Hypervigilance and Why Motorcycles

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Being a New Yorker, one learns to be direct in conversation and say what one thinks without concern.  With hypervigilance, this directness has an added emotional element.  BUT to a person with PTSD this element of emotion may not feel loaded with emotion.  In fact, the person with PTSD may not even realize emotion is involved as emotions become numbed by a compromised limbic system in the central nervous system.

The limbic systems acts as a kind of relay between cognitive thoughts, emotions, sensations, and automatic responses.  The altered limbic system in the PTSD mind may have trouble discerning how one should react to an incident, which may not be emotionally charged to begin with.  This unbalanced limbic system then sends signals through the amygdala causing the augmented fight-or-flight reactions that have become a hallmark of the psychological injury.  If the reaction is a fight, it may manifest in words.

An example of such a situation is seeking help from customer service, say at a store.  While most people may relent to a customer service representative who denies the availability of a product, the mind of a person with PTSD may become hypervigilant, especially if the representative was unapologetic. Soon, words spew out from the post-trauma brain in its effort to bring order to the chaos happening internally.  The post-trauma brain tries to gain control.  For people who don’t practice cognitive-behavioral strategies, such as the steps of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) or Sensory Identification of Unconscious Fears (aka TIPI), this hypervigilant behavior can become scary and seem threatening to others.  And unfortunately for some, it may get violent.

What is this internal chaos and how can a person with PTSD bring order to it?

Before I knew I had PTSD and didn’t know why I had little if any motivation, I found motivation in motorcycles.  The ride provided the needed rush to fill the senses and activate a healthy flow of peptides in the form of hormones through the limbic system.

I learned to ride quickly, rapidly outgrowing my 358cc dual sport bike, and then my 498cc cruiser-turned-street bike.  I settled for a while with a Suzuki inline four cylinder GS550e being that I’m light and it would get me out of a highway pickle without hesitation.  Though I tried 750s and a Harley Sportster 883, I really didn’t need the extra punch.  To me, skimming a curve with my butt off the seat was more invigorating than accelerating to highway speed in fewer seconds.

I also learned to ride while I was nearly broke, scraping by with part-time jobs because I didn’t know that PTSD was preventing me from working full time.  (I would become so anxious by the end of a full work week, I had to quit jobs one after another.  Fortunately, they were all temporary jobs to begin with.)  Because I didn’t have money to pay a mechanic, I learned to wrench myself.  This was no big deal after owning a 1991 Honda CRX that needed an overhaul.  Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance became my favorite book.

While on two wheels, whatever hypervigilance that was clouding my head would melt away.  It was therapy.  Sometimes I think I need more hypervigilance to motivate me to get back on the bike, because these days I don’t have much motivation to ride as most of my energy goes into building a nonprofit.  My bikes sit in the garage waiting for me to finish them.  I need a kick in the ass.  A hypervigilant one would be fine.

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