BJJ Claustrophobia: The Silent “Killer” in Jiu-Jitsu Training

BJJ Claustrophobia

A common but often unspoken obstacle for many students.

People of all ages and experience levels struggle with this all the time, even quit altogether. If you suffer from this phobia, it can range from mild anxiety through to full blown anxiety attacks where you feel as though you can’t breathe and your brain is telling you that you could die.

I’ve heard even some high level black belt competitors quietly admit to feelings of complete panic when pinned, and have designed their games to avoid this happening at all costs.

And that’s the biggest problem: not the claustrophobia itself, but the fact that most never feel comfortable acknowledging it. People feel that it doesn’t sound like a “legitimate” problem and feel embarrassed by it. Suddenly they will begin coming up with other reasons for having to take time off or quit, such as being busy at work, dealing with an injury, etc.

Now let’s lay the cards on the table and make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone reading this.

The truth is, BJJ claustrophobia is a VERY common phenomenon – especially early on in training when you aren’t used to having people on top of you with all their weight and haven’t learned how to control your breathing. In fact, I think more people than not have experienced claustrophobia to some extent.

(Actually, just about a week ago at a training camp down South I had the first near-panic feeling during rolling that I’ve experienced for years…. The combination of high humidity and apparently extremely high pollen count were bothering a bunch of people, and suddenly when I was trying to escape from bottom I felt like I just couldn’t get a breath. Like I said, most of us will feel this to some extent in their BJJ journey.)

Two reasons I bring up this topic:

First, I wanted to let you know if you do struggle with this that there’s nothing to be embarrassed about, you’re not the only one, and it’s possible to get past it.

Second, so that you can talk to your instructor or senior students about it and be proactive to deal with it so that it doesn’t lead you to give up on your training.

Here are a few tips.

  1. Control your breathing. It’s easier said than done, of course, but breath control is very possible, and it begins with breath awareness. If you find that you have a tendency to hold your breath and/or hyperventilate during training, make it your goal to approach your training sessions for a period of time with the primary objective of relaxation and breath control. This will keep your attention on your breathing and allow you to continually remind yourself to modulate it. At first it will take a lot of work to maintain this focus, but before long you will control your breathing naturally and not have to think about it.

2. Self Talk. Hand-in-hand with breath control is controlling the narrative in your head when you’re under pressure in training. When claustrophobia sets in the mind tends to race and then “seize up.” It’s important to head this off at the pass with positive self talk early on. You know, rationally speaking, that you’re in a controlled environment and just because someone is on top of you, they are not actually assaulting you (it’s not life or death) and you are not going to suffocate. In your mind, as soon as you wind up in an inferior position tell yourself “I’m all right, I can still breathe, just relax” and “I will escape.” The ability to make this a habit along with your breath awareness and control will make a massive change in your ability to prevent anxiety.

3. Check Your Ego. When you’re on the receiving end of an aggressive training partner’s pressure, you might feel it’s them who needs to check the ego, but remember that some of the responsibility rests with you. If you are feeling panicked every time you roll and get pinned but are not letting your partners know that you are struggling with this, then they don’t have a chance to work with you and be better partners. Of course, it may also be true that they go to hard, use too much energy, or that they “spaz,” but it’s far more productive to just let them know what’s going on than to build resentments and begin to avoid them.

Also remember, you can also just tap – at any point, and it’s far easier to reset than to recover from a full-blown anxiety attack. The key with this is to be honest about it (it’s a kind of “cardio tap”) and not chalk it up to something it’s not, such as an injury.

Remember, the ultimate goal of Jiu-Jitsu is to be able to keep doing it. Be proactive, talk to your instructors and training partners, and do what you need to do to keep on the mats!

Comments? Tell Us What You Think: