I was in an accident several years ago, hit from behind by an inattentive driver and thrown onto the curb, breaking two ribs and causing significant damage to my bike. My initial reaction was gratitude that I was able to walk, talk and, had it not hurt so much, laugh. I was alive and would soon be well. My bike could be repaired and I had insurance that would cover the cost of shipping it home. I was lucky, but even so it was a traumatic experience. Moving on and getting back in the saddle isn’t always easy after an accident. So how do we deal with these fears and anxieties?
During my years as a sports mental skills coach, I’ve helped athletes recover and return to their sport after incidents. During that time, I’ve also seen plenty of motorcyclists hesitant to resume riding, and when they do they are riding simply to not fall. Unfortunately, that fear can translate into a repeat performance if not conquered. I was curious if I would be anxious once my body and bike were healed, and was pleasantly surprised to have no after effects—no worried glances in the side mirrors, no gripping of the handlebars in heavy traffic. I was simply happy to be out riding again.
Most of the time, our anxieties are such that we are able to ride, but we spend a lot of energy worrying that something might happen. We’re suddenly hesitant in certain situations, or avoid scenarios that used to be easy, such as slow speed maneuvers, freeways or busy city streets. If that’s the case, consider taking a refresher course (the MSF offers numerous courses that are great skill-builders), exposing yourself to that which scares you while in a safe, structured environment, and rebuild confidence in your practical skills.
In addition to practical skill building, rebuild your focusing skills with a few simple mental exercises. Write down what you love about motorcycles…whatever it is that draws you back to wanting to ride despite your recent get-off. What do you miss most when you can’t ride? What feelings come up when you are out on the open road? Turn your list into a values statement that you can repeat as a mantra. This reminder of what you care about, and why you are out there in the first place, can be very grounding when anxiety threatens.
Notice the language you are using, and the stories you are telling to yourself and to others. Constantly repeating the gory details of your accident and recovery has been shown to reinforce negative reactions and increase levels of fear, whereas pulling the strengths from the story has the opposite effect. To move beyond the trauma, write down the accident as you remember it, including all the negative thoughts and feelings that come up. Then strip the story to the bare details—only the actual facts of what happened, with no emotions or interpretations. Finally, rewrite the events with what you learned as a result, what you want to keep with you going forward. In my case, in addition to the factual story in the first paragraph, I added, “I need to continually practice quick stops on curves, take lots of pictures of the scene before moving anything, and stay quiet about what I think happened until I’ve had a chance to reflect on it.” All of those things are positive and helpful.
Anxiety is worrying about the future, and practicing staying in the moment is the best anecdote. With motorcycling, like most sports, there is always something to be doing that requires attention. Focusing on actions, rather than stopping random negative thoughts, is the best way to stay present. As they teach in rider classes, we go where we look, and the same is true of thoughts. Instead of “what if a car pulls into my lane on the freeway,” mentally rehearse “what will I do if a car pulls into my lane—where are my escape routes?” Look for unusual driving motions, scan for distracted drivers, and practice picking good lines to prepare for unexpected obstacles in your path. You’ll be training your attention to be on where you want to go and what you need to be doing. Thinking about what actions you may need to take in differing scenarios is more helpful than attempting to keep fearful thoughts at bay; they’ll simple recede to background chatter. The only exception is when your gut is telling you something is “off.” That’s the nagging sense of “I’m really tired” or “that car is behaving erratically.” Listening to that voice may save you a lot of pain and heartache.
Dealing with the reactions of others also takes energy and can keep your mind looking backwards instead of at the joys of riding. Everyone has a tale to tell of someone they knew who was injured or killed on a bike. I have learned to simply nod and ask them as drivers to pay more attention to motorcyclists, put down their cell phones, and remind others to do the same. For those who genuinely care, I share what I do to be safe: wear all the gear, all the time, take classes to refresh my skills, and practice proactive, mindful riding.
But what if the mere thought of getting on the bike puts you into a cold sweat? What happens if you are continually replaying the accident in your mind, yet want to get back out on the road? A few visits with a therapist may be a crucial step in recovery. Without resolving the emotions of your accident, your brain can hijack you at the most inopportune times, putting you at risk for reactions based on panic, not skill.
Finally, I was engaged in a conversation with a friend who had also been in an accident, albeit more serious than mine. He shared that a fellow rider had inquired if it had changed his relationship with riding. The question was genuine, caring and non-judgmental. It wasn’t “will you stop riding?” but “will this change how you ride?” Instead of giving a snarky reply, it caused him to pause and reflect more deeply. After evaluating all the factors in his life that mattered to him, he realized that, yes, it had already altered his riding habits, but not his desire to ride. You may go through a similar reevaluation. I know I did, and in my case the answer was that so far it hadn’t changed anything: I still love to get on the bike and go.