Motorcycle Helmet Therapy

“I love to ride Motorcycles” explained by Nick’s much-smarter friend Gary Klein

close up of asphalt road
Street, track or dirt is of no consequence in terms of successful helmet therapy. It’s the vehicle you choose as your couch.Gary Klein

I gain inner peace with ride on motor scooter. Sport bike very fun, but sometimes I like cruiser, also.

- His Holiness, The Dalai Lama

Nick’s Note: Okay, His Holiness never said that, but those two sentences are a great introduction to my long-time friend Gary Klein who carries with him a constant and unrepentantly smart-ass sense of humor. Klein is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who began riding five years ago at the age of 50. He fell in love with our passion and has stacked on over 10,000 miles every year since.

Last month our lunch talk turned to “helmet therapy.” Klein told me he wished all his clients could ride because he feels the mental-health benefits of motorcycle riding are gigantic. I agree, but don’t have the words or science to back it up. I asked if Gary could please write about this subject.

In this article I will refer to “stress”, which can mean an instantaneous shocking surprise or long-term wearing stress. Whether a monster is coming after us or we failed an important test, the following is a simplified explanation of what happens to our brains under stress, and how we can realign our mental balance to increase our quality of life.

stressed art work
Stressed…but we have an effective and fun cure.Art Work: Merrilee Buchanan and Meagan Nielsen

To begin, here are five points for your consideration and education:

  1. An event does not have to be life-or-death for the limbic system to crank out glucocorticoids, or stress hormones.
  2. The brain then goes into fight/flight/freeze mode.
  3. Blood in the brain transmigrates away from the pre-frontal cortex (higher thinking: for example, "Squeeze the brake lever") toward the limbic system and muscles in anticipation of a fight, sprint or holding deathly still.
  4. After the event, whether it's long or short, human brains are not so good at shutting off the fight/flight/freeze theme.
  5. Feeling stuck in our lives can switch on the limbic system. This is not good and should be taken as a warning to make some changes in our lives where possible: the sooner the better. This will tie into our two-wheeled passion in very real-world ways.

One of my big "AHA!" moments as a psychotherapist was the realization that all of life's problems seem to boil down to one thing and one thing only: feeling stuck. Get unstuck and you're cured. All I really do as a therapist is help people get un-stuck.

Here is some more free therapy. Picture an invisible teeter totter balancing on your head, front to back. This is your stress meter, figuratively, and each end of the teeter totter is pushed up or allowed to sink depending upon whether the blood flow is forward in the pre-frontal cortex (good), or back in the limbic system (bad, or “stuck”). The limbic system in the primitive back regions of the brain has a stress-response switch. The menu is fight, flight or freeze. The teeter totter balance adds or relieves pressure on the limbic system’s stress-response switch.

When the switch gets thrown, blood goes from the pre-frontal cortex (the part behind the forehead) and migrates to the limbic system and to our muscles. When that happens, non-essential functions of the body start to shut down. To paraphrase Stanford brainiac neurobiologist researcher Dr. Robert Sapolsky: "When our lives are threatened our bodies say, 'Don't ovulate now. Don't make sperm right now. We can do that later...if there is a later. Right now, our resources are needed to stay alive.'"

When blood transmigrates to the limbic system it is difficult for us to think clearly, recall information, or memorize new data. It's like fuel for the thinking engine is being re-routed somewhere else. When the danger (real or perceived) is over, the teeter totter rebalances and the blood comes back to the pre-frontal cortex and our thinking returns. If the stress is prolonged, our bodies can and do start to shut down several functions that normally help keep us happy and healthy. Basically, pressure never comes off the teeter totter and your stress-response switch never gets released.

Under stress, we have less blood in the pre-frontal cortex, which is where higher thinking takes place, including putting on the brakes. For example, someone cuts us off in traffic and the back of our teeter totter goes up, while the front goes down. For a moment we think about pulling up next to the driver and offering a one-fingered salute, but then the pre-frontal cortex (higher thinking and brakes) kicks in and reason takes over before we do something stupid. After a few minutes, the stress hormones (glucocordicoids) dissipate and our teeter totter goes back to a relaxed, healthful state.

stuck unstuck art work
Stuck... Unstuck.Art Work: Merrilee Buchanan and Meagan Nielsen

There are more problems: under prolonged stress, the good bacteria in our stomachs stop being produced, which allows helicobactor pylori (bad bacteria) to proliferate, possibly causing ulcers. Just more motivation to get that teeter totter balanced better. Keep reading for the best way I’ve ever found to rebalance.

The limbic system is in the rear primitive regions of the brain and is designed to keep us alive automatically without taking time to think about options. Without this system, the tiger will have pounced before we can respond. The primitive brain parts are unconscious, housing all of our drives and acting as a throttle for those drives…all while processing data in about 70 milliseconds (very quick).

For example, you are talking with a friend outside and suddenly you duck for no conscious reason. It takes a few seconds to realize it was only a bird's shadow that crossed your vision. The pre-frontal cortex (brain section behind forehead) is conscious, takes care of higher functions (music, math, language etc.) and processes data at around 500 milliseconds. It also provides the brakes when we stop ourselves from doing something stupid (we hope).

In our riding world, jumping our eyes forward earlier, quicker and more often introduces possible surprises earlier, allowing our slower but calmer pre-frontal cortex to recognize and deal with the future without our limbic system’s desire to fight, flee or freeze. So: “Get your eyes up” works hand-in-hand with anticipating traffic situations to keep the calmer, conscious portion of your brain in charge.

stressed again art work
Stressed again, and sometimes these stresses are hard to shake off.Art Work: Merrilee Buchanan and Meagan Nielsen

Another example: Think of the scariest movie you have ever seen. Your body was in fight/flight/freeze mode although you were never in any danger. It was just a movie, but maybe you ended up sleeping with lights on that night. Whether a monster is chasing us or we just failed an important exam, the same system switches on. Humans are great at some things, like building and riding motorized vehicles, but we're not so good at other things. One of those is shutting off the fight/flight/freeze response after the event passes. We can stay angry or shell-shocked for decades. In fact, my conversations with Nick on this subject started from his interest in motorcycling as a PTSD treatment. He is also interested in introducing “troubled” kids to dirtbike riding because of what I will discuss below.

When we feel sufficiently stuck over time, our stress response system can sneakily move our teeter totter in the wrong direction without much notice until one day our spouse says it's over, or our boss suggests alternate employment options, or a friend questions our increased booze consumption.

Here are some familiar patterns we often see in others or ourselves: Someone living or working in an abusive situation will often say it feels like constantly walking on eggshells waiting for the next blowup or crazy-making argument. People are put in situations with no viable solution, yet are expected to come up with an answer. Prolonged stress increases the risk of our bodies/psyches redlining into off-the-chart-anxiety and/or clinical depression. Our brains were designed to do that from time-to-time, but not constantly like our modern world tends to do.

According to the World Health Organization, clinical depression is a leading cause of disability world-wide. When we realize our momentum has stopped, or better yet when we begin to recognize something doesn't feel right, that's the time I recommend that we jump to action.

Just having options available to us allows a few pounds of stress to escape the pressure relief valve. This "available options" idea is pretty wild. Even if we don't exercise the options, knowing that we could do so is often enough to get our teeter totter back to a healthful place. Fortunately for motorcycle riders, this pressure-release valve waits patiently in our garages!

Taking an occasional pleasure ride, or riding hundreds of mile at a time, has become a big chunk of my emotive balancing act. Even if I don't ride for a while, every time I go into the garage my eyes look at the bike and my brain knows I could ride. Having options can have a big impact on healthful cognitive patterns, even if we don't exercise the options.

At times I will schedule two hours of free time during a work day so I can rejuvenate myself with a quick jaunt up a canyon. Many times I have fantasized about forcing clients onto the back of the FZ1 while saying, "Today, we will be having speechless therapy. Hold on." The YCRS Operations Manager Keith Culver uses the term "Helmet Therapy" and he's right on the money.

rider with motorcycle taking a break
Keith Culver, one of the hardest-working-and-busiest (read stressed) guys in the motorcycle industry seen here getting helmet therapy in the canyons of southern California. “No, officer, Doctor Klein’s prescription didn’t include those speeds. Sorry.”Nick Ienatsch

Motorcycle riding has been some of the best therapy I have ever experienced. It changes my brain chemistry quickly and efficiently, turning off the stress response so my teeter totter realigns to a healthy level. Some days when it feels like a dead cow is strapped to my back, I'll ride calmly to a freeway entrance and then "get up to speed" in about nothing flat. The G-force instantly gives a feeling of being alive. Riding lets the primitive regions know, "we are not stuck." It's kind of like having an anti-depressant transfusion on demand, but without the prickly needle. Other times I ride not to quickly change my brain chemistry, although that happens, but rather to maintain the feeling of physical and emotive freedom (anti-stuckness) that I am currently experiencing.

So, I guess now I'm your therapist. Let me write you a prescription: Ride now, ride often. –Gary Klein, Licensed Clinical Social Worker

motorcycle windshield against a mountain road
The view from the best therapy couch I know. In this case, it’s my FZ1…but the type of couch doesn’t matter. Get your therapy and we’ll see you next week.Gary Klein

More Next Tuesday!