Jul 252012
Pressure Gauge

Pressure GaugeI was over on Bullshido and read a thread with the title above, “So I tapped to an anxiety attack.”  Read the ongoing thread here: http://www.bullshido.net/forums/showthread.php?t=117341

The upshot is that a brand new white belt feels pretty down about being pushed beyond the level of exhaustion and tapped out of fear rather than from a technical submission.  Who hasn’t?  I have.  It’s something everyone who trains in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu understands.  Jiu Jitsu is fun.  It’s really fun… but there are times when it’s not fun.  There are times when you have someone putting so much pressure on your diaphragm from Knee on Belly, or smothering your face from North/South that your fight or flight kicks in.  And for someone who has a legitimate, diagnosed condition, such as an anxiety disorder or panic attacks, BJJ can be downright terrifying at times.

I have posted over the years about my own struggles with claustrophobia.  I still tell the story of when I was sparring with Rick (aka Brick), who, while crushing the life out of me said, “This isn’t a submission.  This is just pressure.  Relax and breathe.”  I tapped instead.

But I didn’t quit.  In the article above, posted back in the very beginning of 2010, I outlined a few things that have helped me.  I think they bear repeating, because they’re no less true for me now as a purple belt then they were when I was a blue belt writing that article, or as a white belt struggling to figure out how to overcome the anxiety that I experience when my face is covered.

1:  Look for daylight. If I’m in a position where things are tight, 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.

2:  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.  Simply put, keep the rational part of my brain in control and try not to allow the Fight or Flight impulse to take over.

3:  Go into survival mode, 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.

4:  Confront the fear; 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.

Now, as then, your mileage may vary.  This is my approach.  I’d love to hear how others have overcome anxiety/panic attacks on the mats.

  10 Responses to ““So I tapped to an anxiety attack…””

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    Can I just add a fifth?

    Remember – you’re not going to die…..

    When I’ve had students who are having difficulty dealing with anxiety early on, I often remind them that this is the gym, not the street. The person they’re training with is experienced and won’t hurt them. Further, I’m there to ensure that is the case.

    Almost invariably, you can see the relaxation immediately.

    I’m not sure about claustrophobia, as I’ve neither experienced it or had a student who discussed it with me. However, I’m sure that this would help.


    This is some good advice. I’ve definitely been in some hellish situations over the years, and 1 and 2 have always been my methods of calming down.


      Thanks, KB. I think it helps some to know that most of us have been there at one time or another.


      Thanks for the comment, KB. It’s tough sometimes. I think that pride has as much to do with where I’m at now as anything else. I just don’t want to tap to something that isn’t a submission. I want to figure it out.


    I hear you! It took me a while to deal with chest crushing pressure. When I have that panicky feeling I stop what I’m doing, close my eyes and tell myself – hey, you can breathe. If my face is covered in gi, I move the gi and I just breathe.


    I have been training since September, so a couple months now, my son has been training since June..

    just last night at class I had an incident where I had a hard time breathing…and told the guy I was rolling with (4 Stripe Blue Belt), that I needed to stop to catch my breath. he understood, and I actually felt like I could not get my breath at all…

    I was a little late to class due to traffic accident and missed the conditioning part of class, so I felt like I should of had more energy then usual, but I’m sure that the lack of conditioning and opening up my lungs, contributed to my shortness or breath, just as if I don’t get adequate stretching in, and roll, my flexibility is limited and I end up overly sore the next day.

    my first 2 classes, I felt the same way, which I blamed on the fact I had a loaner Gi that was one of the old original super duper heavy gi’s, and me being out of shape, by the third class when my Gi came in, I was able to handle it much better.

    I also pusposly pull guard, or work the open guard, spider guard etc, because I want to be in disadvantaged situations and learn to deal with them, by doing this with the higher ranks though gets me in many hard to breath being squashed positions, I guess I got what I asked for. haha

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