Training martial arts is always a stressful affair. Depending on the art, the training environment, and the person training, it can be downright terrifying in certain situations. With grappling martial arts, where sparring takes place in extremely close proximity to training partners, different issues can arise. While most people training either have no problem at all or have grown accustomed to it, this is not an easy obstacle to overcome. Even more so, some people that have similar issues in other aspects of life, might feel that Jiu-Jitsu training exacerbates their issue. As long as you’re careful this is not going to be the case. Quite the contrary BJJ is a type of therapy that can help people overcome some real and debilitating fears. Welcome to mat therapy.
The term mat therapy is a widely used one in grappling martial arts, BJJ in particular. Most often it is used metaphorically, outlining the fact that training BJJ takes people’s minds off their everyday worries. Just take a look at people after training at any Jiu-Jitsu academy in the world and you’ll see a bunch of very happy people. While this is certainly a great way to use mat therapy, there are also more psychologically-specific ways as well.
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Identifying The Problem
BJJ has the amazing power to show people their true self. Knowing yourself is an accomplishment that not too many people in modern times can successfully claim to have mastered. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and grappling martial arts, in general, are going to expose every little thing you do not know, or do not want to know about yourself. It is well established that ego is the first sacrifice a person must make in order to become a grappler. There’s no way one can retain a high-functioning ego while getting destroyed by people half their weight or twice their age, let alone those of the “weaker sex”.
Ego apart, real-life issues like panic attacks and certain fears that people have often come to the surface when they enroll in BJJ. Panic attacks are sudden periods of intense fear that often come about surprisingly. Symptoms include sweating, heart palpitations, shortness of breath etc and can last up to half an hour. They can be caused by multiple factors, from stress to other conditions like anxiety and claustrophobia.
Panic attacks in BJJ are not as rare as one might think, or hope, for that matter. Actually, they’re quite prevalent in many sports but tend to surface during grappling training due to the stress and intensity of practice. BJJ puts people in high-pressured anxiety-inducing positions regularly and repeatedly, so it is no wonder symptoms of underlying conditions often start to appear. Fear not though, mat therapy can lead you safely through them. It just takes work and the willingness to push through.
Panic Attacks In BJJ
Anxiety in BJJ can go into one of two common directions. The first one is “direct” mat therapy, where practicing Jiu-Jitsu actually calms anxiety and resolves symptoms. The other direction exacerbates the condition leading to full-blown panic attacks that can be crushingly debilitating. The reality of BJJ is that you’ll end up with a person bigger, stronger and more experienced than you. It’s going to happen at least once during a class. As if that’s not scary enough, this person is going to attempt to choke you or bend your limbs until you surrender. In doing so, they are going to try and make life as uncomfortable as possible, restricting your breath, putting pressure on your chest and head and pinning you to the ground. All of the above can easily result in extreme discomfort that can trigger panic attacks.
Getting panic attacks during rolling include the feeling of extreme helplessness, horrible fear and all or some of the physical symptoms we previously stated. One huge reason for the emergence of symptoms is trouble breathing. Breathing is one of the things we seem to take for granted, up until we can’t do it. During BJJ, breathing is restricted two-fold, primarily through pressure on the ribcage. Although often unintentional, obstruction of the mouth/nose is the secondary.
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Panic attacks are not inherently life-threatening by themselves, but they can often cause complications that may be serious. In terms of grappling, panic attacks can lead grapplers to make wrong decisions that might have grave consequences. It is difficult enough for people to deal with it on a day-to-day basis, let alone having to fight it while wrestling a 220 lbs purple belt that’s squeezing the daylight out of you.
Mat Therapy – Solving The Issue
Anxiety disorders can only be understood completely by fellow sufferers. As such finding people with similar afflictions is a great way of dealing with them.
As we already identified breathing restriction as one of the top triggers for panic attacks, let’s work with that first. Finding a way to breathe and then, to calm your breath down is a skill any grappler needs. For those with anxiety disorders, it becomes paramount. In order to be able to focus on mat therapy and taking on your anxiety, you have to be able to breathe. Make sure to find even the tiniest little hole (there’s always one). Then focus on using it to calm yourself and your breath down. While difficult at first, it is going to become easier as time goes by.
Next, it is always good to use mat therapy in conjuncture with “regular” therapy. Proven methods that help people outside the gym can be used to speed up your progress on the mats as well. Exposure therapy techniques, like flooding, are aimed at facing the trigger head on until the attack passes. Counter conditioning is also a helpful form of therapy, where a person uses relaxation and visualization techniques to diffuse an uncomfortable situation. This one is particularly helpful during rolling, provided that you have viable relaxation methods.
Modeling (watching other people deal with anxiety) and cognitive behavior therapy (defining and confronting triggers) are also good options. The use of medications is also a way to deal with panic attacks, but they should really be a last resort.
Whichever approach you choose, make sure you really give mat therapy a try. For best results, consult a licensed physician and come up with a plan. BJJ is there to help and it will if you let it.