You would think that an opportunity to train at Gracie University, aka Jiu-Jitsu Heaven 2.0, would leave no room for anxiety … unfortunately, anxiety doesn’t work that way. I wrote in detail about my specific anxiety issues that were related to this particular trip in a previous post. I don’t want to rehash all those details here. Rather, I want to elaborate on my own experience specifically related to doing jiu-jitsu while coping with anxiety.
First I want to clarify that the anxiety I’m writing about is not about anxiety before going to class — you know, that feeling of apprehension, wondering if you’ll be able to survive another night of rolling on the mats, fearing injury, doubting your own abilities and potential … The anxiety I’m writing about has nothing to do with those pre-class jitters. Rather, I am writing about how to continue training despite suffering from an anxiety disorder.
In my previous post I described the big anxiety attack that hit me suddenly while I was in Torrance. As much as I wanted to curl up in bed for the rest of the evening, I forced myself to head to GU to at least watch the class if nothing else. Once I was there, I put on my gi — still reserving my choice of not participating if I didn’t want to. In the end, I decided to step on the mats. Normally, I wouldn’t have minded who I paired up with. However, today was a bit different. Although D and I use our time in Torrance as an opportunity to train with other people, I was too nervous about having an anxiety attack on the mats. It was a major accomplishment just being there. Not wanting to risk feeling worse, D and I trained together.
I’m glad we came to that decision as that day’s class was focusing on front chokes.
Even though I knew I was in a safe environment and that I was training with D, my trusted partner on and off the mats, just the thought of someone putting their hands on my neck made me tense. My heart was racing. My throat was dry. I could feel panic rising, even though there was no reason actual reason for it.
For me, in relation to training, that’s been the most frustrating part. Despite all logic, it’s hard to keep the symptoms of anxiety at bay. It was so hard not to get super annoyed with myself – why am I acting this way? Nothing is going to happen.
It is so easy to let that type of thought cycle spiral out of control. The anxiety leads to frustration which leads to annoyance which leads to more frustration which heightens the anxiety … … …
To control those thoughts, well that takes practice. It takes deliberate effort. Above all, and this is something that took me ages to understand and accept, it takes patience and compassion. Even if nobody else can be patient with me or compassionate about my situation, I can do that for myself. Since I know that reprimanding myself won’t help me feel better, I don’t. Since I know that trying to ‘just get over it’ without at least acknowledging what I’m going through won’t work, I don’t just ignore what I’m feeling. I try to talk to myself in a positive tone – try your best; do what you can; you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, but give it a go if you’re up for it; if you’re not, that’s ok; try again later.
Sometimes my self-talk can take ages and other times it just takes a couple of minutes.
This time, once I had changed and stepped on the mats to train, the only thing I kept repeating to myself was just try. Luckily, all the techniques that were being covered in class that day were ones that we had just completed for our BBS2 test. That definitely eased my anxiousness since I didn’t have to worry about learning completely new moves that day. I was able to just do the techniques and try to pick up on some extra details to fine tune my defenses.
I was fortunate that while I was at GU, I didn’t have a full blown anxiety attack. I had a lot of things working in my favor, namely a trustworthy training partner and moves that I already knew. The reality is, however, that things don’t always go that smoothly. Sometimes everything will be fine and then out of nowhere, the anxiety will start to build.
Anxiety is tough to deal with no matter what the situation. Add to that the one-on-one training element of jiu-jitsu and the fact that someone is attacking you, it all gets quite heightened. What do you do if you’re sparring and all of a sudden a wave of panic comes over you?
For me, I distinctly remember a moment when I was training at home and we were practicing a move where I escape when someone is in my guard but has their forearm crushing down on my throat. I knew the counter. It wasn’t even that difficult to do. But all of a sudden, without any warning, one thought flashed in my mind – my brother is dead. My grief was (is) still raw. The thought is undeniable. The pain and anguish are real. And at that moment, I could feel the pressure on my throat but I just froze. The emotional pain I was experiencing in that moment was so much greater than the physical discomfort of that pressure. I didn’t know what to deal with first. The grief couldn’t be dealt with in a moment, but the escape could – so somehow I managed to pull myself together to alleviate the pressure and complete the move.
The anguish is relentless.
Just because I managed to complete the technique didn’t mean the effects of my thought disappeared.
There was no easy solution. I had two choices. I could let my grief completely take over my life or I could try to continue training through it. Having our BBS2 test to focus on was good for me. We had a schedule. I had a partner who was relying on me. There was a specific end goal. Still, it was tough. I can’t even count how many moments thoughts like the one above would flash into my mind. If it was just one thought, I was lucky. More often than not, I would relive the entire first hour of me getting the news. It was torture.
How do I defend myself against my own mind?
There are two reasons for this post – the first one is to share my personal experience with anxiety and the second is to share some of the strategies I have been trying to help me continue training through the anxiety.
I’ve always been an anxious person, so when someone tells me they suffer from anxiety, I can totally relate. It is much harder to understand the mental and physical symptoms of anxiety if you’ve never experienced it. Well meaning assurances such as ‘you’re safe,’ ‘calm down,’ ‘just breathe’, relax,’ ‘you’ll be ok’ don’t work. The words fall on deaf ears when you’re approaching or in the middle of an anxiety attack.
It can be frustrating for both parties. Those watching don’t understand what is happening or what they can do to help and those who are experiencing the attack can’t necessarily express what they are feeling or if there’s anything that actually can help them feel better. It’s tough.
There is no on/off switch. There is no place for immediate rational thought, particularly ones that are imposed/suggested by others.
Moreover, the triggers of an attack can be completely random and unexpected. They aren’t even necessarily related to anything that has happened on or around the mats. My anxiety attack was triggered by memories of my brother as I was browsing through a bookstore — talk about unrelated to jiu-jitsu! Yet, I walked onto the mats with the feeling inside me.
When training jiu-jitsu and experiencing this type of reaction, it’s easy to compound the situation with the worry of what instructors or fellow practitioners will think. In the days that followed my anxiety attack while in Torrance, I spent time sitting on the sidelines. I sometimes received comments like – Still not training? Getting lazy, are you?
It was hard to grin and bear it. Inside I would think to myself: No, I’m not training right now but I’m definitely not getting lazy. I’m just battling something inside me that I can’t explain … and the fact that I am on my feet and out the door is a miracle for me today. But these are thoughts that are exhausting to share with others.
Judgment hurts, but I knew that I could not let that interfere with what I was feeling. I didn’t owe anyone an explanation – at the same time, I did feel ashamed. That really sucked. Even though it sucked, I had to just shake it off. I couldn’t have one more thing piled on my shoulders as something to cope with.
After my brother died, I experienced agoraphobia. I couldn’t leave the house. I couldn’t go to jiu-jitsu class. I was just frozen. After many, many weeks, I finally made it out of the house and, knowing that some of my favorite Bullyproof kids were coming to class, I made my first solo drive to the jiu-jitsu school to help teach Bullyproof class. I was greeted with massive smiles and hugs. I immediately started to relax. It was a first step.
The one thing that really helped me cope with my grief was teaching jiu-jitsu. Whether it was Bullyproof, Combatives, or Women Empowered, as soon as I flipped on the teacher switch, I was no longer my own self. I was somebody else’s teacher and there was no way I was going to let my anxiety interfere with what I had to give to someone else.
Right after the class would end, however, it was hard not to let the pent up emotions come crashing down. Sometimes I literally had to steady myself.
It was exhausting.
Getting back to my own training took a bit more time. Again, even though I was in a safe environment, my fear of having an anxiety attack made things worse.
I was anxious about being anxious.
Jiu-jitsu definitely helped me work on my ability to stay in the present moment. There were several instances when that completely failed me, but it is something I tried to hold on to. After all, if you get distracted when you’re in the middle of sparring, you could get choked out or caught in a joint lock. Sparring forces you to be conscious of your movements and be fully present in the moment. The problem is, anxiety attacks don’t occur on a set schedule. They can happen at any time … and as I said above, that made me anxious about being anxious.
To try to help me cope, I came up with a few strategies that have helped me so far — and I hope that they will be of use to other people as well:
- Pause, don’t stop. If you’re really struggling with anxiety, then don’t be afraid to take some time off from training. As Ryron Gracie said to me, “The mat is not going anywhere.” While jiu-jitsu can be healing in many ways, sometimes the time just isn’t right. That’s ok. Take a break. Come back when you’re ready.
- If you can’t train, watch. If you’re up to it, go to class and watch the training sessions. Not only can you learn a lot from watching, but you can also still be part of the community.
- If you can’t watch, learn. It took me a while before I could even leave the house. It even took me a while before I could watch anything on TV or tolerate any sounds. When I was ready, however, I began interacting again with jiu-jitsu by doing simple things like reading articles about jiu-jitsu and watching instructional videos. I focused on my mindset and I used journaling to help me sort out my thoughts and reconnect with why I became a student of jiu-jitsu in the first place. Keeping engaged can help restimulate and redirect your attention so that you feel eager and/or ready to participate in class again.
- Remember your purpose. Remind yourself of why you want to do jiu-jitsu in the first place. Sometimes reminding yourself of the bigger picture and your overall goal will help you look beyond the present anxious moment and tap into that overall desire to train. For me, my purpose was: to be confident in my ability to defend myself, but now I’ve added something new: to be confident in my ability to defend myself regardless of how I am feeling emotionally, physically, or mentally. I fully acknowledge the fact that having an anxiety attack during a street fight is not favorable at all. I know that I need to keep working on my reflexes so that my first instinct, no matter what I am feeling (anxious, helpless, grief-stricken, overwhelmed), is to fight back and survive.
- Have a strategy. Before you come to class, think about something specific that you want to work on that day. It can be a specific technique or a sequence of moves. Choose them ahead of time and then drill them. This will give you something to focus on and it can help eliminate the unpredictability that comes with sparring (which can sometimes lead to panic and aggravate the anxiety). If you’re not up to sparring, you can see if one of your training partners is willing to drill those techniques with you instead.
- If you’re in the middle of training and you start to feel an anxiety attack coming on, excuse yourself and stop. While stopping in the middle of training with a partner can be difficult, don’t worry about it. It will be even more difficult if you have a full blown attack while training because coming down from that heightened state can take a while. You can always talk to your training partner afterwards and explain what happened.
- If you’re in the middle of rolling and you start to feel an anxiety attack coming on, tap out and politely excuse yourself. There’s no shame in tapping out no matter what the situation or position. Don’t hesitate to tap out just because you are feeling anxious and it’s not because of a submission applied by your training partner. You need to protect yourself. What you are going through is real. Again, after class, talk to your training partner and explain what happened. Having to cope with anxiety is not something to be ashamed of. The more you can communicate with others and let them know what is happening with you, the more comfortable you will feel around them and the better prepared they will be to help you if needed (even if that means giving you space).
- Talk to your instructor. This can be a tough one as I’ve heard there are instructors who don’t really understand what you’re going through and tell you to tough it out. However, don’t let that possibility stop you from talking to your instructor. Chances are, when they see you are sincere with your intentions and your words, they will listen and try to help you out in whatever way they can.
- Book private lessons. If you do not feel up to taking group classes, you can still stay connected with your training by taking one-on-one private lessons. Personal sessions are a great way to work on your techniques with someone who is aware of what you are experiencing and is solely focused on helping you get through the hour.
- Be selective with who you train with. People decide to train jiu-jitsu for different reasons which means that each person has the right to select partners who they know will better help them reach their goal. It shouldn’t be taken personally if somebody doesn’t want to spar with you (for whatever reason), nor should you feel like you will be offending someone who you do not feel safe with (again, for whatever reason). Choose to partner with someone who you know will be understanding if you do need to excuse yourself at any time during class.
- Bond with your jiu-jitsu community. It’s not always easy for others to accept or understand anxiety. However, getting to know your teammates can help. On days when you feel good and are up for socializing, take the time to build connections. This allows you to get an idea of who you can turn to for support when you need them. It also gives your training partners a chance to get to know you.
- Work on calming practices off the mat. Practice meditation and breathing techniques — and if those don’t work for you (in the beginning, years ago, I was not in the right mindset to find relaxation through meditation or breathing, but now they work wonders) find what works for you. Reading? Coloring? Running? Music? Talking to someone? There’s no one answer nor is there a right answer. The answer can differ from moment to moment. Time time to find what works for you and then start implementing those practices.
- Don’t be shy or afraid to seek help. Even if the source or the solution may not be tangible, anxiety and its symptoms are real. They can be so incredibly overwhelming. You may find that you have tried many strategies but none of them help or that you are unsure of how to apply the strategies to your life in a useful manner – that’s ok. Find someone who is qualified, knowledgable, and trustworthy. Good support is priceless.
- Own your anxiety. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but I’m not saying dwell in your anxiety. Rather, accept that this is part of you and learn how to work with it. Treat yourself kindly. Try not to berate yourself (I still struggle with this, but I’m working on it) for expressing your emotion. Remember, anxiety is what you feel – it is not who you are.
Reading about anxiety and grief helped me understand what I was going through and get over the feeling that something was wrong with me. Many people have suggested that I get help or get medication … I wouldn’t hesitate to do that if I was stuck in bed or in a corner unable to function. However, I am up and about and doing my best to live my life. It’s just taking me some time to learn how cope with the grief and continue to live with it … and that means also figuring out what to do when it happens when I’m doing jiu-jitsu, as that is such a big part of my life.
Overall my meditation and journaling have really helped me process my thoughts and emotions. I have several strategies mentioned in this post that I use on a regular basis. Even basic things help – drinking lots of water, getting plenty of sleep, eatting clean, nutrient-dense foods. I focus on doing things that I find enjoyable and surrounding myself with people who honor my boundaries.
At first it was the apprehension of an anxiety attack that kept me paralyzed. I try not to do that now and instead try to feel confident that I have a bag of tools to help me cope with the situation should it arise.
Several years ago, I set out to conquer my fears (there were many of them). After conquering several, I was left facing my fear – what would I do if I was pinned on the ground? How would I escape? Seeking the answer to that question led me to jiu-jitsu. My enjoyment in it is what has kept me going. I remind myself of why I started, and more importantly, why I continued to pursue something that I still found really challenging.
Now, my big challenge is to figure out how to escape from being pinned down by anxiety.
I have to admit, it has felt quite awful, re-experiencing something that I felt I had conquered. I try to remind myself that I got through it before and I’ll get through it again. Also, I know this anxiety triggered by grief is not unusual. I need to be gentle with myself and allow myself to heal. This will take time and it will take effort — just like everything else.
The anxiety may still follow me onto the mats … but at least I’m there.
alone in the locker room, I breathe deeply, I center myself, I remind myself that I can do this … and that if I don’t want to, that’s ok too