Jan 312010

A few weeks ago, I got Stephan Kesting’s newsletter in my inbox. Reading it was surreal. It was like he’d interviewed me and my issues with claustrophobia. I highly recommend it. Hell, if you don’t subscribe to Stephan’s Grappling Tips, you should. Seriously. Do that now, then come back and finish reading this. Stephan is a thoughtful guy and his insight’s have helped me out a ton over the years.

I have issues with not being able to see. I’m sure that this mania stems from some childhood trauma that I can blame on my older brothers. It’s got to be their fault. But wherever this issue came from, I don’t like it. Just putting on a blindfold causes my adrenaline to kick in and my fight or flight instinct goes nuts. Add a little claustrophobia and I’m pretty unfit for BJJ.

I actually laughed out loud when I read about the MRI in the article. I was okay with the MRI in theory. As I showed up at the hospital, they asked, “Are you claustrophic?”

“A little, but I’ll be okay,” I replied. Seconds into the MRI, I was mashing the panic button. I made it through that MRI only because they turned me around, got me in feet first and they only needed pictures of my L5 vertebrae. So, as a result, I was able to crane my head back and see the opening. Seeing daylight got me through it… that and a lot of happy thoughts.

So, when I started training in BJJ, one of the first people I rolled with was Brick (or Big Rick). Rick is a cool guy. He’s been around forever, weighs about 280 lbs, and is a very good guy to roll with if you’re claustrophobic. Or a very bad guy to roll with, depending on your point of view. I’ll never remember that first roll with Rick. At the time, I didn’t really know what to do in sparring, so we locked up and wrassled around for a bit from our knees, then of course I got pushed to my back, he passed my guard and was so heavy that I tapped because I couldn’t breathe. Then, after getting knocked over again, he moved to North/South. Now, here’s where I immediately began to panic. Rick said, “This isn’t a submission. This is just pressure. Relax and breathe.” I tapped instead and began to seriously question whether BJJ was right for me.

Instead, I figured out ways to cope with it for myself, and while your mileage may vary, I’m happy to share what worked for me.

As a sort of preventative measure, try not to get smashed. That’s a good start, but of course, it doesn’t help with the problem… just helps you get better at avoiding it. I have learned over the last couple years that the key to sparring with a really big dude is to focus on hip movement and never give them a chance to settle in. Easier said than done, but when it works it feels pretty good.

That said, if I’m getting crushed, I look for daylight. If I’m in a position where things are tight, I’ll make sure I can see daylight just like I did in my MRI. I have found that sometimes, just turning my head a little so I can see the wide open spaces is enough to quell the panic. Even if I’m really getting smashed.

Second, relax. My tendency is to begin breathing faster when I’m in a tight spot. I want as much air as I can get, and it never seems like I’m getting enough. If I relax, focus on my breathing and slow things down, I can think about what to do next.

Third, keep my elbows in and remember my basics. The single most important thing I learned early on was to keep my elbows in. While that helped my defense, that was only a side benefit. The real value of keeping your elbows in on the bottom is that it helps you control the space, at best giving you an opportunity to hip out or upa and escape. At worst, it still provides a few inches of room. Your forearms might be all that stands between your face and a some hairy dude’s sweaty chest. Now, if that’s not motivation to focus on basics, I don’t know what is, cause I’m on the verge of panicking just writing that.

Finally, and this is nothing new, start from a bad position. I decided very early that if I was going to make it in BJJ, I’d need to learn to cope with tight spaces. I will almost always pull guard in sparring. I started doing this because I felt that getting on top was a copout and was avoiding the issue. In much the same way that I start from turtle now, it wasn’t that I felt comfortable from guard. Just the opposite.

I hope you’ve read the article I linked to over at Grapplearts.com. Stephan’s article goes into some detail about how you can overcome phobias in general, and some specific ways to tackle Claustrophobia on the mats. As always, though, if I can do it, anyone can. It’s not a matter of skill or talent. It’s a matter of just deciding it’s important and doing it. Jiu Jitsu isn’t always comfortable, but even at its worst, I can’t think of too many things that I’d rather do.

  15 Responses to “Claustrophobia and Grappling”

Comments (15)

    Dude, TOTALLY with you. Claustrophobia isn’t as big a deal for me (I hate heights, which I suppose is why I chose jiu jitsu versus Jet Li-style wire-flying kung fu), but I get really nervous when the space around my head collapses. What’s helped me recently is concentrating almost exclusively on the idea of getting my legs in between me and my opponent. The arm frame you’re talking about does the same thing, but I have this mental relaxation if I know I have my legs there to control that space. I think I’m just a sissy. :)


      Dev, I hear you. Keeping a knee in or better yet, never letting anyone pass your guard is the best way to go. But I’m not that good! Hehe. Good advice, bro. Thanks, as always, for the comment.


    Agreed on Kesting!!! He is a treasure to the bjj world and I cant say enough on how much his material has helped me. Claustrophobia is something I deal with while doing bjj. Im of the mindset that more people quit bjj due to that than anything else yet for some reason we are afraid to admit it. I admit it and also when I share it with others I see how common it is from white belts right on up. My claustrophobia has gotten much better thanks to the tips I got from Kestings site. Great post by you and thank you for putting it up. Also on a side note your friend Crusher is in my prayers. Take care.


      Thanks, Mike. I’ve been dealing with it in BJJ for a little over three years now, so I’m usually okay. I’ll admit, though, there are a few times I’ll just freak out. I don’t know why, but sometimes, my ability to cope is compromised. Brains are funny things.


    Hey Steve, Here is something fun for you. I remember you wearing the the Five Fingers and the more I study about the human body, well you come across stuff like this. Here ya go!


      I am not surprised at all by the conclusions of that video, Sean. If you look at where a shoe is made to bend and then consider that your foot would break if it bent there, it’s clear that everything about how you walk and run has to be changed. Wearing those shoes and walking barefoot, I found that I walked differently, a little more up on my toes rather than a solid heel strike and roll.

      Thanks for sharing that, Sean!


    I know just where you are coming from. I dealt with this a while back too and blog about it.


    I don’t have trouble with seeing. Mine is with breathing. I feel like there is no oxygen. Over time I’m getting better at it but like you sometimes it just hits me. Usually with me it is towards the end of practice when I am breathing heavy already.


    In my first Judo match I tried a sacrifice throw and ended up with the guy landing on me in a mount. He hunched over me and as I tried to breathe, I sucked in a mouthful of belly fat. Not only was I disgusted, but I also panicked as I had never experienced that before in my entire life.

    I’ve had my experiences in BJJ too and I thought about quitting as well. But it made me tougher and now I know how to cope with overwhelming pressure. As you said, “hip movement” and “looking for the light is key.”


      There is nothing worse than being smothered like that! Looking for the light IS key, but just remember kids. Don’t GO to the light. That’s bad! :)


    I know what you mean. I’m very new to BJJ, and never experienced claustrophobia until now. I don’t know, something about having this guy on top of you, eclipsing the light, and making it difficult for you to breathe…makes me feel claustrophobic. I’ll have to focus on keeping a knee in as you suggest. Thanks for the tip.


    No issues with claustrophobia (the only thing that bothers me about MRI is all the noise), but I have discovered that I suck at being out of breath. I’m doing a calorie restricted paleo gig right now, and when I gas, it’s like I’m drowning. I literally have *nothing* left until I regain my breath. I’ve tried about a dozen suggestions regarding breath control, but the result is always the same – being crushed and being gassed = tap, tap, tap. No amount of wedging, creating space, or focusing on breathing changes anything. Hopefully this all goes away again once I move past the calorie restriction phase of this diet.


    Jet li is a BJJ BB


    I appreciate and can relate to the claustrophobia issues. I pretty much laid off of martial arts for a while because I could never find a way to mentally train myself to overcome the problem. By reading these articles, I have been inspired to pick it back up again. That feeling of “I am literally going to die” is the worst feeling in the world. I hope to someday overcome this scary condition.

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