Traffic accidents can be terrifying, whether or not you were seriously injured in an incident. Sometimes, you don’t feel the effects until hours, weeks or months later—once the shock has dissipated, you start to feel the fear. Motor vehicle accident trauma disorder is a real, psychological phenomenon that may take you a while to work through.

Getting back on the streets and riding around your neighborhood or to work can seem like an insurmountable obstacle. Sometimes, even walking along the sidewalk or crossing the street can bring back the fear and anxiety you experienced during and immediately following the incident.

What do you do when your bicycle becomes an enemy? It may take time, but you can work your way up to continuing your routine. Here are some tips from the staff of Bicycle Roots on how to get back on your bicycle following an accident.

MOTOR VEHICLE ACCIDENT TRAUMA IS NOT JUST “IN YOUR HEAD”

While most psychologists may hesitate to designate the aftermath of an accident as full-blown “post-traumatic stress disorder”, they agree that motor vehicle accidents (MVA’s) do cause trauma. A victim’s initial reaction may include numbness or shock, which will eventually give way to other symptoms, including anxiety.

You don’t necessarily have to be involved in an accident to suffer the effects of MVA trauma. A close call can be enough to trigger the physiological effects of an accident. Your body will react physically to both the actual impact, as well as the perceived threat of impact, by tensing in anticipation of being hit. Even if you manage to avoid being struck by a car or other vehicle, you may experience intense physical pain as though you were actually hit.

When under threat, human animals have three reactions: fight, flight, or freeze. When you’re on a bike, you cannot fight or run away from the collision. The helplessness of the situation is what triggers traumatic symptoms.

MVA trauma shares some of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as re-experiencing the event, avoidance and/or numbing behaviors, and hyperarousal.

  • Re-experiencing trauma may express itself in the form of flashbacks and nightmares regarding the incident.
  • Avoidant and numbing behaviors refer to an individual’s tendency to avoid anything that reawakens memories of the incident, including even talking about it.
  • Hyperarousal is defined by increased sensitivity and aggression; environmental factors      such as noise or quick, sudden movements may set off an individual’s “fight, flight, or freeze” reaction.

RECOVER AT YOUR OWN PACE

The worst thing you can do following a traumatic incident is to force yourself back into your routine before you’re ready. Take your time, even if it means adjusting your routine or having to rely on public transit to get around for a while. The way you are feeling does not mean you are weak—it’s a perfectly natural physiological reaction to what you experienced.

One big incident, or many small ones in succession, may trigger MVA trauma. It is caused by exposure to situations in which you feel threatened by death or serious injury, which inspires feelings of helplessness, fear, and horror. Trauma can have a compounding effect, which means the more trauma you experience, the more likely it is that your health and well-being will be affected by these events. No matter what, the important thing is that you SURVIVED, and you can work through the trauma at your own pace in the aftermath.

Traffic in NYC can be chaotic. If you’ve been involved in an incident, it may take a while until you can ride stress-free.

Accidents are a part of riding a bicycle. You may experience quite a few when you are first learning how to ride, especially in an urban setting with a lot of traffic and conflict between road users. The first year of riding is when most accidents occur; over time you will become better at judging what is safe and what is not when you are on the road. You’ll pick up a few tricks of the trade along the way, such as taking a lane, properly using hand signals, and paying attention to traffic conditions.

Just as everyone recovers from physical injuries at different rates, everyone requires a different amount of time to recover from psychological trauma. Be nice to yourself—treat the time off your bike as a kind of vacation. Take baths, eat ice cream, do the things that calm you down and make you happy. If you weren’t severely physically injured, you might want to take up another form of physical activity like yoga or tennis to keep your fitness levels up as you ease back into riding your bike.

EASE BACK INTO IT

When you’re ready to ride again after an incident, it’s a good idea to have your bike looked over by a professional mechanic. Some damages to the frame and components can only be seen by a trained eye, and a bicycle that has been compromised in an accident may not be safe to ride. It’s better to be safe than sorry, especially when you first begin to ride again. Another incident in quick succession may compound any stress you are already experiencing, making your return to riding seem even more insurmountable.

You may find it beneficial to take your bike on easy rides, in locations where there is not much traffic or on bike-specific trails. The Prospect Park loop is a perfect location for starting to get over your fears and anxieties, since no cars are allowed at certain hours (see the Prospect Park NYC Parks Department site for more details). You’ll be able to regain your confidence more easily if you’re not worried about traffic or constantly startled when a car passes you a little too closely or honks its horn at you.

I found that riding my bike off-road and on trails was an important part of regaining my confidence on the road and reclaiming my love for riding. Road cycling can be a lonely pursuit. You have many hours inside your own head, and your biggest adversary is within you—the limits of your body and your fitness. Without realizing it, cycling had become less about fun and the love of the ride than a constant struggle against my own limits, physical and psychological.

Several weeks after my accident, a friend invited me to do some trail riding at Cunningham Park in Queens. Mountain biking was different. Riding in nature allowed me to relax, to take in the sights and sounds around me. I learned how to control my bicycle and analyze terrain, adjusting my ride accordingly. Best of all, trail riding allowed me to embrace the social aspects of cycling instead of viewing it as an exorcism against my own demons.

Trail riding also taught me not to be afraid of falling anymore! It sounds weird, but you will have a few slips and falls if it’s something you’ve never done before. With friends close by to take care of you when you do fall and encourage you to hop back on your bike, you can conquer your fears more easily.

GRAB A BUDDY

You may feel more confident riding on the streets at first if you have some support! A friend can help you move past your fears with gentle encouragement. It’s also nice to have an extra set of eyes and ears looking out for you, and drivers are less likely to act aggressively against cyclists in the lane if you move in pairs or packs.

A group of riders in Prospect Park. Riding with friends or a cycling club is a great way to get your bike legs back… you’ll feel more confident knowing someone’s looking out for you while you regain your confidence.

Don’t have a bike friend? Look into a group ride. Organizations such as the Five Boro Bicycle Club  offer a casual and relaxed atmosphere for cyclists of any skill level. 5BBC is an especially good club for a beginner or someone getting back into riding after a hiatus. They offer rides of any distance and most group rides have a relaxed pace of between 10 and 12 miles per hour, so it’s a great forum for regaining your bike legs!

GET INVOLVED

Were you hit-and-run, or involved in an incident at a busy intersection with no traffic-calming measures? In these situations, it’s common to feel angry and helpless. Without a proper incident report, or if your incident was designated “no-fault”, you cannot seek legal action against the individual who hurt you.

The campaign to Hold AIS Accountable is part of the healing process. If you can’t get revenge, change the rules!

Without that outlet, your feelings of rage and helplessness may overcome you. Instead of acting out in a self-destructive manner, you can use your experience as inspiration to make things better for the cycling community at large. There are plenty of bike activism groups active in NYC, making real changes to infrastructure with the goal of keeping all road users safe.

Transportation Alternatives is probably the most well-known and politically powerful such organization in New York City. They’ve been around since 1978, and have been involved in bringing more bike lanes and other traffic-calming measures to city streets. Working together with other individuals passionate about your cause to bring about change may help you to recover from an incident.

TALK TO A PROFESSIONAL

If “cyclist” is a big part of your identity, if you survived a particularly horrific incident, or if after several months you still cannot ride your bike without feeling anxious, you may want to talk to a therapist about your experience. A professional can help you by analyzing where your fears are coming from, helping you to face your fears, and teaching you techniques or exercises to help you through panic attacks or general anxiety.

It may be difficult for you to go through a period during which you’re afraid to ride your bike, especially if cycling is a big part of your life. You may feel as though you’ve lost something more than a hobby, like you’ve lost a part of yourself. The struggle to get back on your bike can feel like reclaiming your identity.

It wasn’t until my accident that I realized how big a part of my identity was wrapped up in Spandex. I thought that I could work through the anxiety and hopelessness by myself, but the feelings began to take me over. Cycling had become an outlet for my emotions; as my physical strength grew, so did my confidence and inner strength. Without my bike, feelings of desperation, anger, hatred, and frustration took me over. As I got physically weaker, my mental reserves began to weaken too, and the old self-hatred began to seethe again beneath my skin. I hated myself for not being able to just get over it, hated myself for letting my life get so out of control, hated myself for not being as strong as I had always thought I was.

Granted, there were other issues, other forces, at work in my life during this time. However, with my bike I had always been able to ride through the things that were causing me pain, until it didn’t hurt anymore—or at least until the physical pain eclipsed the psychological pain. When it came to letting go of the accident and the months of deprivation that followed, I was forced to acknowledge that I could go no further on my own. My therapist helped me to identify the forces that had been at work in my own life, and helped me to regain the confidence to ride. If you’ve been stuck and find yourself unable to move on, there’s no shame in seeking help from a professional.

We hope this article will help those who have been involved in an incident to regain their bike legs and get back in the saddle! Have you been in an accident? How did you feel afterwards? What helped you to ride again? Share your experiences in the comments; we know everyone goes through trauma differently. Your advice might just help someone else.

It’s important that we cyclists work as a community and act as a social safety net for one another. As a community, we’re still very young, thus we’re still developing support systems. Every time one of us is involved in an incident large or small, our fledgling community is at risk of losing a member. By sharing our experiences and offering support to one another, we can help ensure that no one is left behind.

Sources:

APA (American Psychiatric Association). (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Koenen, K. C. (2007). Genetics of posttraumatic stress disorder: Review and recommendations for future studies. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 20(5), 737-750.

Scaer, R. C. (2001). The body bears the burden: Trauma, dissociation, and disease. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Medical Press.

Special thanks to E. A. Isaac & Steven Levenkron, M.S., for ensuring the accuracy of this article. Brains are complicated, guys–so keep them safe, wear your helmet!