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Riding Right: Getting Back in the Saddle After An Accident

How to recover mentally and emotionally

By Brenda Bates


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As a therapist and hypnotist I have a problem with a certain old biker adage. Most motorcyclists have heard it. "There are two types of bikers. Those who have been down and those who are going down."

Laurie Ingstrup is back in the saddle on her Honda Valkyrie after having an accident where it took her time to emotionally and mentally recover.
Laurie Ingstrup is back in the saddle on her Honda Valkyrie after having an accident where it took her time to emotionally and mentally recover.

From a psychological perspective this saying is potentially dangerous as it could create what clinicians call a self-fulfilling prophecy. A self-fulfilling prophecy is a mental process whereby an individual subconsciously creates an event due to the mind's belief in the inevitability of that event. In hypnotic theory there is a similar mental process called waking hypnosis. Waking hypnotic incidences occur to everyone on a regular basis. For example, if someone said to you, "What happened to your hair?" chances are pretty high you would quickly go to the nearest mirror to check. The reason is because you became hypnotized around the idea that something was different about your hair simply through the power of suggestion.

Waking hypnosis is especially strong when the person giving you the suggestion has some kind of prestige. So, if an experienced rider tells you that you are going to go down, you may be more hypnotized around the suggestion than if a non-rider tells you the same thing. The point is, be careful what you buy into. Don't think of accidents as a right of passage.

Further, that old biker quote fails to qualify what is meant by, "going down." Consequently, many people will jump to the most catastrophic imagery possible such as a fatal crash. Imagine the self-fulfilling prophecy and hypnotic impact that kind of thought could have.

The Truth
In reality, it is possible for a motorcyclist to never go down. Ask around. You'll be surprised how many motorcyclists have never actually been in an accident. Oh sure, they've had scary moments, war stories even. But quite a few have never been down in any kind of a serious way. It is also possible for a rider to go down once and never again. Psychologically it is important to keep a careful watch on your belief system. This is the psychological end of risk management on a motorcycle, just as taking a safety course and wearing proper riding gear is part of the behavioral aspect of risk management.

However, motorcycling does clearly carry risks. There are, after all, other activities we motorcyclists could engage in that would be much safer. And unfortunately, there are riders who have been in accidents. A problem not commonly discussed between motorcyclists is the psychological symptoms that can linger long after the physical wounds have healed. Interestingly, men are likely to turn to alcohol or another substance in an attempt to quell their symptoms. While women may do this too, symptoms are more likely to turn inward and become depression.

Recovery Problems
Often, the clinical diagnosis of someone who has had a life-threatening trauma is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Sometimes, an individual may only have some features of PTSD but not enough to warrant the actual diagnosis. Whether or not an individual has full blown PTSD, common symptoms post-accident survivors will most likely go through can include a loss of self-esteem, nightmares, a numb feeling, avoidance of places, people or situations reminiscent of the accident, panic symptoms, depression, anxiety, fear of motorcycling and, a general questioning of one's ability to be effective in their decisions and abilities. If you have been in an accident it is best to consult with a mental health professional to determine if you have PTSD or just a few of its symptoms. Let's see how some of these symptoms affected women who have had motorcycle accidents, beginning with the loss of self-esteem.

Vicky Racine of Michigan had a scary accident while riding her motorcycle in August of 2000. She hit a deer. Vicky's husband was riding ahead of her. Vicky had been riding her own bike for three years at the time. As a result of the accident, she suffered a lot of bruising and a broken bone in her hand. After the accident, I asked her to gage her self-esteem on a scale from one to 10 (10 being the highest). "After the accident," a soft-spoken Vicky began, pausing to take a deep breath, "my self-esteem was about a four. I really questioned if I could have avoided the accident. I really doubted my ability then. Now I'm riding again and my self-esteem is about a seven."

Laurie Ingstrup of Illinois had her accident in May of 2000. The incident occurred in a construction zone covered with loose gravel. Laurie was riding her own motorcycle along with her husband and a friend. She incurred a broken collarbone and lots of bruising. Laurie spoke very definitively when remembering her self-esteem on a one to 10 scale. "After the accident I was about a one," she chuckled. "I didn't even feel like myself. I had no confidence in anything I did. I'm tall, 5 feet 9 inches, and at that time I went around feeling like I was 4 feet high. I sought therapy for my symptoms and now I'm riding again. My self-esteem is now about a 9.5.”

Self-esteem Problems
The loss of self-esteem is a serious issue. Left unchecked it will likely move into depression. Psychologically, self-esteem is directly related to an individual's feeling of competence and a sense of having a positive effect in the world. After an accident, it is common for people to loose that sense of personal effectiveness, not just in motorcycling, but with life in general.

Another common symptom after an accident is a feeling of numbness and a tendency to avoid anything connected with riding, especially motorcycles. Laurie recalls, "[My husband and I] have four motorcycles in the garage and after the accident they were nonexistent to me. It was like a black hole in the garage. I wouldn't even look at them. I didn't connect with riding at all."

Symptoms of panic, which include a pounding heart, shortness of breath and tremendous fearfulness are also typical for people who've had accidents. Vicky remembers, "After I started riding again I started looking for something to jump out at me. The first time I did see a deer I actually panicked. My heart went up in my throat and I started shaking."

Laurie Ingstrup battled low self-esteem initially after her accident.
Laurie Ingstrup battled low self-esteem initially after her accident.

Fear Levels
Most motorcyclists do experience some degree of fear while riding, at least some of the time. But after an accident the fear factor can become a true force with which to contend. Etta McQueary of California had a serious accident in January of 1999. She was on life support as a trauma patient and not expected to live. Etta was hit by a four-wheel vehicle on a twisty mountain curve. Etta now speaks publicly about her accident and her decision to ride again. At the time of her accident Etta had been riding her own bike on the street for about 10 months, though she had had years of experience riding off road in the desert. Etta says, "My fear is not completely gone but I ride anyway. After my accident my self-esteem was about a two. Now it's about an eight." When asked about what personality trait Etta believes contributes to her riding again, after a long thoughtful pause, she replied, "Perseverance...and a strong desire to overcome fear." 

Etta McQueary is using her accident experience to inspire others through motivational speeches.
Etta McQueary is using her accident experience to inspire others through motivational speeches.

Strong Support and Character
Etta also surrounded herself with an adequate support system that helped her to make the decision to ride again. One friend in particular, was very supportive. "I felt safe with him after the accident because I knew I could ride at my own pace." Vicky also had support from her husband after her accident, "My husband didn't pressure me. He understood it was my decision."

Vicky, Laurie and Etta all exhibit the strength of character needed to overcome such trauma. Psychologically, the decision to ride again has been life affirming for these women. Note the high number for self-esteem each woman gave after riding again. Of course, it's also O.K. to choose not to ride anymore. Among other things, this decision should revolve around how much of the individual's identity is tied in with being a motorcyclist. If riding is not that important to the person, it's not unreasonable to give up riding altogether.

Psychologically, though, something, like riding, may be a part of an individual's identity if it involves some or all of these qualities: that something plays a role in the individual's social life, married or romantic life, it gives that person a sense of feeling unique or special, it is a coping skill in that it causes pleasure, relaxation or a sense of freedom and, the individual invests time thinking and planning activities around this special something.

Learning from the Past
They say that hindsight is 20-20. So, when asked to think about the day of the accident and what, if anything, these women could have done differently, Vicky replied, "I guess I could have been more aware, instead of just staring at my husbands back. I always ride behind him. Now I'm always very aware of my surroundings."

Laurie responded, "Since then I've learned to ride my own ride. I feel I'm a better rider now because of this." Etta reasoned that, "On the day of my accident I had just a light breakfast. I know now that my blood sugar was very low. I'm self-sufficient now. Before my accident I used to just carry a little purse with me. Now I have saddlebags and I carry food, water and clothes so I can dress according to the weather changes." All three women agreed that safety equipment, such as leathers and a helmet, is extremely important to them now.

Needless to say, it was not easy for Vicky, Laurie or Etta to return to riding. Each concurred that taking it slow and not being pressured by others is the best way to proceed. Additionally, having a support person is most helpful. Psychologically, this is sound advice. Gradual exposure is the best way to begin to ride again. If you have been in an accident and want to ride again your "cycle-therapy" prescription is to start by simply reading about motorcycles and looking at pictures. Then move to just sitting on a bike. Set up small goals for yourself and do not proceed to the next until you are comfortable with the last.      

Brenda Bates recently published a book called "Back in the Saddle Again: How to Overcome Fear of Riding after a Motorcycle Accident." You can order the book and learn more about Brenda and her work at BikePsych.com.
Brenda Bates recently published a book called "Back in the Saddle Again: How to Overcome Fear of Riding after a Motorcycle Accident." You can order the book and learn more about Brenda and her work at BikePsych.com.

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Reader Comments


Thanks so much for this article. As I read this article, I see so many signs and symptoms of the traumatic after effects of a crash. Two years have gone by since I ran off the road for no apparent reason, head on into a tree, suffering some serious injuries. Hopefully I am fully recovered now. I have not ridden on my own since my accident, but have been on the back a few times. I took a giant step and rode (back seat) on a long weekend trip (700-plus miles). I rode with my former riding partner, who was ready to ditch me after the first 50 miles as I was in a state of panic the whole trip unless my feet were on the ground. I was constantly tapping his shoulder saying, "Can you slow down? Do you see that car?...etc." Thank goodness he was patient with me.

I am now considering buying my own again, and having a lot of different feelings. This article, and a lot of the comments posted have shed some new light. I know in my heart that I can ride. My question is, how many of you still have anxiety when you get on your bike? Did you start off with short distances or just get on and ride 100 miles? Thank for all the support here!

Lana
Dresden, TN
Wednesday, August 06, 2014
This is a great piece! I, too, have been down. I was seriously injured. However, I do not remember the actual wreck. I was told what happened. Until I read this article, I did not understand some of the feelings I went through. This shed a whole lot of light on what was going on! All I knew, at the time, was I wanted to get back on the bike but was scared s#!tless. Thankfully, my husband was very patient and pushy with me. He pushed just far enough to make me want riding bad enough to swallow my fear and get back behind the handlebars. I've been riding for four wind-in-my-face years now. Don't let a few broken bones and some road rash keep you from that buggy grin we all love.

Gloria Toney
Wichita Falls, TX
Tuesday, July 02, 2013
I appreciate hearing everybody's struggles with overcoming fear after an accident. I had my first nasty spill (hit gravel in a curve and slammed into a guardrail at about 60 mph). I was back up on a bike in a year and a half and had no problems at all getting back on. However, in hindsight I should have taken a racing course and stuck to the track for the high speed stuff because in 2010 I had another bad spill and shattered my distal femur, pelvis/acetabulum as well as my left ulna. I have spent the last three years having one surgery after another that left me in a hospital bed and wheelchair for several months.

Riding is important to me, and is a great passion of mine and just could not give it up (by the way, I always ride in full one piece leathers, back protector, motorcycle boots, gloves and helmet, all of high quality). What has had the most impact on my fear this time around is that I do not have the support of family at all. My decision to ride has somewhat torn us apart. I am sticking to the track and taking a racing school in a few days but my family just won't budge and have been told that if I get hurt again "I am on my own." I can deal with the physical pain, but the emotional pain is something different and is what gets me depressed. I want to be fully happy about my decision but without the support of family that is difficult. I did tell them I don't need them to understand why I want to continue to ride, I just need them to love me. Reading all your stories I don't feel so alone. Thank you.

Athena Meltzer
Altadena, CA
Sunday, June 23, 2013
I was riding my bike eight months ago and my husband was riding ahead of me. I saw a deer running full speed through a field to my husband's right. I knew they were on a collision course and I thought for sure I was going to watch my husband be killed or hurt badly. The deer tried to jump over my husband, but she only made it part of the way over and lost momentum. This sent her back to the ground and rolling. Of course, she was rolling right back to me. I knew I didn't want to hit her head-on so I dumped the bike on the left side. The bike hit the deer and went to one ditch, while the deer went to the opposite ditch. I rolled over and over straight down the road. I was life flighted to the nearest trauma hospital with six broken ribs, a collapsed lung, a broken shoulder blade, a broken thumb, and road rash from head to knees. Everyone is telling me to get back on my bike. But I have some apprehension, mainly because I am still in pain from the rib and lung injuries. I hope some day that I will be able to get back in the saddle and get the memory of the accident out of my head.

Julie B.
Morral, OH
Thursday, June 20, 2013
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