At 25, I suffered my first panic attack. Hung-over at a concert, the now all-too-familiar sensations of dread, sweats, cotton-dry mouth and a racing heart enveloped me. Unsure what was happening, I felt fear and an overwhelming need to escape the auditorium — but situated in a long row of people and within a silent audience, I felt trapped. The thought of making a spectacle of myself by leaving mid-performance unsettled me as much as the anxiety attack, so I did nothing. The concert finally ended and I escaped into the blessedly cool air — upset, exhausted but elated to be out of there. This marked the start of a cycle of anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which has never fully gone away. For a long time, the spectre of further panic attacks meant avoiding enclosed spaces as fear held me in its iron grip. I desperately wanted to wrestle back control of my anxiety.
Afterwards, if I felt anxious travelling by tube, I got off and walked, because fresh air filling my lungs and hitting my face invigorated me and lent perspective. I began to understand the power of exercise in my fightback against anxiety. First I took up running, which helped hugely. From one run a week to three or four, I got fitter, becoming more focused as each run cleared my mind of worries and doubts. The post-run high when anything felt possible became addictive. At this time, I also bought my first bike as an adult, a truly rapid Specialized Langster I had found second-hand. I could not have known eight years later that cycling would be such a major part of my life.
I am now what might be called “a serious cyclist” — high-end road bike(s), expensive Lycra kit and training to race. I spend on an average eight hours each week on my bike — longer when I commute. What began as a way of avoiding the tube and panic attacks has become my primary form of transport, a means to compete and my daily dose of therapy. Counselling and medication have helped, but they do not come close to what cycling offers me. I still have episodes of anxiety/OCD, and worry sometimes takes control, snowballing small doubts and concerns into all-consuming neuroses. Whenever this happens, I go cycling. Whether a short one-hour ride or a four-hour endurance session, cycling declutters my mind and makes everything more simple and manageable.
Key to the therapeutic qualities of cycling is its inherent mindfulness. Focusing on the physical and engaging mind and body purely on riding takes us away from negative, swirling thoughts, which take on such greater and troubling significance when we obsess over them. This unhealthy rumination makes life unnecessarily convoluted, while cycling, at its heart, is a simple activity. Once into my rhythm on the road, my only thoughts are each pedal stroke, how hard I can push myself and my speed as I cut through the air. On my bike I feel at home, in sync with my mind and body.
There are of course decisions to make on the bike, particularly when riding in busy urban environments where the waters of tranquillity are muddied as we watch for that car, bus or pedestrian. But the decisions we make on the road, whether as beginners or pro racers, are immediate and instinctive. These decisions focus on survival and practicality, as adrenalin aids rather than hampers us. The quick, pragmatic choices we make when descending at 40mph (64) down an Alpine col or riding through traffic, compared to our muddled minds when sitting at a desk, says much about cycling’s remarkable ability to benefit mental health.
It may sound contradictory to suggest a mindful, focused activity such as cycling can de-complicate our lives off the bike. Surely if our attention is on riding, any outside issues should remain challenging? Cycling clears the mind in the present, so any problems in our non-cycling lives are far more solvable when we arrive home. I am unable to recall an occasion when a ride of any kind didn’t make potentially difficult life choices simpler, when the fears I had before stepping out of the door and climbing on the saddle didn’t dissipate once out on the road.
To make daily life easier, sufferers of anxiety, depression and OCD have to find ways to cope with and address their illnesses. I have found comfort from CBT and anti-depressant/anxiety medication, which take the edge off the worst of the symptoms. However, neither medication nor therapy have been viable long-term solutions. CBT, commendably available free of charge on the National Health Service, has a finite timescale as long waiting lists and a population increasingly affected by mental health issues seek their services. For some, medication works in the short term, but use over a significant period is something I, and possibly others, would be reluctant to consider. This leaves exercise, something we can do whenever and however we choose.
I found cycling and it saved me. It arrived in my life providing solace and focus, uncovering physical and mental strength I did not know I possessed, and as I prepare for my first competitive race next year, I am thankful for what cycling has given and taught me.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Charles Graham-Dixon is a freelance journalist and keen road cyclist based in London and Madrid.