Let’s talk about motorcycle anxiety. You know what I mean: the sudden, random thought that you might not walk away from your next motorcycle ride.
These thoughts might pop up while you’re preparing for a long ride; or you might be nowhere near a motorcycle. Most of mine come to me when I’m doing mundane activities like washing dishes or getting dressed.
If you ride a motorcycle and you haven’t had anxious thoughts about riding, you’re lying — either to me or to yourself. We all know riding is dangerous. Even if you push the risks out of your mind, the road has a way of snapping them back into focus. A car pulls out in front of you, or you narrowly avoid a pothole in a blind corner — that rush, the quick brush with your own mortality. It’s intoxicating, but it can also keep you up at night.
Many motorcyclists — true to the old stereotype — don’t talk about these thoughts. They suppress them, because they’re worried that having these thoughts means they aren’t “tough” enough to ride. I know they do this, because I have done this.
I’m here to offer an alternate point of view: Having these thoughts is completely natural. But if you ignore them, you’re missing an opportunity to prepare yourself for the risks that lie ahead.
“Bad is Stronger Than Good”
In cognitive psychology, “bad is stronger than good” is considered to be a general principle about the way our minds work. It’s called “negativity bias,” and it means that our minds place more prominence on bad events than good ones, and even process them more thoroughly.
Jonathan Haidt explains it well in his book The Happiness Hypothesis:
If you were designing the mind of a fish, would you have it respond as strongly to opportunities as to threats? No way. The cost of missing a cue that signals food is low… one mistake won’t lead to starvation. The cost of missing the sign of a nearby predator, however, can be catastrophic. Game over, end of the line for those genes.
It turns out that the fearful thoughts we have about riding are hardwired into our minds, “designed” by evolution. As Rick Hanson puts it, “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.” We instinctively gravitate toward thinking about the risk that something bad might happen.
Of course, we aren’t fish: the potential “good” and “bad” events we face aren’t black and white.
Often, for humans, risky activities are also a source of pleasure — like riding a motorcycle. As I’ve discussed before, humans actually enjoy facing and overcoming risky challenges.
In fact, researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi claims that facing meaningful challenges well matched to your skills is the primary source of true enjoyment in human existence — it’s the entire foundation for his book, Flow.
So, when faced with the potential for enjoyment (challenging yourself on a new, adventurous ride), versus the potential risks (which I don’t need to spell out), what do you do?
Our animal, evolutionary instinct tells us to steer clear of the risk, no matter what enjoyment we may divine. But evolutionary adaptations are all about the survival of genes — they have nothing to do with the quality of human life.
And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather live a life rich in challenges and adventure than sit on the sidelines.
What matters, then, is not whether we have these negative thoughts — we’re going to have them, it’s instinct — but what we do with them.
Turning fearful thoughts into problem-solving opportunities
The day before a ride, it’s easier to imagine the millions of ways things could go wrong. But when I’m on my bike, there’s only one scenario facing me at a time, and I always know where I stand.
And in this distinction is the key to knowing how to handle your morbid thoughts — whenever you have them.
“Rumination” is the psychology term for replaying the same problems or catastrophic outcomes over and over in your mind. It’s a key hallmark of both anxiety and depression.
Some psychologists believe it’s a problem-solving mechanism, but the difference between rumination and true problem solving is that, if you’re ruminating, you never land on a solution that helps to resolve the problem. You’re caught in a loop, reliving your anxiety over and over, spinning your wheels.
One good way to escape the rumination loop is to ask yourself questions about it. If it’s a general, nebulous anxiety, then you can ask: do I feel the risks of riding outweigh the benefits?
If you do (and it’s okay if you do), then you may want to reconsider your decision to ride. And — I can’t stress this enough here — that’s okay.
But if you know you still want to ride, make your anxieties get specific. What is it exactly you’re nervous about? Chances are, you’ll come across an anxiety you can prepare for.
If you’re worried the weather will get bad, practice riding on wet roads. If you’re worried about other vehicles, practice your emergency braking. When was the last time you bought a new helmet? How’s the wear on your tires?
You get the point. The key is to turn your anxious thought into action, so you feel prepared and confident on your next ride.
Riding is both a physical and mental activity. That’s why it’s important to come to terms with your fearful thoughts.
On one hand, too many anxious thoughts can keep you from concentrating on your ride. If you’re too anxious, you might not be able to react if a hazard does come your way. But also, a little fear of something dangerous can be a good thing. You can turn it into a productive activity, and better prepare yourself for future rides.
In the end, it’s all about what works for you. What do you need to do to make sure you ride safely?
My advice is this: listen to your instincts, but don’t let them rule you.
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Motorcyclists tend to be portrayed as thrill-seeking adrenaline junkies. But we both know (and psychology research agrees) that’s not the whole story.