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Claustrophobia and Grappling

Posted Jan 31 2010 7:47am

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 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.

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