View Full Version : Panic Attack On the Mat

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Ari Bolden
06-08-2006, 02:37 AM
Greetings All....

It's been far too long since I last posted here on aikiweb. Glad to back!

As instructors, we sometimes run into situations that are a little unusual. Today, I had one such encounter.

As apart of our curriculum, ground grappling is apart of class. Our aiki jujitsu system includes ne waza (ground techniques) found in BJJ/Judo/wrestling.

A new student was on the mat with one of my yellow belts this evening. The new student had about 6 months of basic aikido training, 19 years of age and was male. He wanted to get a feel for jujitsu and try sometime new.

While they were grappling, my yellow belt got behind the new student and went for a shime waza (rear choke). The new student 'tapped" right away and sat up quickly.

His eyes were as big as plates and watery

The actually choke was never applied. The yellow belt simply had his hooks in from behind and had a forearm around the front of the new student’s neck.

I recognized immediately that the new student might have an aversion to chokes/neck restraints.

We all took a minute to gather our ‘wits’. I asked the new student if he'd like to continue. He said yes. I instructed my yellow belt not to use any shime waza (rear chokes or guillotine chokes) and only go for position (no submissions).

They began to spar again. (Note: The grappling was done VERY lightly and controlled). About 30 seconds later, the new student found himself in a triangle (where one arm and the head are trapped between the legs of your partner.)

The new student tapped again and shot up. Eyes watery, grabbing his throat, gasping for air. He began to hyper ventilate.

I quickly began to calm him down, telling him to take deep, slow breaths. We got the breathing back to normal within a minute.

As the new student sat on the mat, I began to chat with him calmly. In a shaky voice and sobbing, he explained: “I don't know what it is? I can't understand it? I never thought I had a problem with this? I don't really like things around my neck (like turtle necks or dry suits for diving). I just felt I couldn't breathe or do anything. I feel so studid...."

Sometimes students will panic because they are unfamiliar with a technique or position. They may have never experienced what it is like to be pinned, choked, arm barred, or thrown. These experiences can be utterly frightening for some. They may also be compounded by past situations, phobias or personality quirks.

These situations may creep up on you, especially if your partner is new to the martial arts. Be calm and understanding if it does occur. Also, reassure the tori/nage that it might not be anything to do with them at all (I sat down with my yellow belt after class and chatted with him. He was feeling extremely bad about the situation. I reassured him that he did nothing wrong and we made sure things were A-Okay).

Understanding, support, and a willingness to listen are keys for getting over phobias.

If the new student returns on Monday, he will be making a huge leap forward in order to tackle his fear…time will tell.

All the best,
Yours in Aiki,
Ari Bolden

Richard Langridge
06-08-2006, 06:21 AM
Sounds like you guys dealt with the situation well. I remember having similar problems when I started scuba diving, but taking it slow soon cleared up my anxiety.

06-08-2006, 06:25 AM
Sounds like you did a good job calming the guy down. But I have a question. If you told your student to roll for position only, why did he go for a triangle choke?

Ari Bolden
06-08-2006, 07:27 AM
Hey Don:

What happened was my student was on his back and the new student was in his guard. The new student passed one of his arms under one of the legs of my yellow belt (typical pass) and found himself in the Triangle (not applied even) as he fell over. The legs were not locked, just pressed together, as my yellow belt was trying to get his base back.

Hope that clears it up...

06-08-2006, 08:28 AM
ahh, I see. I was picturing the choke. Do you think the new student will come back?

06-08-2006, 08:37 AM

Great to hear you are a strong and compassionate teacher. I'm finally getting to the center of my own very deep issues, and have had panic attacks for years. Embarrassing, since I'm a pretty tough guy - not tough enough to face (even remember) some dreadful child abuse.

May I recommend "Waking the Tiger" by Peter Levine for anyone with panic attacks. The book was written about post traumatic stress disorder. The key to healing the 'trigger' is to allow the person to tremble. That's right. Don't touch them. Encourage them to tremble. Their own nervous system will 'cure' them.

If I sound kooky, read the book. I think it may work for old injuries too.

Thanks again Sensei Bolden. It's good to know you are out there.


Roman Kremianski
06-08-2006, 09:22 AM
The first time I was chocked out, it was awsome...

I still agree with what you guys said though.

06-08-2006, 09:29 AM
i hav ebeen wanting to start aikido for awhile now. this is one of the reasons i havent already jumped in. i have issues with the thought of taking ukemi. im a big guy and i have this fear of tryin to roll and landing on top of my head breaking my neck. i have similar issues when i wrestled in high school. if i was slammed i would kinda wig out and end up being pinned.

George S. Ledyard
06-08-2006, 10:52 AM
This is not uncommon.There are a whole bunch of us out here who have some respiratory problems. I used to have breathing related panic attacks at night which would adrenalize me to the point at which I couldn't get back to sleep for hours. Later I found I had sleep apnea.

Anyway, grappling was quite hard for me... any feeling that I couldn't breath, whether it was from a choke or simply from a big guy on my chest, would trigger a strong panic response. There are some who believe that one of the possible causes for such things was a difficult birth experience... I was never able to verify this, as in my day the mother's were all drugged to the sky and mine couldn't remember anything about the experience.

I've taught my law enforcement students to watch out for this because they can mis-interpret the panic attack as further resistance and really crank on the poor guy when what they really need to do is release the pressure and talk calmly to the subject.

Anyway, as an instructor you have to keep your eyes out for these things. I have also had a woman in one of my security training classes go into a full blown panic attack while we TALKED about possible assault of the gaurds at the location we were doing the training. She started hyper-ventilating. I had some experience with abuse victims in my Aikido classes and recognized what was going on immediately... she was having a flash-back just from our discussion of what could happen.

Anyway, anyone who teaches for a long time will eventually encounter some if these things. It's good to know what you are looking at.

Dirk Hanss
06-08-2006, 11:01 AM
i hav ebeen wanting to start aikido for awhile now. this is one of the reasons i havent already jumped in. i have issues with the thought of taking ukemi. im a big guy and i have this fear of tryin to roll and landing on top of my head breaking my neck. i have similar issues when i wrestled in high school. if i was slammed i would kinda wig out and end up being pinned.
there is nothing to worry about. I cannot speak for all dojo, but wherever I have been, ukemi was taught slowly and carefully and noone was forced to take more than he can - at least in the first year. Some of my fellow aikidoka cannot roll or even breakfall well after two years of training as their body was not used to doing such things for some 50 years, but they are learning step by step.

The only thing you have to do is "select your dojo carefully and never do anything, just you think, you are expected to". You are responsible for your body. If you do not want to proceed, you might quit at some point. But aikido is not wrestling, so no uke wants to win and no uke should throw you harder than appropriate for your grade. The lower grade cannot and the higher grades know how to handle it.

Kind regards


06-08-2006, 12:16 PM
I read a book called, "The Gift of Fear," by Gavin De Becker; this book may be worth recommending to your student. The book addresses some good points about fear, anxiety, etc. Your student may be re-experiencing some trauma that he was not able to get over before he started training.

More importantly, you need to get some background information on your student. It is fair to ask him to level with you before he continues training; it is not fair for him to continue to keep you and the other students restricted in training, not to mention scaring the bejesus out of you each time he gets roughed up. Obviously, this is a big deal for this student and if he has baggage you may be able to help him work things out... I'm not saying put the guy on a leather couch and listen to him talk about his mother. Rather, you may be able to direct him to therapy or simply work it out through training.

Lucy Smith
06-12-2006, 09:33 AM
Maybe it's not trauma, just panic or some kind of phobia. I've got a friend who cannot even look at a snake on a picture without starting hyperventilating or even fainting. I also know people who have similar problems with spiders or other animals. So maybe the problem of your student is related to some breathing problem, or it can just be that he doesn't like the feeling of being trapped, just as my friend doesn't like to think about being bitten by a snake. They're scared. Too scared. They probably need therapy to overcome this.

Richard Langridge
06-13-2006, 09:54 AM
I still think just taking it slowly and calmy will solve the issue, no therapy necessary.

Eric Webber
06-13-2006, 10:38 AM
I read a book called, "The Gift of Fear," by Gavin De Becker; this book may be worth recommending to your student. The book addresses some good points about fear, anxiety, etc. Your student may be re-experiencing some trauma that he was not able to get over before he started training.

Great book, very well written, highly recommend it.

06-13-2006, 08:39 PM
Have as many panic attacks as the kami throw your way. Benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium, Klonopin) can eliminate the panic attacks and agoraphobia, but will leave you a drooling vegetable, barely having enough stamina to even don your dogi.


06-14-2006, 08:02 PM
I still think just taking it slowly and calmy will solve the issue, no therapy necessary.

It's always hard to say...the mind is an interesting and confounding thing sometimes, but I agree.
I've had issues with anxiety in the past; still feel them from time to time. For me, the best medicine has been not to withdraw, but to engage: slowly but surely; complimenting this engagement of my fears with actively relaxing, by way of meditation, or alternating the activities I do (doing something highly enjoyable and comforting after engaging my anxiety). For me it was all about balance. Pushing too hard too fast can burn a person out; sitting back and waiting for it to go away is futile.

04-23-2014, 06:59 PM
I have to confess that this situation is of some concern to me as the time for grading approaches, whilst I do not have panic attacks as such, when I get into the grading scenario I find myself having memory problems of what I am supposed to do because of feeling under pressure. Trying to find the balance between completing the grading and at the same time having achieved the Aikido principle of balance and harmony does concern me greatly I must confess!

Stephen Nichol
04-23-2014, 09:04 PM
Hi Ben,

As you clarified your situation not being so much a panic attack that locks you down but the classical 'blank mind' effect of having to recall what you need to do... well, here are my thoughts for what it is worth. (Been there, done that and so have so many others)

While that is rather normal in any sort of performance anxiety situation I think the main difference in martial art grading demonstrations is one should be able to take comfort in the knowledge that everyone there watching in your dojo wants you to do well and succeed.

They feel for you when you have that moment of pause and draw a blank... because they all know what it is like to go through that.

So another way to look at it all is this: You make the 'spotlight effect' as hard or as easy on you all on your own. I am sure you know this anyway however I find it actually amusing to know that your own mind will play the biggest tricks on 'you' by coming up 'blank' during a performance/demonstration self induced pressure situation.

Yes, self induced pressure situation. Given that no one is forcing you to do anything. In your preparation in the 2 months or less up to your grading date... just run through what you plan or need to demonstrate with your partner over and over again as often as you can with the perspective of: "On the day I am going to have a chance to show everyone where I am at with 'all of this stuff'".

Adopt, develop and use whatever memorization system works for you.

Avoid the negative approach of "I hope I will remember 'all of this stuff' on the day.That does not help anybody. Always better to think of it as a chance to show all of things you know and how well you know them. Remember to enjoy yourself. Everyone is there because they enjoy doing the same thing you do, share in that. Always smile and laugh through every 'oops' and moments when you draw a blank while preparing for the grading... so if it actually happens during the grading you will be able to smile and internally laugh at your mind for trying to blank out on you... "Hah!, I have played this game before and I know what you are trying to do... not today!" and just continue on showing what you know how to do.

Good luck and have fun!

04-24-2014, 07:03 AM
To add to Stephen's excellent advice: in a typical class, sensei demonstrates a technique, perhaps comments verbally, but in any event shows it from several angles and in whatever variations you're supposed to do. Then you do it. In a typical test, sensei calls out the name of a technique...and then you do it. Or you hope you do it. But you're testing in a manner differently than you train, so no wonder that people often "go blank".

I can think of a couple ways to deal with this. One is to get some extra practice in "test mode" After class, get a friend to call out technique names, and get comfortable with making the mental step from hearing the technique's name to knowing what to do. Better still, though, is to be more mentally active during class. I think people often observe the technique demonstration too passively. If you could see the thought balloons, a beginner's might say, "I have no idea what that is, my partner will tell me what to do." A slightly more experienced student's would be, "That's, um, that thing where you move your arm like this and do that thing, I forget the name." A more advanced student tends to think, "Iriminage, got it." They're all being mentally lazy. The newest beginner can try to observe what's going on and remember as much as possible. The a-bit-past-beginner can start to look for the less obvious but more important details (yes, you move your arm like that for the throw, but what about the opening?). And the advanced student can drop the at-a-glance assumption that they've seen this before and know exactly what to do -- I've seen plenty of advanced students get embarrassed by getting that it's iriminage but getting everything else wrong. The mental exercise of trying to understand what you're being shown, to see the important details, will condition the brain-body connection, and that in turn will be a big help on test day.

04-26-2014, 02:34 AM
Thank you Stephen and Mary for your kind and helpful advice, it is very much appreciated. I long for the day when I "live" those techniques and do not have to think about them as they are employed. Bruce Lee once said fear not the person that has trained in a thousand techniques, but fear that person that has trained in a single technique thousands of times. Perhaps also I need to accept in my heart that "failure" on the mat or in a grading is not perhaps so much failure in western eyes as learning in Aikido and something to be accepted accordingly.

04-26-2014, 06:05 PM
Have you tested before?

04-27-2014, 01:50 AM

04-27-2014, 10:06 AM
Ah! Well, if you've never seen a test before, I'd suggest asking your seniors what a typical test is like for your rank at your dojo, and how they would recommend you prepare. I also think that even though a typical test is conducted differently than a typical class, you need to do your preparation in class. You have to trust that your sensei is showing you what she/he wants you to do, and furthermore is emphasizing what you should be working on at your level. This is less a matter of what techniques you should "know" for the test (although typically there will be a list of techniques), and more what your execution of those techniques should be. Once you grasp that, you'll hopefully be less inclined to think in loaded terms like "failure" (or at least, rethink them). You're not expected to execute techniques perfectly on your first test, or anything close to it. If, instead of telling yourself "I must do ikkyo perfectly!", you spent more time thinking about the principles that make ikkyo work...and you work on those...you'll have a better test.

Adam Huss
04-27-2014, 11:59 AM
I always encourage people to watch a test before they partake in one. It helps you be familiar with the process, maybe get a little more comfortable, have an idea of what to expect, and shows the dojo you are a serious student willing to support dojo mates in your off time when you don't have to (be there).