Anxieties around panic attacks triggered by exercise, and specifically issues with riding bicycles, have been popping up frequently when I’m connecting with people online. Bikes get the heart pounding and bring up physical sensations that we can easily engage in compulsions around. Overcoming these challenges is fun because we get to hop on our bikes and quite literally expand our limits as we adventure into the world with those racing hearts and minds. Bret’s been doing exactly that and he sent me a photo recently on social media from one of his first excursions back onto the bike trails. He agreed to an impromptu interview about the work he’s been doing:
Bret: I was so scared bro. Every pedal was putting me further from my truck and my anxiety was screaming it wasn’t safe. And I just kept pedalling my little ass off.
Mark: That’s totally the way to do it. Those experiences are so useful because you learn how your brain behaves. And you keep on going!
Bret: It was trying everything to get me to turn around lol It was even tying shit into my other OCD fears that didn’t even make sense.
Mark: Yeah, brains will always do that. It doesn’t actually care about the topic. So it’ll try anything to get you to react. Which is another way we get to see through its tricks. Great work taking this on!
Bret: Yeah! Somehow I wasn’t only going to panic and embarrass myself, but I was going to wreck my bike, be paralyzed, not be able to perform in the bedroom, become depressed, my girlfriend was going to leave me. I sear this chain went through my head. Like I know most of my OCD is bullshit, but it was so funny how it tied like four fears into one. Now it’s kinda funny. It was like: TURN AROUND OR ALL OF THIS IS HAPPENING! And of course I’m exerting myself, so that’s fuelling my anxious feelings. It was quite an interesting experience. I’m just gonna keep doing it until it shuts the fuck up.
Mark: Yeah! The way the physical feelings play into it is really useful to understand as well. It’s so beneficial to learn how to experience those physical feelings of exertion as no different any emotional exertions.
Bret: Yeah, I mean… Of course my heart is beating fast, I feel a lil spacey, I’m breathing hard… I’m doing I’ve never done before. My body is doing what it should.
Mark: So why did you get on that bike?
Brett: Mainly because I needed something to push myself mentally and physically. A few years ago I found myself relatively house bound by anxiety. I battled my way out of it by slowly expanding my bubble… I started working downtown and it just slowly made me comfortable away from home. And then I started a new gig, working from home, which is great, but when I wasn’t exercising my mental health by getting out more, my bubble shrank back down and it pissed me off.
And my whole childhood and adult life, even in my anxious times, I’ve always loved extreme sports, a lot of my heroes were skateboarders and bikers and things. I just loved how they were doing what they loved even if it didn’t mean fame or fortune (back then it wasn’t as mainstream) I don’t know why I ever stopped doing that stuff that brought me so much joy. I pretty much let fear drive me for too long and decided: fuck it.
If I’m gonna die of a panic attack, it’s gonna be in the forest on my bike with my friends getting gnarly 😂 (sarcasm, but that’s the attitude).
Mark: Yeah, extreme sports are a useful model to look at with pushing into anxiety. There’s risk and practice but also enjoyment.
I always found it useful to take that same attitude with this stuff. Maybe I will die, but it’ll be while doing things I care about.
Bret: It’s really interesting that I used to feed off the same feelings that scare me.
Mark: While you were riding and your brain was trying to get you to stop, how did you keep going?
Bret: So… that’s the million dollar question. I guess there’s a few things here to touch on. Number one would be just knowing if I wanted to be like some of my heroes and, ultimately, if I wanted to teach my brain to shut up I had to just go. I had to ignore the bullshit. The fear couldn’t kill me and, if it did, so what? At least I went out like a warrior trying to do what I wanted.
Second would be slowly building my confidence. I started just pedalling around my cul-de-sac. And then I went a bit farther in my neighborhood. And when my brain would say, “Turn around!” or “insert-laundry-list-of-OCD-themes-that-are-going-to-come-true…” I would say: “Ok, but I’m just gonna go a bit further and then we can turn around.” And I kept doing that.
There was a park I’d ride up to in my neighborhood that had a small track. And when I felt like panicking and wanted to go home, I’d do one more lap.
And now, riding at that park doesn’t scare me anymore. Not at all. Now I’m pushing to go to trails farther and farther away (and rinse and repeat). The goal is to go wherever I want and enjoy myself.
It’s just like you say. I don’t expect to go out and be some gnarly pro mountain bike rider on Day 1 and travel to British Columbia or something. But, eventually, that’s the prize.
I wish I had a miracle answer, but really, if you take a step back and you’re struggling with anxiety, how’s it working out for you by avoiding life and doing compulsions? Is your world getting bigger or smaller?
So do the opposite and see what happens. It can’t get much worse than it already is.
Worst case scenario: you get anxiety?
But you already had that lol!
Mark: Haha exactly!
Bret: I suppose if you want to see how small your world can get or what OCD themes you can accumulate, it’s a sound strategy to keep practicing. But personally, I wanted out of that shit.
Big thanks to Bret for sharing about the sweaty work he’s doing! If you’ve got a story you want to share about the work you’re doing to take your brain in a new direction, feel free to get in touch.