Claustrophobia in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

Claustrophobia in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu: A Case Study of Dave

As a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu instructor I often take time to individually help my students work through some of the issues they are having with their game. In deciding which experience to discuss in this week’s blog, one student (whom we’ll call “Dave”) stood out. It wasn’t that his problem was particularly out of the ordinary; it’s actually quite common. But how we worked through his physical and psychological problems was quite informative for both of us and is definitely worth sharing.

Claustrophobia in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Buford

Claustrophobia, the fear of being in enclosed or narrow spaces, is fairly common in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. It’s not that loads of people who are clinically diagnosed as claustrophobic are signing up to train, but rather, being stacked on the back of your neck or having a much bigger opponent crushing down on you in North/South position can make just about anyone experience tinges of anxiety. This was the case with Dave. He never had any previous claustrophobic tendencies but, as a white belt, he often found himself in positions that began to make him feel anxious.

In addressing his anxiety we started out by determining which positions gave him the most discomfort. The positions he named, side mount, north/south and being in a headlock on the ground, were typical positions that generate claustrophobia in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Next, I offered Dave two basic tips on dealing with anxiety when in these positions…RELAX and ESCAPE. By relaxing I mean not tensing up, staying calm and most importantly, regulating your breathing with slow, deep breathes. To facilitate escaping we drilled the proper techniques to maneuver out of each of the positions he was having trouble with.  But, when dealing specifically with strategies to alleviate anxiety while in those positions, things REALLY got interesting!

As we were walking and talking through the various positions and how to deal with the rush of anxiety, I noticed that every time I offered a suggestion Dave would respond with a technical, scientific name for what I just described. As it turns out, Dave is a Ph.D. candidate in Counseling Psychology and during our sessions he recognized that much of what we were drilling were common therapeutic practices in psychology.

So, below are some basic therapeutic tools used in the field of psychology and their application in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Exposure Therapy: in Psychology, Exposure Therapy is a form of therapy where the patient confronts what they fear with the goal of overcoming that fear.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Application: Our overall strategy was an exposure approach. Our goal was to place Dave in those claustrophia inducing positions with the hopes of alleviating the anxiety of being in those positions.

Flooding: Flooding is a therapeutic method that fully emerges the patient in the stimuli they fear for a prolonged period of time. A primary component of Flooding is Response Prevention, the preventing of patients from performing their typical avoidance behaviors.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Application: Flooding was achieved by having another student place Dave in the headlock position and gradually tighten the grip. The goal was to initiate the anxiety then allow Dave to work through the claustrophobia that arises by relaxing. At Dave’s insistence, we eventually implemented the Response Prevention of eliminating Dave’s ability to “tap” when his anxiety escalated.

Participant Modeling: Participant Modeling is a technique where the therapist models the ideal reaction to what the patient fears then guides the patient through the encounter until mastery.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Application: In our conversations Dave recounted seeing a match at a local BJJ tournament where two guys were in the 50/50 position. One guy seemed especially relaxed. Dave said “the expression on his face was as nonchalant as I’ve ever seen. He even felt relaxed enough to casually stare up into the stands and even brush away a piece of hair or lint on the mat!” Using that guy as a model, the goal became for Dave to become as relaxed and “nonchalant” in his stress positions as that guy was in 50/50.

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT): As a Cognitive-Behavioral therapy, REBT assumes that irrational thinking is at the root of pathological behavior. As a result, REBT seeks to change irrational beliefs as a means of correcting irrational behaviors.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Application: One of the prime drivers of Dave’s anxiety when trapped in one of his three Brazilian Jiu Jitsu positions was his irrational fear of suffocating and the feeling of being immobilized and unable to move. While certainly uncomfortable, the chances of suffocation in any of those positions are extremely low (if they exist at all). As a counter to these irrational thoughts, Dave, when put in these positions, would continuously remind himself that A) my air is not cut off and I’m still able to breathe normally and B) I can end this negative experience any time I want by tapping. Constantly repeating those thoughts forced Dave to dwell on the rational which facilitated his ability to relax and survive the positions.

In the end, these therapeutic practices combined with relaxing and eventually using the proper escape techniques, worked wonders for Dave’s ability to withstand his stress positions.

With practice and good Brazilian Jiu Jitsu training partners, I’m sure they can diminish some of the anxiety and claustrophobia in your game as well!

One thought on “Claustrophobia in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

  1. Tony Everitt

    This was a very interesting read, thanks for sharing this information. My girlfriend suffers from claustrophobia as well, she has tried BJJ, but can’t relax in head locks or holds, she stresses out so much, that she feels sick and will throws up, if it gets too much. So, we both decided to try another martial art style and came upon Muay Thai, and we both love it. She still has a few difficulties with the clinch, but I am slowly introducing to her.

    The question I want to ask is, where she trains they have a cage instead of a ring to fight in, and she always has like a panic attack when she is in there, and totally stresses out, and then once she is out it takes her ages to calm down and be herself. I am wanting to know if you have any advice or some techniques I can use in this situation, to make her feel more relaxed and less anxious, before entering, while she is in the cage and after?


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