A practical guide to close calls- One cyclist to another

by Sep 26, 20230 comments

As a lifelong cyclist I know the harrowing things that can happen when we live life on two wheels. The good thing is that as a psychotherapist specializing in trauma, I know some of what it takes to process the trauma of accidents and near misses. I’m going to outline the simplest thing that we can do so that the fright of a near miss doesn’t get stuck inside our body, and compromise our ability to be safe on the bike.

Here’s a common scenario- you are riding and someone opens their car door right in front of you. Your natural reflexes take over and you slam on your brakes, swerve into the next lane, or so some variation of the two. Thank goodness, you don’t hit the door and there was no car in the next lane, so you were lucky and had only a close call, not a physical collision and trauma. As you stop, your heart is racing, and you may be enraged, or afraid, or even terrified; your heart pounding and pulse racing, and your body feeling both shaky and energized. Your sympathetic nervous system has mobilized to get keep you safe (fight/flight), and it has been fused with the shock from the opening of the car door. The evasive action that you took in that split second to avoid injury or possible death, though successful, isn’t enough to discharge (release) the tremendous amount of energy created by the situation, which gets bound up in the body and nervous system.

If you do as many of us probably have done, many times- you say ‘phew’ (or some variation), or educate the driver about how to open a car door properly, or pause for a few moments, then continue on with your ride. As you ride, you may feel shaky, nervous, easily startled, like your balance is a bit off, or maybe a bit ‘out of it’- like you can’t take in all the information in your surroundings, be it cars (moving or parked), potholes, etc., and things can startle you. If you have a close call while riding gravel, cross or mountain biking, you may find that you keep crashing, or almost crashing. All of these things add up to having a bad ride, and being at increased risk of injury.

The culprit for this strong reaction and resulting vulnerability is your nervous system- which did what it was meant to do- to keep you safe, but hasn’t had the time to come back to equilibrium. After the shock of the incident our nervous system needs time to settle, to metabolize, to discharge all of the shock and survival energy that was just created, and we don’t often allow this to happen, interrupting the body’s natural rhythm. In the above example, we halted the discharge/settling process by simply continuing the ride, or it could be by checking Strava, or sending a text, etc. All of which keep us distracted, and unaware of what is happening in our body- unaware of or disavowing the intense activation present in our nervous system.

Here’s how to do it differently. The next time you have a near miss or something else that frightens you- get to safety (so off the road or trail), and take a moment to notice things that help you orient to the here and now (I see a tree, I feel the cool breeze, I smell cut grass, I hear a crow calling, my friend is sitting with me, etc.). Now, take some time to give your body and nervous system space- be curious about what is happening inside, and give it space to express itself. This process may feel very odd and vulnerable, and as you do this, you may experience a rush of heat or cold, or you may feel some shaking, your face may flush, or you may feel some fear- some tears may come, or even some nervous laughter. All of these are signs that the shock to your system from the near miss is processing and your body is moving it through. The point is to give your body space to express itself- to do what it naturally wants to do- to allow the bound-up survival energy to come out, so that you don’t have to carry it with you for the rest of the ride, and possibly beyond. The good thing is that this process described above only needs a few minutes to happen, and once this wave has come through, your system will naturally settle- you will feel more grounded, present, focused, and ready to go on with your ride. The discharge of the energy may not be entirely complete, so when you get home, give your system some space to see if anything residual is left, by repeating the process I’ve laid out above.

I’m aware that the process I’ve laid out above doesn’t fit well with the culture of many group rides, and it would be great if this could shift. Educate your riding friends, and if you are on a group ride and are unable to give your nervous system time to discharge in the moment- do it as soon as you can afterwards, once you get home, or at the post ride coffee- before the energy has become really rooted inside your system.

If you do get hit or injured, or have a bad crash on your bike (or anywhere) and are dogged by the incident, reach out to a trained therapist that can help you move the residue from the accident – check out our referral list – https://bringingthebody.ca/referrals/.

I hope that this information is helpful, and that you take up the challenge to listen to your nervous system after your next close call- your nervous system will thank you for it. Have a safe ride.