Dealing with panic attacks and BJJ

Nothing is as terrifying as fear itself. For those who suffer from panic attacks, the pervasive nature of the affliction can take over their lives. While not amidst a panic attack, sufferers will avoid places that could bring on an anxious episode. Slowly, but surely, panic attacks can begin to infiltrate all areas of your life and unfortunately for us grapplers, it can stop us from getting onto the mats.

Recently I spoke of the benefits of BJJ for depression and I truly believe that bjj can be a safe and enjoyable sport for those suffering with panic disorder of generalized anxiety disorder. In this article I will address some coping mechanisms that have helped myself and others overcome anxiety and stay on the mats.

Communication

The thing with anxiety disorders is that they are largely internal. To the observers, someone with an anxiety disorder looks perfectly normal and healthy, but on the insider they are suffering. If you struggle with anxiety, you may feel embarrassed and try to bottle it up, but this just gives it power. Anxiety is an illness, it is real and it is a valid thing to suffer with.

One of the best ways to tackle anxiety in the gym is communication. If you had a sore knee you would tell your coach and your training partner, a mental health issue should be treated the same. Tell your training partner you feel anxious and you are struggling and they will likely help and understand if you need a little space.

Telling your coach of your issues may lead him to offer you reasonable adjustments, like the opportunity to sit out certain rounds of sparring etc. At the end of the day you are paying for a service and if your gym can’t offer you support when you need it, then you need a new gym.

CBT and ACT

I am not a therapist. I am not licensed to treat you and I urge you to seek professional help if you haven’t already. Two of the main treatment tools that are used for panic disorder are Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). 

CBT is a talk based therapy that is highly effective in the treatment of anxiety disorders . CBT can be self administered, but is best done by a medical professional. In my opinion, CBT is amazing for refocusing pathological worries into normal worries and this is the general scientific consensus.CBT should be used to treat to overarching anxiety problem and this should help to keep you on the mats, but if you suffer from a specific trigger in jiu jitsu, I advocate for a different approach.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a lifesaver for me. ACT, as the name suggests works on acceptance and is a relatively new third wave method of therapy. A practical application of the protocol would be to put yourself in a situation that you know will cause anxiety or a panic attack and accept it. Let your adrenaline spike and flood your system with anxiety, but through self-talk reiterate that you’re completely safe and that the anxiety is just uncomfortable and it will pass.

ACT is showing remarkable effectiveness in treating a plethora of mental health issues. If you are afraid of having a panic attack during jiu jitsu, go anyway. Inform your coaches and your partners that it might happen and ride waves of anxiety. Focus on reminding yourself that you are safe, but uncomfortable. You are not going to die, it is just a physical response to anxiety and eventually this too will pass.

You will be amazed how quickly your body will realise that training is safe and the panic will subside, but it needs effort to do this.

If ACT and CBT continue to offer little benefit, there are pharmacological treatment options too that you can talk to your doctor about.

Diet and Lifestyle

There are some obvious things that can be done to mitigate anxiety. One of the easiest ways to improve almost any mental health issue is to reduce alcohol intake. Alcohol intake is directly linked to increased incidents of depression and anxiety and as nice as a drink is, feeling mentally stable is better.

While some advocate for having a big breakfast to regulate blood sugar levels, I prefer to do intermittent fasting as I have always found this to lower any mental health symptoms. The truth is that everybody is different, so it’ll take some tinkering around, but as a general rule of thumb, get a lot of whole foods and limit eating too much sweets. Its simple. We all know how to eat broadly healthy and that’s all it takes, there is no need to be anal and count every macro you consume. Focus on whole foods, fruits and vegetables and branch out from there.

Now for a controversial suggestion. I can only speak for myself, but I have recently started to take Provacan CBD to help with training pain, but I have found it has also helped my anxiety. The science looks promising regarding CBD for anxiety, but the jury is still out, so by no means feel obligated to try it and I feel like your primary focus should be on CBT and ACT.

Watch the video above for some good tips on treating panic.

Looking for help with a BJJ injury? Book an online video consultation with BJJ black belt and osteopath Rosi Sexton.