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Sink or Swim, Fight or Flight

I was a lifeguard on Lake Erie for seven years and witnessed many rescues.  People of all walks of life needed to be saved not only because they didn’t know how to swim, but because they didn’t know how to control their fear.


I remember numerous occasions where I had to save people in panic, and believe me, the word panic is an understatement.  They were in so much fear that they would grab on to anything that would save them from going under, including me.  In this scenario there are two people in danger of drowning.


Imagine their surprise when I repeatedly pushed them away and simply asked them to stand up.  Many times the water would only be a few inches above their waist!

Regardless of the situation, panic is the enemy of survival.  As the father of three, I took much care in ensuring my kids know how to swim at a proficient level.  Their ability to survive in water, including rough current and rip tides, isn’t because they are great swimmers.  It is because they don’t panic once conditions change.


I’ve trained in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (BJJ) for over a decade.  BJJ is a very difficult martial art, requiring you to successfully perform technique against a fully resisting opponent who is often much larger and stronger than you.   There is often a feeling of suffocation and panic can ensue, just like drowning.


About a month ago a new student started training with us.  Michelle is an outgoing, young professional.  She came to us because she wanted to get in shape but didn’t want the monotony of a gym.  After class, she would quickly say her goodbyes and leave.   I never could get a feel for her level of enjoyment or disdain for BJJ.  After 2-3 weeks of regular attendance, I asked her how she was doing.  She replied “Much better”.   I asked her “Much better than what?”


She explained to me she experienced such panic during her first few classes that she had to leave immediately after class ended.  Often her sense of panic would be so extreme that she would be dry heaving in her car all the way home.  You can’t run away from someone who has you pinned down on the ground, especially if they are bigger, stronger and or trained to keep you there.  To get up and run, you need to fight your way out.  Michelle would lie there almost motionless out of fear.  This is a common response for many victims of assault.


What changed for Michelle?  In its true form BJJ is what psychologists call a form of Exposure Therapy.  According to the American Psychological Association the definition of Exposure Therapy:

“Exposure Therapy is a psychological treatment that was developed to help people confront their fears. When people are fearful of something, they tend to avoid the feared objects, activities or situations. Although this avoidance might help reduce feelings of fear in the short term, over the long term it can make the fear become even worse. In such situations, a psychologist might recommend a program of exposure therapy in order to help break the pattern of avoidance and fear. In this form of therapy, psychologists create a safe environment in which to “expose” individuals to the things they fear and avoid. The exposure to the feared objects, activities or situations in a safe environment helps reduce fear and decrease avoidance.


Exposure Therapy has been scientifically demonstrated to be a helpful treatment or treatment component for a range of problems, including Panic Disorder.”

While Michelle still finds BJJ difficult, she now has the ability to calm herself, breathe and think while trapped on the ground.  A good BJJ school teaches students to access their situation and self-regulate their emotions.  Michelle is getting in shape and practicing survival skills in a fun, safe setting. 


We wouldn’t think of letting our children’s fear of water keep them from learning how to swim.  It’s almost impossible to go through life and avoid all bodies of water.  Why take the same chance with possible physical altercation?  If you train yourself to be calm, your chance of survival is much greater – whether drowning in water, or in assault.


Lake Effect Martial Arts has two locations, one in Depew serving the north towns (Buffalo, Lancaster, Cheektowaga, Williamsville, Clarence, Amherst, Tonawanda, and Grand Island) and one in Hamburg, covering the south towns (Hamburg, Orchard Park, Aurora, Wales, Evans, Eden, Boston, Colden, Holland, North Collins, Collins).  Come check us out.

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