Overcoming Claustrophobia in Jiu Jitsu
This article is about one of the more undiscussed BJJ issues, Jiu Jitsu claustrophobia . In a video linked below, Warren, head Jiu Jitsu trainer at Stout Training Pittsburgh and Renzo Gracie Black Belt, discusses the issue and shows everyone some ways to deal with bad positions. The article is written by Cory Hedgepeth, a 4-stripe white belt who has battled the issue since starting his Training In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (and in other life situations). Cory offers 7 tips to turn this negative experience into something inert and even a learning possibility.
by cory hedgepeth – We’ve all had it, that uneasy feeling in an elevator where it feels as though the walls are closing in on you. Or maybe you were in a large crowd and suddenly felt a “fight or flight” response, causing you to want to get out of the crowd as fast as possible. Human beings were not intended to be trapped in small places, which is why it’s considered a primal fear. Everyone has it to some degree, but an overly sensitive perception, and or translation, of this fear, is known as a condition termed “claustrophobia.” Claustrophobia, the fear of having no escape or being trapped inside an enclosed space, effects 5-7 percent of the population in a severe manner. In a milder manner, the numbers must be higher.
My own personal claustrophobia has been a lifelong challenge, to say the least. When I was a young kid, another kid tackled me and put me in a headlock. That is my first real memory of feeling claustrophobic. I recall a total sweeping feeling of utter panic, as if I were going to die. The condition really isn’t something that’s with you all the time, and in a way, it’s deceiving because when you aren’t in the tight confines of spacial enclosure, you don’t believe it exist (I have always believed this to be a part of the issue, which we can discuss a bit on when we get to Jiu Jitsu). In 9th grade, I played football and on my birthday, the team “dogpiled” me. It was one of the most horrible feelings I had ever felt and to this day, I can hardly watch a sports team celebrate a win when it involves a dogpile.
My Junior year in High School, I decided to take up wrestling. I don’t know if I can say I was really that interested in the sport from a fan perspective, but I loved the idea of wrestling workouts. As I said before, when your space isn’t compromised, well, you don’t consider yourself claustrophobic in a complete way. The first day we sparred, I learned quickly that wrestling was one of the worst offenders for my condition. And “condition,” I began to consider it. An athletic guy in High School, I completely and totally got destroyed for one full year in wrestling, both in practice and tournaments, because I absolutely geared my game towards not being tied up and put into a tight place for which I had no escape. It was my first year of wrestling, I had no escapes in any technical manner, so almost all of my matches were complete destruction and embarrassment. I could have quit (and maybe I should have) but my friends were on the team and I was scared to face up to being a quitter. I loved my coach, he was a great guy, but no way could I have told anyone about the issue. When I’d get into any type of tie up on the ground, I typically worked to allow them to pin me. I can recall shoving my shoulder blades to the mat and looking at the referee just to force the issue. It was a demeaning experience, and one that was glad to see end. One point I’d like to make here is that throughout that entire year, no one ever suspected that I had a claustrophobia issue. It was just assumed that was utterly terrible at the sport, despite my physique being athletic, my cardio for wrestling being beyond great, and my weight room strength being well above board for my weight. I deserved to be bad because it was my first year and the technicalities and function of wrestling is acquired through a great many years of hard work, but I didn’t deserve to be that bad. So why didn’t anyone figure it out? Because it’s just not a consideration in any sport. Everything else is considered, like your athletic prowess or your aptitude to pick up on technique, or your anaerobic cardio, but not “how well does this guy handle a tight space.”
And that’s the rub. Without it being a distinct part of the course work, it becomes an assumed non-issue. And when that’s the case, there is rarely dialogue between the claustrophobic and the coaches. Years later, at age 36, I took up Jiu Jitsu. Under the same earlier premise which disregarded my claustrophobia, I quickly learned that claustrophobia can and does become a large part of the Jiu Jitsu game. This article is about opening up the dialogue and introducing ways to deal with the issue, understanding the issue and overcoming the issue. I’m a 4-stripe white belt at the time of this article. Warren, of Stout Training Pittsburgh and Renzo Gracie Black Belt who is the head Jiu Jitsu instructor at the academy, also created a video aimed at helping students overcome the issue. If you are suffering, or maybe if you have bouts of the issue, then hopefully this article helps.
First, lets deal with what likely triggers the feeling and walk through what actually happens. The first part is pretty simple, you need an enclosed space, whether that’s an elevator or a Jiu Jitsu mount, you need to feel that your space has been compromised. The second part of the equation is that you need to feel that you have no way to change that circumstance. This is the formula for claustrophobia. In an elevator, you need to understand that it will open, if you understand this, you have no issue. Even if the elevator gets stuck, if you understand that it will get opened eventually, you won’t have an issue. The problem is, that’s not how a claustrophobic’s mind operates. Our mind sees space taken away, next our panic sets in and our mind does not see past the moment. I hate elevators. If there is an option to take steps, I take them. I took the stairs in the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, which was over 30 flights high, every time I went to my room over the course of 3 days. And this wasn’t a one time deal, this is nearly each time I go to Vegas. I can do the elevator, the space isn’t so bad, but when the Venetian is crowded, they line you up and overfill the elevators and that’s something I can’t do. In Jiu Jitsu, it requires a training partner to hold you in a position that takes away space and causes you to feel you have no escape. Those positions would be side-mount, full-mount, and headlocks. For me, headlocks are the worst. The key to overcoming this condition is to break down some of the points that are at play within the condition.
1) Everyone has claustrophobia.
Look, I know that seems like a crazy statement, but keep something in mind here, no one likes to be trapped in a vicious side-mount. You aren’t alone. Some people handle it better than others, but no one wants to be there. Judo headlocks are a terrible place to be, if someone is strong, they can hold you there even if you are ten times better at Jiu Jitsu than them because it’s such a strength based position. No one likes that. Ask any purple, brown or black belt if they have ever felt claustrophobic and the answer will most likely be a firm “yes.” This isn’t my way of telling you that your condition is irrational or overly dramatized on your end, not at all, it’s real, but it’s important to understand that you really aren’t that different from anyone else. The difference at play for you is that your “fight or flight” hormones race, in others, they don’t. Others are just uncomfortable, much like you are when you are when you run wind sprints. Understanding this difference is important because it helps you understand that you aren’t crazy, the position is terribly uncomfortable, you just need to handle it better from a mental standpoint.
2) Everyone in Jiu Jitsu has an issue.
You’re claustrophobic. Move on. It’s nothing to feel bad about. I’ve tapped in positions I felt bad for tapping in and then said “some times I don’t handle that position well.” Then it’s a fist bump and moving on and getting right back to it. Here’s the thing, your training partner has a weight issues, has never been very athletic, is in really poor shape, is a smoker trying to quit, is a former alcoholic, is someone with severe confidence issues. It’s Jiu Jitsu, everyone is overcoming something, don’t let yourself be lulled into believing your extraordinary because that leads you down the road of being a victim. And victims never overcome anything. The point is, don’t be ashamed to be public about it. I don’t walk into the room and tell everyone via some crazy announcement, but I also don’t hide it if it comes up. Its a lot more rare now because I’ve worked on it, but part of that work has been being open about it. I spar in open mat 3 to 4 times a week, I’ve had guys tap on me because they simply got tired and couldn’t keep my pace. Why? They are out of shape. They are in Jiu Jitsu trying to lose weight and get in shape. I understand. That’s part of my role as a training partner, as a sparing partner, to understand that. And the respect should always be reciprocated. Jiu Jitsu is not a barbaric sport, while it is a technique that can be used to take someone out in self defense, the culture is far from that type of mindset. If the place you train at has this mindset, I’d consider finding another gym to train at.
3) Conditioning is key.
If you want to put fuel on the claustrophobia fire, be winded. If I walk into training and have not so much as even jogged around the mat and some 350lbs guy puts me in mount, I have no issue. Why? I have a lot of air, the oxygen is flowing to my brain, my mind doesn’t full on interpret the situation as dire. Being in Jiu Jitsu shape is huge. Its important to note, even the greatest of Jiu Jitsu players, if completely depleted of air from a long enduring match, will feel claustrophobic if they are put in a bad position. What can you do? Work on your anaerobic cardio. There is no better way to do this then by doing Jiu Jitsu as much as possible, but second to that, Kettle Bell workouts and wind sprints are great ways to help boost your cardio. Jogging 5 miles will not help you, by the way, you need interval type training that maxes out your body’s energy in short spurts.
4) Don’t skip open mat or sparing opportunities.
Many people outright skip open mat. It’s intimidating, no doubt, and many people have many reasons for doing so, but I’m sure claustrophobia is a huge one. Without taking the issue head on, you leave it to simmer. I go to open mat a few times a week, period, and yes, I’ve overcame a lot of my struggle, but it still happens. But every time it happens I end up that much stronger for it. Remember, everyone has their own issues to contend with, the closer you get to getting past your own, the stronger you become and the more of an edge you have. This is Jiu Jitsu, you can tap if you don’t feel comfortable with the position, there will be no questions asked. Hey, I’m in immaculate shape, I have had guys that aren’t in good shape tap. That’s ok, I get it. We go again, they try to go longer the next time. That’s their burden, their issue, and this is Jiu Jitsu, it’s ok because we are all working towards the same goal. All those people sitting at the donut shop instead of training, their issues (and they do have them) just simmer and fester. You are getting past yours which will make you a stronger person, not just in Jiu Jitsu, but in life. A problem at the office will seem like nothing seeing you’ve conquered a full mount by a 270lbs purple belt. Don’t avoid getting stronger, see the opportunity in it.
5) Learn to escape, learn to appreciate bad positions.
Bad positions are all too often, a general part of life. If we don’t revel in taking them on, we decay within them. When I first joined Jiu Jitsu and the reality hit that I was going to be experiencing a lot of really bad positions, I immediately and without hesitation began to research escapes. I decided that I wanted to be not good at escapes, but great at them. I wanted to invite bad positions just for the sake of getting out of them. Why? That’s a part of the conflict that creates claustrophobia, the belief you are trapped. If you never feel trapped, you never experience claustrophobia.
I spent well over a decade surfing in California. I loved the sport, so-much-so that I ended up surfing in Brazil and Costa Rica. I’ve seen my fair share of people try surfing once only end up walking back across the beach shamed and demoralized from the experience. Surfing, well it’s hard and it’s pretty unforgiving. If you get out in bigger surf, you can’t just tap out, you gotta surf it back in. The two biggest issues with surfing a a fear of water (this includes shark fears) and, yep, claustrophobia. You watch TV and the pretty ocean sure does seem like the place to be, until you get hit with a 5 foot wave and shoved down to the bottom. And it gets dark. And you aren’t sure which way is up. And you have no air. It’s suddenly not pretty anymore.
I never felt this though, which was absurd, considering my sensitivity to enclosed spaces. Why didn’t I feel it? I’m a really good swimmer, I was in surfing shape, I knew how to surf pretty well. No matter how bad it got, and it got bad, I knew I could get out. My feet were once tied by my leash to the bottom of the ocean, I was forced to stay under and untie my feet and I calmly did so. I’ve surfed double overhead and went down in it. I never felt trapped without an escape, that’s the key element to the formula of claustrophobia.
So in Jiu Jitsu, I began to want to be put in bad positions. First, this helps change your mentality from “I am scared of that position” to “this is actually where I am most dangerous.” That change is huge. During the fundamentals classes, I would hope the course work was working out of a bad position. Heres the thing, bad positions are a major part of life and for me, Jiu Jitsu is a perfect way to learn to deal with them. Why not be great at it?
One of my scariest positions was always having someone in half-guard. I was always getting flattened out. To be honest, I preferred they just pass and I deal with mount. So I began focusing on that position more and more. When fundamentals classes featured it, I focused and tried to absorb as much as I could. Fast forward to today and I can tell you without hesitation that my go-to submissions is a Kimura lock from half-guard. I learned to want to be there and to look at it as an opportunity to create offense. For me now, I don’t attempt to sweep or hip out into full guard as my first response, instead, I see if I can generate offense. I use being in the position as a place of comfort. If they cross face me, it happens, I look at it like “well, I still have you where I want you with a leg trapped.” When you change your mentality as I described, you take away the element of being trapped without escape and you change it to your controlling of the situation. In my head, all I want is to keep your one leg trapped and keep moving you until your arm opens up, then I go down that road to isolate it. Is it the best approach in terms of Jiu Jitsu technique? That’s not for me to say. Is it the best approach to overcoming claustrophobia? It’s certainly one of them.
6) Watch what you eat, it has more to do with it then you think.
Hormones are a driving factor in claustrophobia. If you are attacked on the street, hormones will help you survive the situation by releasing tons of energy into your bloodstream and allowing you to “fight or flight” the circumstances. This is great, but not when you are in someone’s mount whereas panic will only lead to a submission. What you eat plays a vital role in hormones. If your blood sugar bottoms out because you ate a candy bar or pounded Gatorade before class, you set yourself up for the release of those hormones. Stay away from processed food garbage, welcome whole foods and healthy fats. This will also help you stay fit, which as discussed earlier, is a huge asset in and of itself. If you suffer claustrophobic moments in a rather inconsistent manner, meaning, you tap out to a position that last week didn’t bother you; I’d highly suggest keeping a food diary, this may be the cause.
7) Talk to your instructor, be open to directly working on the issue.
Your instructor and training partners should understand. Being open about the issue allows people to help you. There are things that can be done, for example, like just going to an open practice and having someone put you in a bad position and seeing how long you can last. Do it over, try to last longer. Another way is to run wind sprints and then get in a bad position, similarly, see how long you can last. Your instructor will probably have a ton of ways to help, but you have to be willing to be open. Remember, everyone has an issue, trainers in all sports have to help athletes overcome all kinds of issues on their way to greatness, but for some reason, claustrophobia has garnered this perception of negativity. In reality, it’s the same as being someone who needs to lose weight, or work on strength or speed.
Hopefully some of these items help people who may be challenged by the issue either a lot, or less frequently. While I have worked hard to overcome the condition, yesterday when I left open mat, I took the stairs back down. (some things may never change). : )