Why We Focus on Fear

For as long as I can remember, I have been afraid of riding a bike. I have a somewhat irrational fear of flying over the handlebars and cracking my head open.

Now of course that is a real thing that could happen, but it’s never happened to me in the past. I was never one of the kids who rode their bike to school. I had a blue Schwinn beach cruiser, like so many other kids in my neighborhood, but I was only allowed to ride it on the sidewalk, around my cul-de-sac only, never crossing any streets. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? I think I inherited my irrational fear from my mother.

These days, I live less than a mile from the bike trail and I own two bikes: a cruiser and a hybrid. My husband is an avid road cyclist who has completed century rides and puts miles on his  bike two or three times a week. I would love to go with him sometimes, or to go on some cycling adventures when we travel. But I can’t keep up.

I’ve always been content to take a few rides a year, down to the beach or just along the trail. Truth be told, I usually wake up the next day with aching shoulders because I white-knuckled the handlebars the entire time.

When you’re focused on the fear

Recently a couple of my friends started riding with a women’s cycling group at The Unlikely Cyclist, a local women-owned bike shop whose mission is to get more women on bikes. My friends talked about how fun the group rides were, and what a great complement cycling is to yoga. They asked me to join them on a group ride.

“Oh no, not me!” I chuckled. “I could never do that. I have real bike fears!”

“Why?” asked my friend Jessy. She already told me she overcame her own biking trepidation when she lived in Thailand and had to ride her bike through literally life-endangering traffic to get anywhere. No big deal. “What scares you about it?” she asked.

Me: The traffic. Getting hit by a car. Changing gears. Downhill speeds. Somersaulting over the handlebars. Cracking my head open.

She (with kindness and not an ounce of judgement): You can’t focus on the fear. Focus on the good parts. What do you love about riding a bike? The sights, the sounds, the smells of being outside? That’s what I love.

I went home that night and pondered. Is it comforting somehow to focus on the fear rather than challenging it? Fear is a real and helpful thing: it’s what keeps us from stepping over the edge, touching the hot pan on the stove, or maxing out the credit card on a Nordstrom Rack shopping spree. (Oh, is that just me?)

Fear keeps us safe. But if unchecked, fear can keep us from experiencing some really awesome things. I think it’s easy to focus on the fear because it’s such an easily accessible emotion, tied to habits or inhibitions that go way back, like the blue cruiser rules of my childhood. But what if we looked that fear in the face and asked it to explain itself? Where does it come from, and is it valid?

I mean, danger is literally always around us. I could fall out of a headstand in yoga class and break my neck (literally) or have a severe allergic reaction to my food or get hit by a bus or ANY NUMBER OF HORRIBLE THINGS.

If I lived my life in a state of  fear and anxiety about what danger could befall me at any given moment, I could not actually live my life. Besides, just because it could happen, doesn’t mean it will.

And here’s the real truth: many of the bigger fears I have been holding on to and dreading my entire adult life have come to pass in the last year: my dad was diagnosed with dementia, I had to clear out and sell my childhood home, move both of my parents into assisted living facilities…it all happened. It’s still happening. I was always afraid of this stuff–I mean, it has tortured me from the back of my mind for years. I knew it would be painful and I knew I would have to deal with it.

Some of my worst fears came true, and some didn’t. There were surprises, good and bad. The thing is this: I had no control over 99% of what happened in the last year. I’m sure that’s true for whatever is coming in the years ahead too. I am not in control.

And that is exactly what fear is based in: the feeling of being out of control.

So how do you overcome fear?

One way to deal with fear, according to this MIT study, is to recognize that your brain can only focus on one main thing at a time. So an effective method of getting over a fear is to focus instead on what you CAN control.

Or as my friend Jessy suggested, focus on what you enjoy instead of what is freaking you out.

So I challenged myself to stop focusing on the fear. I joined the Beginners Group Ride and I wore my helmet and super-tight, padded shorts and I learned how to signal a turn and pump my brakes.

More important, I started redirecting my attention and focusing on the experiences I love when I ride my bike: seeing the moon rise on an evening ride, watching the sun set over the water of the back bay, feeling the breeze on my skin, meeting new friends and moving my body in a new way.

When I am on my bike, I bring in what I have learned from yoga: I breathe through the hard stuff and I tell myself that I am safe, even when I’m careening down a steep hill.

Because the reality is, I don’t know what’s coming around the bend, on the road or in my life. I might fall. But I can’t white knuckle it anymore. That’s no way to live.

Instead, I choose to jump in with both feet. Or in this case, both pedals. I also choose to limit the risks of my imminent demise by wearing a helmet and riding safely and responsibly.

So today I’m buying myself a road bike. Look out world, here comes another girl on the road. I’ll be aiming to keep a light grip on the handlebars.