Pushing Through Panic

By: Casey Lapin

I made it through 37 years of life without ever having a panic attack. Then I started Jiu-Jitsu. I’m here to tell you why my experience with panicking during training is the number one reason I urge other women to start this journey.

The first time someone held me down, I freaked. Any time my mouth was covered, my chest was being compressed, my breathing was in any way restricted, I could feel it setting in. Even if it was another woman, another small person, someone I knew and trusted, even my husband, I would start to hyperventilate, sometimes to the point I’d need to tap and take a break. My first few months of training I got very embarrassed when this would happen and I would profusely apologize to my training partners. I was brought to tears more than once, mostly out of frustration with my inability to power through.

One day in class, a purple belt female who is my same size (I’m 4’11”) put me in North/South and I freaked and tapped. She was visiting from one of our neighboring gyms and I looked up to her and I was so embarrassed. I dove into my routine apologies and she reassured me and we finished class. Later that day, I messaged her to thank her for being patient with me and she responded, “You did a great job today and I’d like to make one suggestion: don’t apologize for your Jiu-Jitsu! Everyone has some struggle (breathing, fitness, PTSD, ego problems, anger issues…you get the point). Everyone is struggling with some part of their Jiu-Jitsu and that is part of everyone’s journey. But don’t apologize to ANYONE for it. The fact that you’re on the mat already puts you on the road to getting over that hurdle and you should be proud of the work you put in today!”

She made me realize that it was important that this was happening and that I was still showing up and working through it. I realized then that I had never in real life been in a scenario where someone was holding me down against my will and that if I was ever attacked and pinned down, I absolutely, without question, would not have stayed calm. I would have panicked and shut down to the point that I could not fight or defend myself in any way. From that day on, it was my mission to train until I was confident that I would stay calm when someone was holding me down, calm enough to use the skills I’ve acquired to attempt to defend myself and fight back.

And I did. I purposely put myself in positions every time I was in the gym where I had to fight my way out from under my opponent. It took time, and there were definitely additional panic moments, but I got to a point where I was completely comfortable being under even the biggest guys in class. I could breathe and stay calm and wait until I felt that perfect moment, that slight shift in weight, that minor adjustment that allowed me to make my move to better my position, to go for the sweep, to readjust for the submission, to attack.

I had setbacks. There were two periods of time I had to take some time away from the gym—one due to a gnarly sprained ankle and one for an extended family vacation—and when I returned, I had to regain some of that confidence and momentum I had built. I never went fully  back to needing to tap from panic, but I definitely had some moments where I could feel it coming on, which proved that consistent, habitual training was imperative to maintain the instinct to fight over panicking for me.

So here we are in the second month of quarantine and I know I’ll have my work cut out for me when the gym reopens. But now, I welcome it. I’m no longer afraid of failure in the gym because I don’t look at a loss or a tap as a failure. I have accepted that there are more losses than wins on the mats. I have learned that every one of those losses makes me a little bit better. Every little thing I learn, even if it’s a tiny adjustment to something I learned the first week I started, is a new puzzle piece in the 500,000-piece puzzle that is Jiu-Jitsu. I am a work in progress, and I enjoy the progress. It makes me a better, more humble, more confident, more athletic, more empathetic, and happier person.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve never played sports, never done martial arts, never been in a fight. It doesn’t matter if you’re terrified to try Jiu-Jitsu. I played softball when I was a kid and I danced growing up, but that was the extent of my athletic history. I did group exercise classes at the gym, but was definitely not in peak shape. I had never even come close to being in a fight. I’m closer to pacifist on the aggression scale. I’m the smallest adult at my gym. Some of the kids are bigger than me. I started at 37 years old. What’s cool is that you’ll find every single “type” of person training Jiu-Jitsu. Every body type, every personality type, every fitness level, everyone. Literally anyone can walk in and try it out. Don’t let your current fitness level hold you back. No one is in perfect shape to start. Extremely in-shape cross-fitters have puked during their first class, mostly because they come in assuming they’re going to crush it and go 100% the entire time and gas out. You can scale the lessons to work for you. You can let your instructor know if you’re uncomfortable with something and just sit and watch until you’re ready to try it. Many gyms have ladies only programs that are a nice way to start out if you’re nervous.

There are so many fitness options available to women right now, most of them decisively less intimidating than starting a combat sport that puts you in awkward positions with sweaty strangers. It’s definitely not easy to walk into a Jiu-Jitsu gym and take that first class. It’s not even easy once you’re a year in. There is no sugar coating that BJJ takes dedication, perseverance, and often good ole peer pressure from the group of gym friends you’ll likely make to keep showing up. There are even other self defense classes out there that don’t require you to show up multiple times a week to get your ass handed to you. You can punch a bag and drill on a dummy. You can learn how to use pepper spray or a whistle. But I promise you that no amount of weight lifting, cross fitting, yoga, pilates, bag punching, running, cycling, or whistle blowing is EVER going to train you to not panic when someone is on top of you holding you down and trying to harm you. While it will take time, sweat, possibly tears, and dedication, you absolutely can train your way toward being able to stay calm and fight someone who is significantly bigger and stronger than you are using Jiu-Jitsu.