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What It Feels Like to Train Jiu-Jitsu with Anxiety & Panic Disorder (Goldberg)


{Hello all! I am Daniel S. Goldberg, and I am an assistant professor in The Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University.  I'm trained as an attorney, an historian of medicine, and a bioethicist.  As to BJJ, I'm currently a green belt at East Carolina Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, a school affiliated with Robson Moura Nations United.  I've been training for just over 2 years. This is my first guest-post here at The Jiu Jitsu Journey. I look forward to writing more in the weeks and months ahead.} 


“Don’t worry, man, I get nervous, too.  Just take some deep breaths and you’ll be fine.”

I had to smile.  I love my training partners at East Carolina Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and along with my instructor, Heath Chapman, I owe them everything.  But they do not understand.  This is not their fault.  They cannot understand.   Because while virtually every jiu-jiteiro gets nervous, training with serious anxiety and panic disorder is nothing like the jitters that many people feel when stepping on the mats.

The primary reason why I’m writing this essay is to try and explain what it feels like for someone who has had lifelong experiences with anxiety and panic disorder (which often occur together but are not the same thing) to train jiu-jitsu.  I’m a good person to describe this: not only do I experience these conditions, but as a professor in a medical school who studies chronic illness, I live what I teach.

Why does it matter? According to the National Institutes for Mental Health, almost 40 million American adults experience anxiety disorders.  That’s almost 20% of the entire U.S. population, and is an underestimate because it excludes children and adolescents.  Panic disorders may affect as much as 5% of the population, which is equivalent to roughly 17 million people.  Given these estimates, it is virtually certain that at least some people who decide to try jiu-jitsu have anxiety and/or panic disorder.  We don’t know how many, but given how common anxiety disorders are, it’s reasonable to suggest the number is not small.

So, what does it feel like to train jiu-jitsu with anxiety and panic disorders? The thing to understand about anxiety and panic is that it they are at once mental, emotional, and physical experiences.  You can’t really separate any of these from each other.  My first eight months of training jiu-jitsu, I had frequent panic attacks, at least 2-3 per week.  When I have a panic attack, it feels like my heart cannot possibly take any more, and will come bursting out of my chest.  It feels as if I will die right there on the mats.  It feels like I am doomed, that I will not survive.  I cannot stress enough how literal these feelings are.  I feel like I am about to die.



Anxiety and panic disorders are not “rational” and cannot generally be talked down.  Even in the middle of a panic attack, I know perfectly well that I am not going to die right there on the mats.  My instructor and my training partners are one and all truly incredible people, always helpful and generous.  No one is trying to hurt me.   But that doesn’t help.  Try explaining to someone with a fear of flying that they are hundreds of times more likely to die in the cab on the way home from the airport than in a plane crash.  Will that ease their anxiety? Unlikely.  That’s the point; anxiety and panic disorders are disorders.  They are defined in part by intense experiences of anxiety that seem totally disconnected to the actual stimulus to which a person is responding. 

I know that I am not going to die.  But it feels like I am going to die.  It also feels like my capacity to do jiu-jitsu is utterly doomed.  I would think, ‘how can I do this if I feel all the time like I am going to die?’ And although I don’t want to exaggerate too much, during the period of time in my life when I wasn’t training because of anxiety, it felt like part of me died.  So either way, when I have a panic attack in training, it feels like I’m losing myself, like I’m falling down a deep, dark, black hole.

It got better.  I probably don’t experience panic attacks during training more than once or twice a month now, and I’m training much more (6 days/week).  Also, I’ve been dealing with anxiety and panic disorder my entire life.  I’ve worked hard to develop some coping mechanisms; my task was to learn how to apply those tools to jiu-jitsu.  For many people, that awful feeling of being smothered in side control is the absolute worst.  It took me months to learn that this actually was not the primary trigger for my own panic attacks.  Rather, I had to go back to the physiological components of anxiety and panic, such as rapid breathing and hyperventilation.  But they aren’t just symptoms: those physical experiences can actually trigger a panic attack for some people – like me.

Once I realized that it was my exhaustion and my rapid breathing that was spurring my feelings of panic and doom, I could begin to work out a plan.  When this happened during rolling, I would simply tap out, thank my partner and indicate that I needed a break.  I would go and sit on the side and take deep breaths.  I could still watch and learn, although I had to deal with the intense frustration and feelings of worthlessness that accompanied my need to stop.  Nevertheless, once my breathing calmed, I could implement the final, and most important step of my management plan:

I could come back. 

This was my promise to myself, no matter how hard it got.  If I could not return to rolling the same night, I would come back the following night.  If not the following night, I would return sometime that week.  If not that week, I would return the next week.  But I would come back. 

Do not mistake this for toughness.  There are people with whom I train who define toughness.  I am not one of them.  This is actually part of a crucial strategy for me in grappling (!) with anxiety disorder: non-avoidance.  When something scares us, our fight-or-flight response kicks in, and we often seek to avoid what frightens us.  But for many people, this only reinforces the anxiety.  If I wanted to panic less and suffer less from anxiety, avoiding jiu-jitsu would not improve things.  It would only make it worse.  I had to come back, or else I could not do jiu-jitsu.  And I am too stubborn to stop doing jiu-jitsu.

Having a management plan like this helped.  I began to understand myself better, and to understand what about jiu-jitsu did and did not trigger my anxiety and panic.  I began to feel better about coming back after sitting out for a round or two, and I began to feel better about sitting out.  My instructor and my training partners have been there every step of the way, always helpful, always gracious, always willing to assist.

My conditioning improved as well, which meant that my breathing rate tended to slow, which in turn lessened the central trigger for my panic attacks.  But one thing I know as both a person who experiences it and as an expert who studies it is that chronic illness is chronic.  It tends not to go away, and when it does go away, it often comes back.  I have experienced anxiety and panic disorder my entire life.  I have never been not-anxious.  I will never be not-anxious.  This sounds terrible but it is actually quite liberating; it frees me from the burden of trying to be someone who I never have been, am not now, and never will be. 

I will always be an anxious jiu-jiteiro.

Those of us who train with, not in spite of, anxiety and panic disorder, understand at a very deep and emotional level just how much of a privilege it is to be able to step on the mats, work hard, and find meaning in the process.  My journey with anxiety and panic disorder is a lifelong one.  After only two years on the mats, I truly believe that my journey with jiu-jitsu is, too.



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Great open and honest article. Gives a great insight into the issues that some people have to cope with. One of the great things about BJJ is the desire to train can help us push through many barriers. Helping us improve not only our BJJ but ourselves in the process. Appreciate you sharing this with us.

Daniel S. Goldberg


Thank you so much for the kind words! They are appreciated.

jen stewart

Great post. Thanks for talking about a subject that isn't easy to open up about. I have found that jiu jitsu has taught me coping skills for anxiety attacks off of the mat.


Remember everyone has their own reasons for learning BJJ or any art form. Many women turned to it so they would never again be a victim. Things have changed and women are learning as athletes to participate. I'm glad the popularity has allowed many places to offer women's classes. I seldom would see another female and when they did come they rarely returned. There are Pro's and con's for rolling only with men but I am less likely to panic with just ladies.


Thank you for this article. I too suffer from panic disorder and social anxiety. I have a stressful time forcing my self to go and I appreciated when you wrote that you always go back; whether next class or next week. Right now I can only force myself to go 2 times a week and I feel guilty because I feel I should be training more. I hope to be able to make it more times a week as you did. Thanks again for the informative article


Thank you for expressing yourself. I have been dealing with anxiousness on the mats for the last 6 months. I think part of it is my endurance is terrible after not being able to practice bjj for 4 years due to an injury. Even then i had jiu jitsu on my mind. I have dome some crazy things in my life in the past that would give most people panick attacks and i was fine. All that changed about 7 years ago when i had a month long panick atyack that completely debilatated me. Mind you i have never experiences this before. Once i finally made it to the Doctor, he informed me that my panick attacks were actually hypoxia from a bad bout of bronchitis that i knew nothing about for many months and my sleep apnea. I wasn't getting enough oxygen in to my body. Once i received my treatment i was better but the fear of panick attacks have never left me. It' like PTSD i guess. It rears its ugly head when i am confined in small places where i can not freely leave "never had that" when its too hot and i feel like i cant breathe or loosing my energy and being smashed in side control and mount. I start to feel the precursors of the attacks and immediately distance myself from the triggers and work on deep breathing. Although the attacks have not been full fledged since that month long hellish experience, i still get the uneasy feeling in my gut, sweaty hands, tight chest, shortness of breathe and cold sweats.These last two weeks have been the worst for me and i cant seem to stop these feelings. It's frustrating because i have been eating very healthy, dri king a half to a full gallon of water a day and working on my conditioning outside of bjj for the last 3 months.I wish this feeling would go away especially since i am on the berge of promotion. I seem to do fine when i am in control of the sparring "most of the time i am" but when i am not "especially, against the coach" i start to get anxious. I am thinking of seeing a shrink but i dont know how much that would do and i dont want to take any pills so i am trying to figure this one out. Thanks again for the essay, it was very well written.


We had a new kid (about 15) this morning join our session. I rolled very lightly with him to show him what it's like. I could see he was upset after a few minutes and had tears in his eyes. The coach and I talked to him. He said he felt anxiety and panicky. We calmed him down and had him breath slowly. We encouraged him not to give up and come back. Your article helps me to understand what he experienced.

Martin Buuri Kaburia

Great material


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Thank you for this friend. I am older, had to give up Jiu Jitsu when I first started because of medical issues. I have been cleared to return, but I am finding that I suffer panic attacks when I am on bottom. I am 46 years old and a white belt. I have had anxiety all of my life and depression for a good portion. Jiu Jitsu helps me stay stable after having to retire due to my conditions. I was worried when it started triggering one of them. I've spoken to my Professors and they are very willing to help me through this. Again, thank you for putting this out there.

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