How to Put the Brakes on an Anxiety Attack
When learning to bike spikes fears of crashing, fear-facing tools come into play
Posted Mar 05, 2014
I had an anxiety attack the other day while test riding a bike on a Brooklyn Street. I'll admit it, I'm afraid of biking. People say "it's like riding a bike" as if it's instinctive and easy to learn, but for those of us afraid of gathering speed, being out of control, falling or crashing, it can feel as crazy as learning to be ride a bucking bronco or pilot the space shuttle. Which is why, as someone dedicated to facing fears, I decided to sign up for the 2014 TD Five Boro Bike Tour for my #SomeNerve Challenge. In fact, I started Team #SomeNerve, which has 35 members and counting, which means I'm committed to riding the 40 mile tour for myself and the team. As a beginner bicyclist it felt almost too ambitious but I was trusting Bike New York to teach me to ride—so far, I've taken their free Learn to Ride and Bicycling Basics classes—and once I bought a bike I'd be able to train.
And then came the test ride…which was out in the street. Wait. The street? I don’t know what I was expecting for a test ride—a dead end? A bike path or parking lot? Not the streets of Brooklyn! I’ve never biked in a street with cars, and here there were cars and potholes, patches of ice from the latest snow, and crazy bike messengers—I am not like them, I have always thought. I want to live! But then a group of very ordinary and sane-looking people on Citi Bikes came pedaling by.
“Maybe I could be like them…” Dan Suraci from Bike New York showed me my brakes and gears and away we went.
My husband, a seasoned cyclist, took a Brompton out for a spin. He’s in the red shirt on the left.
It all started off okay—despite my difficulties staying between the cones in the Bicycling Basics class, I was able to maneuver around potholes and puddles. I was feeling pretty good until we turned the 3rd corner and the street went downhill. I have a fear of gathering speed, remember? I ground to a halt. My husband, squeaking the brakes of the Brompton in order to avoid hitting me, passed by. He and Dan, halfway down the hill, turned to look back at me, saying things I couldn’t hear. An SUV was parallel parking in front of me and all I could hear was the roar of engines around me. I can’t do this, I thought, tears flooding my eyes. The last time I went downhill on a bike I ended up in a ditch. I got off the bike.
I almost quit.
I was having an anxiety attack and I knew it. It was like the one I had the day I walked down the bunny slope carrying my skis. My fear of feeling that kind of fear again kept me from doing so many things. It was the desire to not let my fear stop me from living a full life that led me to write the book Some Nerve, that led me to make the TD Five Boro Bike Tour my #SomeNerve Challenge. I had to learn to ride and train for a 40-mile route, and here I was ready to quit at block #4. I took a deep breath and remembered what so many experts had told me in my research, and what I knew to be true from my own experiences pushing through fear: If I walk this bike back to the shop, it will be so much harder to get back on. And I want to ride the Tour. I can’t let the fear stop me.
I got back on. I love Dan’s “C’mon, you can do it” expression.
I felt scared the whole way down. I used every fragment of positive self-talk I could muster, using every fear facing tool I have learned:
* Taking deep breaths, bringing oxygen to the brain
* Remembering that fear comes first, courage follows-but you have to go through the fear first
* Telling myself to shake off what happened the last time and what might happen next, and to just FOCUS ON THE TASK AT HAND—braking evenly and slowly with both hands.
* Remembering the last time I did something I thought I couldn't do (stand up on a surfboard)
* Accessing how much I want to be able to bike, how much I do not want to end the story with quitting.
And look! That’s me biking, in a bike lane, on an NYC street!
We did the lap around the block again, and this time the hill was less daunting. I was so elated, I wanted to test ride the Some Nerve-yellow Brompton even as it started to get dark.
I love that I’m biking giddily in front of a “Mojitos” mural while wearing a watermelon helmet.
I caught a glimpse of the Empire State building and felt in awe that I was out on a February night, doing something I never imagined I would do: seeing the city from a whole new perspective on a bike. I felt I’d crossed over somehow, from the bravado of declaring a big goal, to the actual bravery of doing what needs to be done to make it a reality. There will be many challenging moments ahead when I will feel out of my league. But now, knowing the resources that are here for me—especially in Bike New York classes—I know I’ll be able to work through them.
Outside Redbeard Bike Shop, relieved and proud.
What about you? Ready to join Team #SomeNerve for the TD Five Boro Bike Tour? General registration is closed, but we’ve got a couple of spots left. There’s only one answer:
Buying my new bike. YES!
- by Patty Chang Anker, adapted from a post to Biking the Big Apple. Photos by Sam Polcer for Bike New York. When Patty Chang Anker found herself in her 40s and still afraid of heights, water, and biking, she decided to do something about it. In her book Some Nerve: Lessons Learned While Becoming Brave, Patty recounts how she faced down myriad fears and came out the other side a braver, happier, stronger person. Oprah.com called her journey “downright inspiring.” Now’s your chance to join Patty on her next journey: training for the 2014 TD Five Boro Bike Tour.