allow. This did lead to a reduction in the experience of claustrophobia on the part of my training partner.
However it did not eliminate the claustrophobia altogether: what was important was not to abandon the position or the session because of the anxiety. To do this would reinforce the persons subconscious feelings of being closed in. So in common with the old adage if you fall off a bike, get back on it straight away or you will not want to get back on. That is how I approached the problem.
Obviously I am no psychiatrist but hey, who cares!! I don’t know if this is of any help but thought I would drop you a line anyway.
Cowdenbeath, Fife, Scotland
My name is Chris and I have had problems with this (claustrophobia). I guess my problem is I am outa shape and I have only been training JKD and MMA for a year and a half. What helps me allot is to just relax and let the training that I have kick in. I just tell myself that I have been here before.
It seems like when my opponent has the upper hand (like a rear naked choke), or when I am gassed, is when I panic the most. For me I think that repetition is what will work the bugs out.
Visualization is a powerful tool, and should be used by individuals at times of stress while in any perceived negative position. I have known a couple of martial artists who, when they’re in a dominant position, appear to be ‘on top of the world’, but then panic and/or resign themselves to their fate when the position is reversed.
‘Bob’ needs to visualize the consequences of the position in real terms…. Why is he grappling? I assume that it is to test himself among his peers and hopefully ‘win’, or at least hold his own. What is the worst case scenario? Any school not populated by idiots is going to be made up of people who will be aware of the limitations of the human body, and all ‘Bob’ need do to stop any unpleasant situation is to tap or ask to reset positions. This is not a life or death struggle.
What are the consequences of ‘Bob’s’ fear on his performance. Side mount is not an unpleasant place to be in. It may be frustrating, but his immediate physical health and well-being are not at risk. He is not lying prone on the floor with someone jumping on him. He is not pinned in a corner with strikes raining down on him. He is just flat on his back. Perhaps ‘Bob’ is visualizing how dominant he finds side control. He perhaps perceives it as the ultimate position of control, so then when other people have him in it he starts feeling panicked.
What can be done to escape side control (or other positions of dominance)? Perhaps ‘Bob’ could examine the physical and mental short comings in this area. Does he have an intimate knowledge of sweeps and reversals? Does he struggle hard enough (mentally) to maintain guard/half guard? Does he have the hip flexibility, shrimping technique etc. to help him escape and/or retain half guard?
I am a newbie (13 months) who has experienced claustrophobia. My initial knee jerk reaction was to bite my opponent! I might suggest that people suffering from this repeatedly put themselves into positions that bring these sensations to surface (and not only during sparring). Practice these positions over and over, like you would practice a technique. Perhaps do this in a very controlled setting, with possible verbal coaching (from the instructor) to help get other escape techniques and positive reinforcement.
On another level, sufferers may want to explore the specific reason(s) for the claustrophobia. My sensations resulted from trauma experienced as a child–so once I connected the two I knew I was ‘safe’ on the mat with a great coach and teammates!
I’ve had a struggle with claustrophobia that I had to combat while I was in the USMC and now as a Police Officer. As you may know Marines and Police Officers have to wear gas masks for certain occasions, so therefore we have to train with them on in an exposed (tear gas, pepper spray, etc) environment. As a Police Officer, it has not been a big deal, but as a Marine I endured some trying times of wearing the mask for hours while physically exerting myself – very difficult to breath.
Knowing that I was going to have wear the mask, I decided to intentionally place myself in a fearful situation. I would wear the mask (on duty at night when I was on embassy duty) and I would conduct my patrols and other tasks with it on my face for at least 30 minutes. I did this a couple of times in a month and I noticed that it began to feel more comfortable to wear. On one occasion I decided to wear the mask a my full gear and do push-ups, sit-ups and run up and down some stairs for about ten minutes. I again discovered that I was becoming more capable of handling my fear, along with praying for deliverance from my fears. So today I can say that I don’t panic when I’m in a “claustrophobic” position, I am just aware of where I am and I just begin to allow myself to stay there and take control of any type of fear that MAY rise
If someone experiences claustrophobia when trapped in a bad position they should learn to channel that fear into greater strength and commitment to escape. What better situation to use your adrenaline than when someone is beating you up?
Jeff Gordon Self Defense
I am fairly new to Jiu Jitsu (6 months) and I have experienced a similar thing, but it is more related to the inability to
breathe. What I have tried doing to condition myself is to spend time in a steam room after a workout in order to simulate the feeling of not being able to breathe easily. The first few minutes in the stream room are a piece of cake, but then I get to the point where I want to leave. I force myself to stay, trying to trigger that fight or flight reaction. Once it’s triggered I try to relax and focus on controlling my breathing.
Another exercise I’ve done is to have my back on the mat and lift my feet over my head to the point where my knees touch my forehead. I believe the exercise is more designed to stretch the back, but when you are in the position it is difficult to breathe. You have to concentrate and take short breaths.
My name is John and I was a kickboxer. I found out that when I was out of breath and I lay down on my back for sit-ups I freaked out, panicking because of claustrophobia. So I started groundfighting to try to overcome my claustrophobia a half year ago. It is not a matter of physical shape , that is for sure! It is a question of the mind.
I read that the guy in question (Bob) is consciously trying to relax and breath and that it is ”easier said than done”. That means that on that moment he is already busy with the claustrophobia! and his mind will trick him !!
As of this moment I have not overcome it, but I will! When I am sitting at home and have nothing to do I begin to think of the panic: even sitting in the chair I can feel that bad feeling. So I would say when he find himself trapped his mind should be busy with technical solutions . I think when we are busy in our minds with technical solutions there will be no space for something else
If ‘Bob’ has suffered 4 years with this problem, then he must be strong and a warrior. ”Courage is doing what you’re afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you’re scared”.
I too suffered from claustrophobia quite badly when I started jiu-jitsu. I’m the lightest guy in my class and there are quite a few big guys that I roll with, so getting squashed is a common thing for me.
I found what really helped me was drilling specifically from the positions that I found the worst with a training partner that was willing to go at around 50% effort. This allowed me to be in my worst spot, but also in the knowledge that my partner would be aware of my problem and not go beyond 50%. It didn’t happen straight away, but in time I relaxed more.
The best advice I was given on being in any position of disadvantage in jiu jitsu was to find a comfortable spot and try to breath. That’s always what I look for now when I’m pinned. If it’s too bad then I tap!
Well I definitely feel the same as the person you described initially (‘Bob’) with regards to claustrophobia; the only difference is that I have only been training for about 6 months. Whenever I’m in a position where I feel I’m having
trouble escaping the claustrophobia kicks in.
I remember my instructor telling me when I’m was having a problem escaping “to just relax”, but the problem has nothing to do with me relaxing; I feel like I’m suffocating.
This is my take on the issue of claustrophobia: I am a former 5 year wrestler (state champion) turned jiu-jitsu player. I had a lot of issues with the sidemount and mount claustrophobia in the beginning just because I hated being on my back. Even now, after 3 years of jiu-jitsu experience I sometimes get a sick feeling in my stomach when I get
stuck on bottom in a bad position.
The things that I have found helpful were slowly working your way up with beginners to more experienced guys while putting yourself in bad situations. There have been psychological studies done like this to cure phobias I .e. slowly numbing someone who is afraid to mice by slowly bring it closer to them on a very gradual basis. This is how I approached my phobia to being stuck on bottom. We do these drills at my school as well. We give our partners the sidemount and mount before we actually roll and we try to concentrate purely on the technique. This, combined with all the breathing techniques and constant thinking of relaxation mentioned before, should relieve some anxiety.
New Orleans Jiu Jitsu
I thought I’d write because I had a similar situation that might help this “Bob” fellow out. I used to train with a really great striker who was very strong but not very confident from his back. If we went to the mat in a neutral position, or with him on top, he’d keep working, but as soon as I got on top of him he seemed to deflate.
Eventually I mentioned it to him and it turned out really had to do with his mentality about being under side control, mount, or having to use his guard. He felt it was a lost cause, and that only skilled ju-jitsu fighters had any chance there. So we talked about some of the amazing things that Chuck Liddel and other fighters like him do. We also worked more on submissions from the back. Most importantly though was his mindset- believing that you can win fights or get back up from your back. You have to look at it as an opportunity. As soon as he started believing that more, he fought harder from his back and everything started changing…..
London, Ontario, Canada
I was having allot of problems with claustrophobia in 1 or 2 positions. My solution to this problem was simple: force myself into the position over and over. Find people that are the best at attacking from that position and put them there on top of you. Let go of your ego. Eventually the panic will go away – it takes time, as with anything. This worked for me and I hope it will work for anyone who reads this.
BJJ Revolution Team
We used to do this exercise at the end of class where you take off your gi jacket, when it is wet and heavy with your own perspiration. As part of the warm down and stretch down routine you lay down flat on your back, with your gi jacket over your head, shutting out the light and noise. Just breathing, relaxing, meditating. I think the breathing is most important. Not exactly the same as being mashed by a larger opponent, but a good exercise in relaxing when you’re out of your comfort zone. Its hot, and not pleasant under there.
When I was in high school I quit wrestling due to the problem of being claustrophobic when pinned or in a bad position, such as side control. Well, five years later, I find myself NOT having that problem in BJJ.
I think what helped, as wimpy as it may sound, was doing yoga-like drills with my partners.
We do yoga before, along with general stretching, as a warm-up. We will then do about twenty minutes of technique practice, all the while working on our breathing. After that, we will go on to free-sparring and even have little submission matches where we will cycle through each other for five turns, at about fifteen minutes each person. All the while, we really stress the importance of working on controlling our lungs while contorted. I guess its like yoga; it’s what I did in my moms yoga classes when I was a kid. I really enjoy it, its my own version of a “high altitude” training. We take big, deep breathes and release them slowly while trying to put each other in arm-bars, and omoplatas (my personal favorite lock). Some days we will even do more of our yoga-stuff afterwards, as a cool down, but usually we have a little session we call the “burn out,” where we hit the weights and taking each other down as many times as we can until we can’t stand up any more.
Another thing that helped me was to start learning Brazilian jiu-jitsu. BJJ helps me a lot because now I can attack my opponent from under him.
Is claustrophobia a passing stage? Maybe for some people. My partners used to hate being in guard and now that they know more about the philosophy of BJJ, they calmed down a lot and can think when I put them on their backs. My advice would be to do drills like you normally would, but to focus on breathing and keeping your head on right.
Hope this helps
I have this same problem of claustrophobia. I found at first that it was really bad, especially when someone larger than me would get me pinned on a wall or a fence. What I found worked was breathing slowly, and if I had pressure on my diaphragm then I would try to just work on escaping my stomach so I could breathe.
The main thing that helped me though, was knowing I could trust the guys I trained with. If ever I was going to panic I would just tap, they would get off and I would tell them what happened. Once I realized they weren’t going to laugh or anything like that my panic attacks stopped. I believe it was a combination of the uncomfortable position and the idea that these guys would get pissy for me tapping over nothing.
I’m a beginner: I just got my 2’nd stripe on my white belt. I panic when someone gets the mount or side control on me, and sometimes I tap when I shouldn’t because I get claustrophobic. I try to relax by taking deep breaths to calm down and I don’t use a lot of energy: if I’m not all out of breath I don’t panic as much. Also I stopped drinking energy
drinks and I noticed I don’t panic as much, so it might be a good idea to cut out caffeine before you wrestle.
I had it (claustrophobia) before I began to study BJJ, and I almost quit several times because of it. But something told me to keep going, and it proved the old saying that the best way to deal with one’s fears is to confront them head on. I found that the development of technique and defense helped. But most important was developing the ability to relax under pressure and in tight spots. Though not completely over it yet, it gets better as I improve. And I’ve learned how to breathe deeply and peacefully. So it’s all good!
If you don’t know what to do on the ground then it makes claustrophobia attacks much worse. Simply understanding the big picture of BJJ, knowing how the different positions connect together, and how your options change depending on what’s going on is very empowering.
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Note: this article was updated February 23rd 2018 with additional material on breathing.